Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Solving Ticket Problems

They seem to have it all: A beautiful stadium, nice weather, natural grass, a solid fan base and an attractive product. So why can’t the Jaguars sell out the stadium? They’re not the only ones with this problem. Tampa, Atlanta, Miami and many other NFL towns aren’t selling out unless their team is a winner.

The math is tough on the Jaguars from the start. When the stadium is sold out, 73,000 fans from a total population of about 1.1 million are at the game. That means one in about every fifteen people, men women and children, are inside the stadium. Ticket prices are an issue. The Jaguars ticket prices range in the upper end of prices throughout the league, while the median income of their local fan base is in the bottom end of the league.

Although the Jaguars have put some in the affordable range, a season ticket is still out of range for a lot of the working class in North Florida and South Georgia. Remember, nobody is buying one season ticket. It’s a couple or three or four for family or friends and it can add up quickly.

Market size and stadium size don’t match. Forget Green Bay, Jacksonville is the smallest city to have an NFL team. The Packers have been around forever and they have Milwaukee close by. The 73,000 seats are too many for a modern day football stadium, as evidenced by every stadium built since the one in Jacksonville was completed. About 65,000 seats is a good size, so it’s no coincidence that Jaguars sellouts miss by about 8,000 on a regular basis. The size of the stadium was mandated by local politicians who wanted to ensure that the Florida/Georgia game was accommodated with 80,000 or so seats after the temporaries were put in. So with the facts laid out, it’s obvious a sellout is a hard sell to begin with.

But it has been done.

And with regularity.

The Jaguars were the ticket when they were winners and when they were new. That combination, starting in 1995 and going through 2000 gave the organization a false sense of security. Their first blackout didn’t occur until September of 2001.

“We were a little bit spoiled,” Owner Wayne Weaver admitted to me recently. Spoiled by success on the field and at the ticket window. Because of that success, and the continued explosion of interest in the NFL, Weaver saw his $120 million cash investment in 1993 grow to an estimated worth of $500 million in 2002. That’s a pretty good return. So by just about every measure, save for recent wins and losses, the Jaguars are a success.

But why can’t they sell enough tickets?

Part of it is the complacency Weaver alluded to. They had the doors open and people flocked through. Jaguars paraphernalia was everywhere, the hottest gift item. Players were as popular as rock stars, never having to pick up a check, anywhere. But that shine is gone. The newness has worn off, and the winning is in the past, and they hope, in the future. That’s where their connection with the city, and its population counts. And for some reason, they haven’t been able to make one.

Jaguars insiders agreed that in Tom Coughlin’s final season, the team had suffered a total disconnect from its casual fan. Coughlin’s abrupt manner kept people away and a losing record ensured they’d spend their money elsewhere. So changing the coach seemed to be the panacea the organization saw to fix their sagging fortunes, both on the field and at the box office.

Jack Del Rio, a vibrant, young, energetic former player replaced Coughlin and the team saw an immediate jump in season ticket sales. But that lagged as well, and the teams on-field success is realistically at least a couple of years away.

A connection with the fans depends on a history, both of winning and losing. Fans need to celebrate their victories together and have a common misery when it comes to losing. College stadiums in Gainesville, Athens and Tallahassee are sold out on weekends in the fall, regardless of the team’s record. It’s a part of people’s culture, how they’ve grown up and what they see of themselves. But the Jaguars haven’t tapped that.

Business partners say the Jaguars’ attitude toward them is “We’re the Jaguars and you’re not.” Many fans have said buying a ticket is much harder than it has to be. The game day experience in most NFL cities starts early and ends late, regardless of the team’s record or the time of the game. Even in Carolina, with the same amount of history as the Jaguars, fans have street parties and post-game gatherings to rival anything around the league. The Jaguars have parking lots with scattered tailgaters, but nothing that’s about to go into the books as legendary.

Their marketing this year began with a slogan touting “A New Era.” A new coaching era yes, but it’s not a new era just because you say it is. Television and radio ads have a deep voiced announcer promoting tickets so you can be involved in a “New Season of Historic Proportions.” How so?

The Jacksonville sports fan is smarter than that. In fact, they know this season is the first step in getting the team back to contending status. Most people who have given up their season tickets cite the game day experience as their number one reason.

“I had season tickets for the first five years,” one Jaguars fan told me, “and I never sat next to the same person twice. I didn’t know anybody in my section, so I felt pretty isolated.”

A marketing strategy that puts people in the seats with people they know is important for any professional sports team, especially one based in a small community like Jacksonville. Knowing how many studies and surveys the team has commissioned in the past, have they figured out why they haven’t ever been embraced by the community in a passionate way? Maybe it’s because the community doesn’t feel embraced by the Jaguars.

“They’re Wayne’s Jaguars, they’re the NFL’s Jaguars,” is how many fans describe the team. Weaver needs to figure out how to have people feel like they’re Jacksonville’s Jaguars. Fans need to think they have a proprietary interest in the team, even if they don’t. That’s where the Jaguars marketing strategy has failed from the beginning. And their biggest asset is right under their nose: Weaver himself.

The Jaguars owner made his millions marketing shoes to women, knowing what they were looking for in style and color. As a “Georgia Boy” (he’s from Macon), Weaver has an easy personal style that would connect with potential ticket buyers, the everyday Jacksonville fan. He needs to be out front, explaining his affinity for this town. The owner as pitchman for his product isn’t an unusual idea, it’s just different than what happens in other towns. Weaver had his chances to back efforts to take an NFL team elsewhere, most notably St. Louis, but he liked it here. His philanthropy is near legend in a town with limited “deep pockets” givers. Developing Weaver as a “hometown” owner, makes people feel like he’s a part of what they are, and in turn, his team is a part of what they are as well.