There are plenty of good seats available for this Jaguars game against the… (Steve Cannon / Associated…)
Reporting from Jacksonville, Fla. — The Jacksonville Jaguars have an inside track on an NFL playoff berth, one of the league's most marketable stars in running back Maurice Jones-Drew and play in a sun-splashed region filled with passionate football fans.
Then why, in winning Sunday for the seventh time in 10 games, did the Jaguars draw a home crowd of just 42,079, the smallest in franchise history?
It's a confounding problem, one that happens regularly, and eventually could lead to the Jaguars' leaving for Los Angeles, even London, or perhaps playing part of their schedule in Orlando.
Consider this: A year after the league's 32 teams combined for nine television blackouts, the Jaguars will nearly match that number themselves -- none of their eight home games is expected to be broadcast locally. And that's with tarps that reduce the official capacity at Municipal Stadium from more than 80,000 to 67,164. The team's average attendance this season is 45,550.
Fifteen years after the Jaguars began playing as an expansion franchise -- in the largest city in land area in the contiguous United States -- one question will not go away:
Was it all a big mistake?
"We're growing generations of fans and clearly we're going through a very difficult period right now," Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said recently. "And obviously it's escalated where we are, and people are writing about us on a national basis. But I still believe this market is a great NFL market, and will be a great NFL market."
All NFL teams have been forced to make adjustments and concessions to attract fans and business support in recent years, so the Jaguars are not alone. But theories abound -- theories beyond the nationwide economic downturn -- as to why the Jacksonville franchise has been hit especially hard.
Whereas top-tier franchises such as the New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins fill their new or newer stadiums and don't need to devote such a large percentage of their overall revenues to paying players, teams struggling to fill the seats -- Jacksonville, St. Louis, Oakland and others -- are simply trying to keep their heads above water.
In early 2008, arguing that the restructured collective bargaining agreement forced them to spend too much on player costs, NFL owners unanimously opted out. The current deal expires after the 2010 season, and owners such as Weaver are feeling the pinch most profoundly.
The problem: When teams such as the Cowboys, Patriots and New York Giants and Jets get new stadiums, that translates into more money for them -- and bumps the salary cap ever higher. The small-market teams that don't have new venues (or can't fill the ones they have) have no way to generate the kind of additional revenue they need to keep pace. The gap widens, threatening the kind of haves-and-have-nots system that afflicts Major League Baseball.
In another blow to small-market teams, the NFL announced last weekend that it is suspending its current revenue-sharing program. That means the richest teams will no longer have to subsidize the bottom eight to the tune of about $100 million a year, $15 million to $20 million of which would be marked for Jacksonville.
"The league did not know 15 years ago that the collective bargaining agreement was going to be so unbalanced that it was going to create some seriously disadvantaged franchises," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp, a sports business consulting firm. "[The Jaguars] could weather a recession, they could weather a community that is marginally large enough to support an NFL team. But when you overlay the CBA, that's what has caused the situation to be untenable right now."
There's the notion that the mild falls and winters allow people to focus on activities other than watching football on weekends, or that the NFL never achieved the foothold that college football enjoys in the region, or that the Jaguars simply got too good too quickly -- making it to two AFC championship games in their first five seasons -- before settling into a more typical growth pattern for an expansion team.
Tom Phillips, a Jaguars season-ticket holder who owns several team fan shops in Jacksonville, compares the city's relationship with the team to a marriage that's lost its spark.
"It's kind of like you get 15 years in and you've stopped opening the car door for her, or maybe you've stopped bringing your dishes to the sink," he said. "And then all of a sudden you wake up one day and think, 'What if she wasn't here?'
"That's kind of where we are with the team now. What if the team wasn't here? People just need to find a reason to say, 'OK, timeout. We could lose this team.' "
That sense of urgency was palpable earlier this season when John Peyton, mayor of Jacksonville, made an unusual televised plea for fans to buy tickets.