During an anonymous midseason poll of NFL players conducted by the Sporting News, one of the questions asked them to identify what they felt was the worst franchise in the league.
Of the 103 players polled, 19 picked the Jacksonville Jaguars, second only to 20 responses for the Cleveland Browns.
“They’ve got the tarp over the seats, don’t they? It’s just not working down there. They need to bring in [Tim] Tebow or something to get people excited, but the NFL hasn’t worked there,” said one AFC defensive player.
The perception of the Jaguars is that of a floundering franchise, one that can’t sell out its stadium and is consistently at the top of the list when the subject of relocation is brought up. That’s of particular interest here in Western New York, where the Bills are the “1A” to the Jaguars’ “1” when it comes to teams rumored to be on the move to Los Angeles or elsewhere.
The reality, however, appears to be much different under new owner Shahid Khan. For starters, he has repeatedly stated he has no interest in moving the team he acquired almost a year ago to the day from former owner Wayne Weaver for $760 million.
Even if Khan did an about-face and wanted to move the team, the Jaguars’ lease with Jacksonville to play at EverBank Field is difficult, if not impossible, to break. That’s because of a strong lease agreement, from Jacksonville’s perspective, that was negotiated by former mayor John Delaney.
The agreement requires the Jaguars to repay millions of dollars to the city if they were to break the lease, which doesn’t run out until the 2029-30 season. The Florida Times-Union reported a year ago that figure was estimated to be $100 million, along with another $1 million per year in ticket surcharge and parking fees.
Khan and the team could get out of about 40 percent of that payout, according to the Times-Union, if the club can show it lost money for a year and had below-average revenue for the following two years.
“The Jaguars weren’t looking for a way out,” Delaney, who worked on the deal as chief of staff for Mayor Ed Austin, told the Times-Union last year. “But one of the lessons Ed Austin taught me is whenever you go into a partnership, always arrange for the divorce.”
Proving the Jaguars met those criteria would require them to open their books, something the NFL is opposed to its teams doing.
That appears to be a long way off. Khan has instead taken on the task of rebuilding the Jaguars to become a success in North Florida.
“Just the presence he brings, as an individual and as a person, he’s so powerful. When you hear his story, and when he speaks to you, you’re completely confident in everything that he says and everything that he does,” said Jaguars linebacker Paul Posluszny, the former Bill. “We have all the belief in his abilities that what he was able to do in the business world, and the success that he’s had, he’s going to find a way to transfer that to the NFL and to this organization.”
Khan, 62, came to the United States at age 16 from his native Pakistan. After getting an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, he went into the auto parts business, working as the engineering director for the manufacturing company Flex-N-Gate. He eventually took over the company, turning into it a billion-dollar enterprise.
Forbes estimated Khan’s wealth at $2.5 billion in September, 179th on its list of the 400 richest Americans.
“He’s new to the business and is constantly gathering information on how it all works,” said current Jaguars and former Bills coach Mike Mularkey. “He’s very easy to communicate with. I don’t know how he does what he does.
“He has so many businesses all over the world, and he’s all over the world. You can call him anywhere – and sometimes I do – and I have no idea what time it is wherever he’s at, and he either answers or he calls right back. I mean, the guy, I don’t know how he stays so fresh.”
Khan has designs on turning the Jaguars into a global brand. The team will play one “home” game each of the next four seasons in London’s Wembley Stadium – not unlike the Bills’ agreement to play in Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
“We want to create an identity, a bold, ambitious franchise that is aggressive and forward-thinking on the field and away from the field,” Khan said at the time of the London agreement. “We want to be the kind of franchise players want to belong to, sponsors want to be part of, and Jacksonville is proud of. … The key point is to sell Jacksonville to the world. We are a well-kept secret, but after today, that’s not going to be the case.”
The Jaguars announced before the season that each of their home games will be aired on local television. The franchise also introduced several initiatives designed to increase ticket sales. Fans are allowed to bring food into the stadium, for example, to avoid paying high concession costs. They can also buy a certificate for up to four tickets the day before a game and then redeem it for unused tickets, some in prime locations, an hour before kickoff.
The results are starting to show. In six home games, the Jags have drawn 382,594. That’s an average of 63,765 per game in 67,000-seat EverBank Field, a 95 percent capacity.
“It’s a transition period. A new owner, some new faces around, things are going to change a little bit,” said Bills linebacker Kirk Morrison, who spent the 2010 season with the Jaguars. “One thing I’ve noticed since being down there is the fan base. It’s a good fan base, but one thing about it since it’s an expansion team. The fan base is really 17 years old. It’s not the fan base of people who grew up being a lifelong Steelers fan or a lifelong Cowboys fan. Or the Western New York people who have known the Bills for 40, 50 years.
“Their team is starting to expand, get more and more fans, but at the same time, it all comes with wins and losses. … It’s an organization that needs to win in order to get the fans to come out. It’s a hard-working city. They just want to see a good product on the field.”
At least on the field this season, however, success has been fleeting. The Jaguars will enter Ralph Wilson Stadium with a 2-9 record Sunday. Posluszny, however, is confident better days are ahead.
“Now, we’ve got all the proper guys and everything that we need in place to have success here,” he said.