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Where’s Shad?

In these “social distancing” times, it’s pretty normal to not see some people you’re used to seeing.

But where’s Shad?

In a literal sense,
I’m sure he’s working on one of the myriad of forty-plus companies he owns. The last time we saw him was in a picture during the NFL Draft, sitting at a table with his son Tony, apparently at his home in Illinois in their den, basement or office, watching and working on the Jaguars draft.

But I thought he was conspicuously absent from the Jaguars landscape this week when it was confirmed that the International Series for the NFL was cancelled for 2020. As the “face” of the International Series for the league in the last seven years and with two games scheduled in London this year, it’s a big move for the Jaguars to play all eight of their regular season home games in Jacksonville.

But we never heard from Shad.

Jaguars President Mark Lamping had a statement about playing here and tickets were available but nothing from Shad. As big a deal as they’ve made in the last few years about the revenue stream the London games put to the bottom line and how important the game has become to the franchise’s viability in Jacksonville, you’d have thought Shad would have something to say.

No doubt this is a difficult time for any business owner, and Shad, I’m sure, is no exception. His commitment to his employees is always evident and laudable.

“I know where my bread is buttered,” he told me at an NFL Owners meeting when I asked where the Jaguars fit into his portfolio. “I have 20,000 employees at Flex-N-Gate who are counting on me to help them take care of their families, pay their mortgages and fund their kids education.” I was impressed by that comment because of the spontaneity and the sincerity that came through as he sat next to me. It wasn’t a canned line written by some PR department.

So I’m sure he’s fully immersed in trying to keep his companies and employees fed and clothed and back on their feet as soon as possible.

But we need some of that. From him.

Even some kind of “Hey, we’re sorry we’re not playing in London but wow, it’s just great to be able to play those games in front of our fans here at home,” would have been great.

Owning an NFL team is a different venture than owning any other kind of business. You’re going to make money as the owner; the only question is, how much? And nobody has much of a problem with that.

But there’s a raw, visceral connection between a town and it’s football team. And here in Jacksonville, a working-class city, that connection is even more primitive. Part of it is being a “football town” and part of it has to do with the nearly two decades long chase for an NFL team.

And part of that connection has to be with the owner. We had some of that with Wayne Weaver. He lived here, you’d see him around, at restaurants at charity events. His philanthropy is unparalleled. Shad has also been very generous with his many donations both personally and through the Jaguars.

But we need more of him.

I told Weaver many times he was the most under utilized promotional tool the Jaguars had during his ownership. He usually laughed me off. But I believed that then and I believe that about Shad Khan as well.

When Shad bought the team and took over in 2012, we couldn’t get enough of him. Every appearance was sold out; every comment was dissected for meaning and nuance. His spontaneous cameo in a “Gangnam Style” video went viral immediately.

We haven’t seen that Shad in a while.

We’ve seen him at games and official events. He’s involved in the political and development landscape with several proposals for a Shipyards and Lot J development. His yacht the “Kismet” is parked in the St. Johns downtown. He usually stays at the beach when he’s in town. He’s a presence here.

Since he’ll be 70 this year, maybe he’s turning some things over to his family? Maybe we’ll see more of Tony than in the past as fans of the Fulham soccer club have seen? I doubt that. Shad has too much vitality to step away from what he’s built. And he has too much of a sense of responsibility to the people who count on him.

If he showed up here in town now he might have to undergo a 14-day quarantine based on the Governor’s order. So we don’t want that. But if we’ve learned anything in these pandemic times it’s how easily accessible everybody is by video at a moment’s notice.

I don’t expect him to open a Twitter account like Jim Irsay of the Colts. Nor do I expect him to dance on the sidelines with an umbrella like Tom Benson of the Saints used to do. But some more of the Shad who danced with fans in the parking lot eight years ago would go a long way.

There’s a video of Shad being interviewed on the Jaguars website dated the beginning of February. He talks about how paramount it is to win on the field. He’s obviously a fan and somebody who has learned a lot about football. But he also talks about winning “off the field” with the development of Daily’s Place and the money invested in the stadium. He outlines the plans to help develop downtown. And he says, as he has often, ‘judge actions not words.” And added, “If Jacksonville is growing, it’s better for the Jaguars.” When asked about his slightly different role with the team he said, “there’s a fine line between abdication and delegation.”

I like al of that. So this isn’t so much of a complaint as a suggestion. We want to see more of you Shad. A quick video of encouragement in these tough times from a man of your stature would go a long way. Comments from your surrogates are fine but our connection is with you.

With your backstory, if there’s anybody who knows how the common touch is a powerful tool, it’s you.

Use it.

Two London Games Hurts

Everything about the Jaguars moving a second home game to London stinks.

For now.

When the Jaguars made that announcement earlier this week all anybody heard was “They’re playing a second game in London, they’re taking a home game away from us”. When I talked to Jaguars President Mark Lamping later in the week he laid out the Jaguars reason why and a lot of it makes sense.

For the long term.

“We understood what the response from our fans would be,” Lamping told me Thursday. “But we have to make these hard decisions so there aren’t any questions about the future of the Jaguars in Jacksonville. “

So they’re saying that this short-term pain is going to insure the franchise in the future in Jacksonville?

Well, I like that part.

But how they just dropped the decision to play a second game in London in the middle of the week kind of out of nowhere was a strategic error by Lamping and Jaguars Owner Shad Khan. There were a lot of different ways they could’ve told us this without just one day saying, “Hey! We’re playing two games in London next year.”

Because as soon as they said that, nobody heard another word. All we heard was “They’re taking another home game from us! They’re moving to London!”

They underestimated how people from Jacksonville understand that we’re the underdog. We need to do things a little differently. We’re not stupid. Tell us why and bring us in on the process.

People outside the city have told us for years that eventually the team would move. First it was Los Angeles and since Khan bought the team it’s been London. I’ve defended Khan in the past both here and among my media colleagues when I travel. This will add fuel to their fire and diminish any argument in Khan or Jacksonville’s defense.

Except Lamping assured me that’s not part of the plan.

He said he Jaguars have no plan to play a a third game in London or Barcelona or Stuttgart in 2021 or a fourth in 2022.

Right now the NFL’s commitment to London ends this year with four games in 2020 and two more at Tottenham Hotspurs’ home ground at White Hart Lane for the next eight seasons. So the league is looking at what their international plan will be going forward.

And not just for London. They’d like to play games in Germany and Spain and perhaps continue in London and in Mexico City.

But for now, for us, it stinks.

If they break ground on Lot J and the Shipyards project this year, the timeline for those projects is to be completed by 2023. So I’d expect two games in London at least until then.

Add the fact that parking at Lot J is going away for a while and it’s Jaguars fans that will bear the brunt of the burden just to get six games in Jacksonville for possibly the next three years.

If the Jaguars are telling us the truth about their long-term plan, then that’s great. This team will always be the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“Shad’s charge to me is ‘Do what we need to do to have a successful franchise in Jacksonville,’” Lamping said.

And Lamping and Khan believe that, for now, playing a second game in London, along with the Lot J project, the Shipyards and Daily’s place all will create enough revenue to keep the team competitive and solvent.

Once the revenue starts coming in from these alternate sources, according to Lamping, they can decide if playing a game overseas is necessary or still a good idea.

We all know they make more money playing home games in London, so what’s to keep them from just playing more games there?

Lamping points to Khan’s commitment of hundreds of millions of dollars to Jacksonville and says Shad wants the team here.

“The initiatives of the Lot J project, the Shipyards, Daily’s Place, all of those are important to our long term plan for the Jaguars in Jacksonville in the future.”

I’ll take him at his word on that only because he was most accurate when he said, “There might be some short term pain for fans to ensure our long term success here in Jacksonville.”

Lamping is used to this kind of heat. He was the most vilified person in St. Louis as he negotiated for the construction of a new Busch Stadium for the baseball Cardinals. When he talked to the Governor and state leaders in Illinois, gaining leverage for the new stadium, they wanted to run him out of town. He works for Shad and Shad wants to get this done. He’s judged by the bottom line.

There are a few other things that go into the decision to play two home games in London.

One is the NFL was looking for a team to play two games there in one season to see how it went. So the Jaguars are the guinea pigs for that experiment.

Will the league and the Jaguars renew in London?

Probably so.

They like the international vibe and certainly Shad likes being able to entertain his international clients from the UK, Asia and Europe at Wembley. Who knows he may own Wembley in the next couple years?

What the NFL is lacking is teams that have the flexibility to play a home game in London. The Jaguars have that flexibility for now, most teams do not based on their stadium lease.

Which brings us to the next five to eight years for the Jaguars franchise here in Jacksonville. If we want to stay competitive as a NFL city, a rebuild or renovation of the current stadium is in our not-so-distant future.

And if we’re going to contribute to upgrade or redo the stadium, one of the negotiating points will be the Jaguars have to commit to play their games there.

Because of the Jacksonville’s small market size, it’ll take other revenue besides just sellouts.

Lamping points to Patriots Place in Foxboro as a gleaming example of what can happen. And I agree with all of that. In the end, Patriots Place makes money for Patriots owner Robert Kraft. And the same will happen for Shad Khan, long term, with his downtown projects. But the Patriots play 10 home games right next door to Patriots Place. And they win games and go to the playoffs. Lamping says once the Lot J project starts to make money it might negate a need for a second game in London.

And the timeline for that is 2023.

When the Jaguars were a competitive franchise in the late ‘90’s, winning at a .560 clip, sellouts were a regular occurrence. Since then they’ve won about a quarter of their games. But when they win, like in 2017, people show up. Look around the league. It’s no different anywhere else. For years, the Bucs had about 40,000 fans in Tampa Bay and they showed up despite how bad the team was. You might remember they floated the idea of playing half of their games in Orlando. Same for the Saints in New Orleans and the Dolphins in Miami. When the Cowboys were 1-15 in 1989, Texas Stadium was empty.

The same thing happens here: Win games and fans show up.

To use Lamping’s words, “The fans have clearly outperformed the team.”

What hasn’t happened since the Jaguars founding in 1993 is corporate growth in North Florida. I blame civic leadership for that. The population has grown and like anywhere else, a winning football team brings fans to the stadium.

But the kind of underpinning NFL owners are looking for comes from corporations and sponsorship. The fact that Jaguars games are shown on television only in parts of Florida, South Georgia and in the visitors city doesn’t give potential corporate sponsors the kind of exposure they’re looking for.

How do you solve that? A big part of the answer is winning more games.

A winning team shows up on national television, on Sunday Night and Monday Night Football. It doesn’t get flexed out of prime time.

I don’t mind playing one game in London every year. It makes a good connection with one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Khan pointed out that the reaction to the one game in London was very positive. Apparently his reference to the expected positive reaction for playing a second game there was supposed to be for the attitude five years from now.

But not for how we feel now. Because for now, it’s painful, disappointing and is hard to see as a plus.

When it comes to revenue I’m always for people making money. At some point Shad and the NFL will have to decide if it’s just all about money

I’ll take him at his word that he wants to have a long-term viable franchise in Jacksonville and it’s these other revenue streams and, for now, the second game in London that will guarantee the Jaguars have “Jacksonville” as part of their name for the foreseeable future.

Lamping said this week any kind of franchise shift is something the current Jaguars management would never consider. They want to make more money, but they’re not moving like the Chargers, Rams and Raiders.

“They have taken steps that we would not consider, but they have taken steps to fix their revenue by leaving Oakland, by leaving St. Louis and by leaving San Diego.”

Maybe this was a public relations stumble, a miscalculation by Lamping and Khan. Maybe Lot J, the Shipyards and Daily’s Place will be the genesis of a much-needed renaissance for downtown.

I know owning an NFL team is not a charity project and that Shad wants the Jaguars to make money.

And I know Shad is a competitive guy and doesn’t want to sit in the bottom 25% of revenue earners among NFL teams.

But how they rolled out this step was a strategic mistake, underestimating Jaguars fans passion here in Jacksonville. They underestimated the people in Jacksonville and what we can do, and how we’ll buy in if we believe you’re on our side. We got rid of the smell, we got rid of tolls, and we even beat the odds and got an NFL team.

They seem to lack somebody with real roots in Jacksonville to help shape their decisions. When they got the Clevelander to sponsor the pool and the North End Zone, anybody who’s been around here a while knew that wasn’t the answer.

We’re Atlantic/Jax/Neptune/Ponte Vedra Beach. Not South Beach.

Lamping is fond of saying, “Watch what we do.” Not to worry Mark, we will. We’ll be playing close attention.

Because for now, this hurts.

It’s Khan’s Call, So How

I don’t know if Shad Khan will make a change in the Jaguars management this week. I suspect he will, having given us a hint in his statement after firing Tom Coughlin as Executive Vice President. “I determined earlier this fall that making this move at the conclusion of the 2019 season would be in everyone’s best interests . . .” he said announcing he had relieved Coughlin of his duties earlier than expected. So he’s had change on his mind for a while.

I’ve never liked the change process in sports. But maybe that’s just me. There’s a lot written about how coaches and executives didn’t get the job done and much less written about the family upheaval and all of the other things that change entails.

But it happens every year. In fact, the Monday after the regular season has its own name in the NFL: Black Monday.

We’ve all seen in our own careers when managers are in over their heads, are in the wrong job or have just worn out their welcome. Neither Head Coach Doug Marrone nor General Manager Dave Caldwell fit those descriptions but the decision-making process in the NFL is based on one thing: wins and losses.

And everybody who gets into that profession knows that.

“I truly take responsibility and apologize,” Marrone said in a heart-felt opening statement during a press conference this week. “You want your team to be doing well so people can have some pride and some joy, and we haven’t done that and that’s my job. What I haven’t done a good job [with] is our performance on Sundays.”

What if Khan looks around, maybe can’t get exactly who he wants, and decides that Marrone, without Tom Coughlin looking over his shoulder, is as good a choice as any? And decides that Caldwell’s personnel acumen was better without Coughlin’s input and keeps him as well?

Fans would be in an uproar. But does that matter?

At this point with television revenue paying for virtually all of an NFL team’s expenses, ticket revenue is a small part of a team’s overall income. But it all goes straight to the black on the bottom line.

What factors does Shad Khan use to make a management change? If you look at his businesses, Khan expects results and isn’t afraid to make changes. Of the estimated 40 or so businesses he owns, the Jaguars and his soccer club, Fulham in London, generate the most media attention but aren’t in the top half of his portfolio when it comes to revenue.

His main business, Flex-n-Gate, reports more than 24,000 employees worldwide. According to Forbes, it’s the 49th largest company in America, generating $8.3 billion in revenue this year. So changing management there would be a grinding process based on revenue, culture and profits. Khan would be involved at the top level. Apparently they did have a management change, perhaps at one of his manufacturing plants in Detroit sometime this year. But there’s not a whole lot of press coverage of a change at the top of an automotive parts maker.

At his soccer club, Khan has had nine managers in the last six years, including interim leaders or “caretakers” as they’re called. If things aren’t going right at Craven Cottage, he makes a change. Fulham has three “directors,” including Jaguars President Mark Lamping and Shad’s son Tony is also involved. They’re quick to flip the switch there and while it’s different than the NFL, if you’re not winning on the West End, there’s a quick hook.

Being more patient with his NFL team hasn’t paid off for Shad. He made one quick change after his first season as an owner, moving on from General Manager Gene Smith and Head Coach Mike Mularkey after a dismal 2-14 campaign in 2012. Gene hired Mike after being held over from the Wayne Weaver era. Mularkey didn’t have much of a chance with a sub-standard roster and Blaine Gabbert at quarterback but moreover Shad didn’t like how the team was being run in general.

When he asked about the Jaguars draft in 2012 he said it was like “going into an iron vault” to find out who they were looking at, even though he was the owner. It turned out to be Justin Blackmon who was productive for a couple years before he went off the deep end. But Shad didn’t like the secrecy or the process inside the building. He likes upward transparency. He wants to know what’s going on.

One thing we know about Khan’s decision-making process is that he hires the best. He’s not worried about where you’re based. He’s hired the best lawyers, the best planners, the best construction companies on their production and results. He does his homework.

So when picking a leadership team for the Jaguars, where does Shad go for advice?

He’s popular among the other NFL owners and with the league as well. He leans on their ideas, whether it’s the Cowboy’s Jerry Jones or Commissioner Roger Goodell. Khan is a good listener. Unlike most management decisions he’ll make across the spectrum of his investments, hiring the Head Coach of an NFL team comes under intense scrutiny. And he’ll be the one to make the call.

I once asked George Steinbrenner about hiring and re-hiring Billy Martin so many times. He said that there aren’t a lot of candidates for that job with a winning record. When Khan starts asking around he’ll no doubt talk with Sandy Montag and Jimmy Sexton, the two agents who represent most of the coaches out there, and get some ideas. Bringing in a “young gun” who’s a coordinator is a bit of a crap-shoot. There are hits and misses. Same with hiring a successful college coach. Guys available with a winning record in the NFL is a short list. Mike McCarthy and Ron Rivera are the two most prominent unemployed winners with NFL experience.

Khan has gone both ways with the Jaguars: Mularkey and Doug Marrone had NFL head-coaching experience. Gus Bradley did not.

What’s he looking for anyway? Gus Bradley could be termed a “players-coach,” trying to empower the players to hold each other accountable. And that didn’t work. Coughlin brought a whole different idea of accountability and aside from an injury-free 2017, that didn’t work either.

Is there a happy medium?

Each year at the “State of the Franchise” we hear Lamping go over the revenue statistics and how the Jaguars are near the bottom of the league each season. They’ve done a lot of things to try to enhance their revenue streams, including sponsors for the London game, but there’s one sure-fire way to bring in more money: win more games.

They’ve had four winning seasons since 2000 and one, in 2017, in the last ten years. Only once in the last nine years have they not suffered double-digit losses. They’ve won their division three times in their 25-year history. We can all agree with Lamping when he says “the fans have outpaced the team” when it comes to buying tickets and going to games based on performance.

This year they lost five straight games by at least 17-points, an NFL record. Compare that to the Chargers who are also 5-10 but nine of their losses have been by one score. Which team would you buy a ticket to watch?

Being a Jaguars fan isn’t easy. So hard in fact it was a running joke on a popular TV sitcom. And it’s not even the team’s record. “They’re not fun to watch,” one fan wrote me this week. “They’re not even entertaining, outside of the occasional (Gardner) ‘Minshew Magic,’” another said.

What Shad will do is anybody’s guess. Having been around him during games I can tell you he’s a real football fan. Combine that with his business success and you can only be certain that he’ll do his homework, spend the time and money, and try to make it right. Outside of that, what happens in the future is anybody’s guess.