Moving to Los Angeles? Jacksonville Jaguars Bridled by Ill-Advised Lease

Jack HarverCorrespondent IIMay 3, 2010

JACKSONVILLE, FL - AUGUST 18: Owner Wayne Weaver and his wife, Delores Barr Weaver, present awards during pre-game ceremonies as the Jacksonville Jaguars host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers  at Jacksonville  Municipal Stadium on August 18, 2007 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

If an NFL franchise has ever suffered from Stockholm syndrome, it's the Jaguars.

This year, the team's "bold" goal is to sell enough season tickets to fill Jacksonville Municipal Stadium's general bowl and avoid TV blackouts—you know, like a real NFL team.

The Jaguars' official website features a fuel gauge to measure their progress toward that goal. With just over three months until Jacksonville's first preseason game, it's between half and three-quarters full.

"You are the fuel!" the gauge proclaims.

This, even as upper-deck tarps block the sale of almost 10,000 seats per game to lower the Jaguars' blackout number, since the people of Jacksonville aren't exactly rushing to fill them. Last season, seven of the team's eight home games failed to sell out.

To sell out the eighth, Jacksonville's home finale against AFC South rival Indianapolis on a Thursday night—in the thick of playoff contention, no less—the Jaguars had to throw a free party outside of the stadium and give away thousands of tickets.

Nevertheless, owner Wayne Weaver remains committed to the city. In addition to his substantial charitable efforts through the Jacksonville Jaguars Foundation, the team has partnered with local businesses in 2010 to reimburse each season ticket buyer with $2,000 in discounts.

In business, no discount comes free. By paying these fans' way at partner restaurants and shops, the Jaguars are devaluing their season tickets—all while proclaiming that the new season ticket holders are "the fuel" for Weaver's franchise.

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More like the exhaust.

The people of Jacksonville have offered a multitude of reasons for their lack of interest in the Jaguars. "One o'clock games are too hot," "They haven't been to the playoffs in two years," "They play boring football," and "The Florida Gators are more exciting" have been popular standbys.

More recently, "They didn't draft Tim Tebow" has been added to that list.

For most of the Jaguars' existence, excuses have been the currency of choice to pay for Jacksonville's football team, with the team continually one mythical move away from winning the city's heart. Even landing the Super Bowl in 2005 did little to drum up local enthusiasm for the NFL product.

It's no surprise, then, that the Jaguars have been heavily linked to the city of Los Angeles, where plans for a new state-of-the-art football stadium wait in the world's third-largest metropolitan economy for a suitor.

Previous NFL franchises moved away from Los Angeles due to disputes with the city over the suitability of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for professional football. Built in 1923, the Coliseum lacks club seats, luxury boxes, and other sources of revenue that are standard in modern venues.

Considering the crowds of over 90,000 people that poured into the Coliseum to watch the Rams and Raiders—including several games with over 100,000 fans filling the place past capacity—you can bet that there'd be no need for tarps in the proposed 75,000-seat Los Angeles Stadium.

There's an old saying, though, that it's best to "love the one you're with."

In that case, the Jaguars had better learn to love those tarps.

Back in 2002—before covering those seats to save face and TV ratings—Weaver chose to extend his team's lease on then-Alltel Stadium for five years, effectively locking the Jaguars into Jacksonville until 2030.

"That's my way of saying the Jacksonville Jaguars are the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they're not going to be anything else," Weaver said at the time.

According to the terms of that extended lease, the Jaguars would need to demonstrate three consecutive years of financial losses in order to activate the "exit clause" required to move the team.

On top of that, they'd then owe the city of Jacksonville their remaining rent on the stadium—around $60 million—in addition to compensation for lost revenue from taxes, parking, and other sources of income dependant on the Jaguars.

The eight years since that extension have seen a downward spiral in ticket sales, including the loss of 17,000 season ticket holders after the 2009 season, and the departure of Alltel as a naming-rights sponsor. Still, Weaver's recent efforts and investments to expand the local fan base suggest that his tune hasn't changed.

At the age of 75 and without a succession plan for the team's ownership, though, his willingness to sell or move can't be the only factor.

In no uncertain terms, the Jaguars are Wayne Weaver's property. He can chain them to Jacksonville or uproot them to Fargo, N.D., barring intervention by the NFL, if he so pleases. But his 28-year vision couldn't have included a franchise reduced to pawning its tickets in an unsupportive city.

It certainly won't be the goal for any future prospective buyers.

Realistically, the Jaguars will likely continue to enjoy mediocre support in Jacksonville as one of several franchises with less-ironclad leases embraces Los Angeles' high profile and profitability. General manager Gene Smith is keeping his head down and building a winning team, regardless of how many people come out to watch the games.

With every passing lackluster year, though, the team's lump-sum shackle of unpaid stadium rent steadily decreases—along, one might hope, with Weaver's patience.

A team on the rise steered by a level-headed front office, the Jaguars deserve to reap the benefits of a city's excitement. For now, they'll have to content themselves with fighting Jacksonville's excuses.

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