Six months ago, murmurs of relocation plagued the Jacksonville (Fla.) Jaguars. Noise of the team’s struggles to sell tickets, problems connecting with their fan base and the Jaguars’ inability to avoid TV blackouts grew beyond a hum.
Jacksonville finished last season selling less than 80 percent of available seats at Everbank Field, ranking 30th of 32 National Football League teams in attendance, according to league records. The team plays in a flooded Florida sports market and are in one of the most difficult divisions in the NFL, the AFC South. The division includes the Super Bowl runner-up Indianapolis Colts, who nearly went undefeated last season, and the long-successful Tennessee Titans.
Jaguars SVP Macky Weaver said the 2010 season is viewed by the organization as a crossroads: either bring fans in or accept the possibility of relocation, possibly to Los Angeles. “We had a difficult season in 2009,” Weaver said. “It was time for this city to decide if they wanted a team.”
Halfway through 2010, Weaver calls the city’s response to the ultimatum a “resounding yes.” Jacksonville’s attendance has increased by more than 14,000 per game from the mid-point of the NFL season last year, by far the biggest increase in the league. Since their Sept. 12 trouncing of the Denver Broncos, the team has sold out the 63,047-seat stadium and avoided a league-mandated blackout for all home games.
Sixteen of the league’s 32 teams have seen attendance losses thus far in 2010, some around five percent. San Diego, Buffalo, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and St. Louis are averaging 4,000 fewer fans per game than through nine weeks last season, according to the NFL. Overall attendance is down 0.5 percent, averaging around 350 fewer fans per game, or 11,515 total. If you subtract the Jaguars’ attendance boom, the other 31 teams are down more than one percent.
Jacksonville has been insistent on learning lessons from other teams’ failures. The team looked deep into its fan base’s needs by conducting focus groups during the offseason.
“As you could imagine, number one across the board on everyone’s list is quality of play and the direction of the team, which from a business side we don’t have a lot of control over,” Weaver said. “But, the number two thing was feeling valued by the team and organization. We took a step back and looked at that component because we can affect that. Trying to establish a value proposition for our fans for buying tickets outside of just being able to come to the games. Looking for opportunities to engage with the team to get value outside of what happens on Sunday.”
Jacksonville attributes part of the attendance jump to unique season ticket incentive packages. “We created a book where if you are a season ticket holder you receive a coupon book that has about $2,500 in value,” Weaver said. “You get $10 to $20 off local restaurants, $50 at some of the nicer ones, it really adds some outside value to being a season ticket holder, which our fans appreciated and it helped motivate some people to get back on the bandwagon.”
Despite being plus 14,000 in attendance, there will still be struggles in the second half of the season. Traditionally, NFL attendance numbers slip as teams fall out of contention (which is possible for the 5-4 Jaguars). At 2009 season’s end, the average leaguewide attendance was 65,043, and at the halfway point of ’09, the average NFL game was drawing close to 68,000 per game.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the NFL expects no different this season. “(It) continues to be our projection that paid attendance for the season will be down one to two percent,” Aiello said.
Jacksonville isn’t the only team trying to uphold strong attendance numbers. Detroit has seen the second biggest boost, bringing in nearly 5,000 more fans per home game than at this point last season. Washington and Miami have drawn 2,700 or more above last year’s mid-season totals, according to league attendance figures. Indianapolis, Tennessee and Philadelphia have also performed well, averaging more than 100 percent of capacity.
Keeping Jacksonville in the success category and relocation noise mute, Weaver said, rests on the shoulders of attendance numbers.
“It’s all interconnected; attendance, ratings on TV, they all drive other revenue opportunities from sponsorships to merchandise to concessions sales,” Weaver said. “It is an important cog in the wheel to make sure we are successful everywhere we can be and that we compete with other teams in the NFL.” — Matthew Coller
Interviewed for this article: Macky Weaver, (904) 633-6207; Greg Aiello, (212) 450-2000