Jaguars have some roar left in them yet
The NFL has a history of team owners packing up – sometimes in the middle of the night – and moving cities, leaving behind their fans, taking their history, trophies and name to another city.
It is one of those differences with soccer’s traditions that leaves Europeans scratching their heads but the truth is, most Americans don’t like it either. Fans look back with some bitterness on how Cleveland or Baltimore lost their teams (later to regain them in different forms).
Sport flourishes upon romance, upon an emotional attachment to a team or upon blind loyalty to a hometown and when cold business decisions are made – such as moving a team to a city that is offering a free, publicly-funded stadium or has a greater potential for ticket sales – that romance is lost.
If there is a team in the NFL that is currently at risk of being moved then it is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Last season they were 30th out of 32 teams in home attendance (ESPN) and their failure to sell out their stadium meant that the league’s local tv blackout rule was enforced for all but one game – a ‘lose-lose’ situation for all involved.
The rumor mill has floated the idea of the Los Angeles Jaguars, the Orlando Jaguars and even the London Jaguars replacing the North Florida city. Whatever the truth of those suggestions, there is no doubt that the Jags are seen as the weakest link in the chain.
On Sunday, I made the five and a half hour drive north up the coast from Miami to see the Jaguars’ opening home game of the season against the Denver Broncos.
Jacksonville has no representative in any of the other major league American sports and has only been in the NFL since 1995 and I have to confess I haven’t heard much about the club to tempt me to make the journey in the past, after all, if a town itself, especially one that is a little isolated at the Northern tip of Florida, bordering rural Georgia, can’t love its own team, then the signs are that there is something missing.
But Jacksonville clearly is a town with a passion for football – there are so many backers of the Florida Gators, the college team of the University of Florida, in the city and when I asked locals about the alleged lack of support for the Jaguars they said the main problem is persuading those fans to buy two season tickets a year.
It is a particularly hard sell given that the Gators are one of the best college teams in the entire States and the Jaguars, while making the playoffs on six occasions, haven’t won a divisional championship since 1999.
It wasn’t hard to spot Gators fans on Sunday – their former quarterback Tim Tebow, one of the most talked about players in college football in recent years, who grew up near Jacksonville, was making his debut for the Broncos and such is the level of admiration for the player that hundreds of Florida fans turned out in Denver jerseys bearing Tebow’s name.
The Jaguars, ignoring the marketing potential of drafting Tebow and rather admirably, if somewhat surprisingly, putting their on-field priorities first, nonetheless cashed in with a 63,000 crowd, not far off their capacity.
Hold on. This team that is supposedly unloved by it’s own city drew 63,000 fans for the opening game of the season? The community, feeling the pressure of a potential departure, has produced 15,000 new season tickets. That’s impressive but even last season’s supposedly poor crowds actually averaged 49,000, which while at the bottom end of the NFL’s scale isn’t that bad a turnout for a small market.
In international terms, even last year’s poor turnouts would be bigger than the average attendance for Europe’s top soccer leagues.
The Jags’ stadium, traditionally known as the Municipal Stadium but now EverBank Field, is close to downtown and snuggled next to the banks of the St. Johns river and is surrounded by narrow streets, a refreshing change to the newly built out-of-town NFL venues with massive car parks and little soul.
There is something different about a tailgate in a small lot next to a classically Southern wooden house with the smell of B-B-Q dominating the area and local folk, not some faceless corporation, offering up their square meters for parking.
Inside, the stadium is totally open, it looks and feels like a college football venue and indeed it hosts a number of big college games each year – including the Florida vs Georgia classic and the post-season Gator Bowl.
It is clearly a venue built for outdoor football for real fans not corporate guests, which is probably just as well, given that on Sunday the only sections of empty seats were in the most expensive central areas.
The Jaguars aren’t going to be installing a teal carpet to greet celebrities anytime soon (unlike their South Florida neighbours, the Miami Dolphins who now have an ‘orange carpet’ for the likes of Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Lopez to pout on) and the official 67,000 capacity for NFL games is still going to be a hard sell, but it would be a crying shame if the stadium and city were to find themselves without an NFL team.
There is nothing glamorous about Jacksonville or their Jaguars team but since when was American football supposed to be about glamour? Isn’t this the game of the hard-working American driving a pick-up truck to a tailgate, drinking a few beers, grilling a few burgers and then roaring on his team?
Isn’t a southern city like Jacksonville, with men who talk about admiring Tim Tebow’s “testimony” taking their sons to the game, more in tune with the traditions of this sport than L.A, Orlando, Vegas or, heaven forbid, London?
And what happens to the hardcore fan-base in Jacksonville, if their team is taken elsewhere?
Condemned to Sundays of watching their former rivals playing on television, they will no doubt refocus their passion purely on Saturday college football, as so many communities do. What happens to a city without any other major sports team if their only one packs up and moves? How will that affect the young people growing up in that city or the older folk who have retired in the area?
What happens to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the next few years will, one way or another, tell us quite a lot about the nature of the modern NFL and indeed the character of contemporary professional sport in the United States.