Jaguars singing the small-market blues in Jacksonville

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.

“The viability of this team in our city is critically important,” he said. “The Jaguars have become a part of the fabric in this city. It’s hard to imagine not having this team here. We need to do a better job citywide supporting this team.”

Although there have been rumors and reports in recent years that the Jaguars are ready to pack up and relocate, it might not be as simple as that. First, many league insiders believe Weaver is not inclined to sell the team and still believes it can work in that region, although he has given serious thought to playing one or more regular-season games 140 miles away in Orlando, especially if the league expands to 17 or 18 regular-season games. That concept is being discussed in negotiations with the players’ union.

Weaver said that although the Jaguars have “reached out” to the Orlando market, “We have not done a great job of it, quite frankly, and we haven’t been that successful in getting fans to come up here.

“So over the past couple of years I’ve rethought our strategy and I’ve said, ‘If we were going to go to a restructured season in the NFL, wouldn’t it make sense to play an out-of-market game to try and energize that fan base?’ ”

If the Jaguars were to leave, it would be far from a frictionless process. The franchise, which has roughly quadrupled in value since Weaver bought it for $208 million in 1993, can exercise the escape clause in its lease by a) proving the club has lost money in three consecutive seasons, or b) convincing a local judge the city has failed to provide proper upkeep of the stadium.

And if the Jaguars were to meet either of those requirements, they still would owe the city something on the order of $100 million for unpaid rent, and lost revenue from parking, naming rights and advertising.

There are whispers in league circles that, were the Jaguars to leave, they would be better suited to relocate to London than Los Angeles, in part because there wouldn’t be the same need for divisional realignments if a team from the West or Midwest were to relocate overseas.

But how long can a franchise stay viable when it sells just 46,000 seats to its home opener, as the Jaguars did this season?

“That’s the $64,000 question,” said Weaver, knowing full well the answer will be far, far more expensive than that.