Novelty gone: Jaguars trying to find fans amid slumping ticket sales, blackouts Print
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Monday, 22 October 2007 09:13
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 JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) -When Jaguars guard Vince Manuwai walks into Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, he never really knows what to expect.
Will the stands be full? Or will there be patches of empty teal seats? Will the fans cheer for the Jaguars? Or will they turn on the home team?
Manuwai hopes for the best. But he's often disappointed, growing increasingly frustrated in his fifth season of playing for a small-market team that has struggled to maintain - let alone increase - its fan base.
``It stinks because you always want it to be sold out,'' Manuwai said. ``You get more pumped up when the stadium is full, when it's loud. When you see a half-empty stadium, your energy's just not as high.''
The Jaguars didn't have that problem Monday night against the Indianapolis Colts (5-0). The prime-time game against the defending Super Bowl champions was sold out long ago.
But similar situations have become rare in Jacksonville.
The Jaguars (4-1) nearly blacked out their home opener for the first time in the franchise's 13-year history. They needed a ticket-sales extension to avoid a local and regional television blackout.
They didn't even bother with an extension the next two home games, against Atlanta and Houston, because so many tickets remained. Both games were blacked out and there were empty seats everywhere.
Those were the first blackouts since Jacksonville covered up nearly 10,000 seats to reduce stadium capacity to 67,164. The move, designed to lower ticket sales requirements, came after the Jaguars blacked out 12 of 16 home games in 2003 and 2004.
``We've just got a higher mountain to climb because we're a small market and we've got a big stadium,'' team owner Wayne Weaver said last month. ``I think 20 years from now we'll look back and say Jacksonville is a great market.
``We don't have 75 years of history like the Steelers or the Green Bay Packers. ... We're a growing community. We just have to have patience.''
The Jaguars used an extensive marketing campaigns in hopes of boosting ticket sales. They even allow fans to purchase season tickets with credit cards - many teams accept only cash or check - and it costs the club close to $800,000 in lost revenue.
Nonetheless, sales have been slow, especially with the remaining home schedule including less-than-marquee games against Buffalo, Carolina and Oakland.
Weaver even fired his executive director of ticket sales and marketing and his director of marketing just before the season, making employees below them more accountable for day-to-day operations.
While ticket sales are the biggest concern, there are other issues. Alltel Corp. decided not to renew its naming rights contract with the stadium, leaving the franchise without its most lucrative sponsorship deal.
And when Weaver hired a New York investment firm in hopes of refinancing $110 million in debt, it fueled speculation he was trying to sell the team.
``I've had plenty of opportunity (to sell),'' Weaver said. ``There's always somebody trying to buy a football team. There's only 32 of them. But clearly this one's not for sale.''
Weaver insists it's not moving, either.
He believes the NFL will eventually be a strong sell in Jacksonville. After all, tickets were in high demand during the franchise's first five years. But once the novelty wore off and wins started coming less often, fans began staying home or finding other things to do on Sundays.
Many question whether Jacksonville can sustain an NFL team because it has mostly low- to medium-income families, relatively few college graduates and not enough corporate dollars.
Weaver disagrees.
``We are a market that has a large blue-collar work force,'' he said. ``The positive about Jacksonville is that we're a growing market. We're one of the fastest growing markets in the southeastern part of the United States. We've just got to hope it continues to grow, and as more people come in, we've got to convert those people into Jaguars fans.''
Manuwai is hoping it happens soon. He remembers walking out to a half-empty stadium on Dec. 26, 2004, when the Jaguars needed a win against Houston to make the playoffs.
The Jags came out flat, never recovered and lost 21-0.
``I know there are teams out there that don't do as well as us but the fans come out,'' Manuwai said, referencing the team's 24-13 record the last three years. ``I don't know why it doesn't happen here. Maybe it's because we don't have a lot of history.
``A lot of people around here really haven't converted to being a Jaguar fan. Most of them are still Miami fans, Pittsburgh fans. When we played Pittsburgh here last year, you didn't know what was what. It felt like we were in Pittsburgh. That's not a good feeling.''

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