Nearly 10,000 seats at Jacksonville Municipal Stadium won't see how a season filled with high expectations unfolds this fall. They'll remain in the dark, covered with tarps, a symbol to many of the city's failure to support the Jacksonville Jaguars.
But team officials, the chamber of commerce and fans say the tarped seats are misperceived and the only evidence they offer is that the building is too big for the city.
Many experts think the Jaguars could end the Indianapolis Colts' five-year run as AFC South champs and earn at least one game at home in the playoffs. Coming off the Jaguars' somewhat surprising 11-5 season and an upset in Pittsburgh in the first round, the buzz in northeast Florida is the best it has been since 1999, when the team advanced to its second AFC Championship Game and finished with just three losses.
The Jaguars entered the league as an expansion team for the 1995 season and have been a success story, football-wise, with a 113-95 record, seven winning seasons and six playoff appearances. (Jacksonville's expansion brother, Carolina, is 97-111 all time but has appeared in a Super Bowl.) Still, in the Jaguars' 13th season last year, they failed to fill the stadium three times, accounting for three of the 10 local television blackouts in 256 regular-season NFL games.
Although owner Wayne Weaver recently shot down a report out of Philadelphia that he was trying to sell the team to billionaire C. Dean Metropoulos, who likely would move it, hopes in the sprawling city of Jacksonville are that all the games will be broadcast locally.
The season-ticket renewal rate is at least 91 percent, according to Tim Connolly, the Jaguars' senior vice president for business development, who called it "the highest in a long time."
The Jags need to sell roughly 3,000 more tickets per home game to get to the 54,000 that assures no blackouts. The rest of the 67,164-seat capacity is made up of premium spots -- clubs and suites that don't factor into the NFL's blackout equation.
"The market has responded to the team performance," an upbeat Connolly said. " I think the quarterback change was a lightning rod for positive feelings. You never want to blame one game or one player or one instant, but certainly over time, [Byron] Leftwich was not as popular of a player as was [David] Garrard. The fans here have responded.
"I'm confident that the market will be there; it's just the nature of our beast."
According to Connolly, small-market Jacksonville has several issues that make ticket sales challenging:
• Though Connolly said the city is growing by 30,000 people a year, Nielsen Media Research says the city has just 650,000 television sets. Connolly says that to fill the stadium, the team feels it has an incredibly difficult calling.
• The average household income of the people the team is chasing is about $88,000 per year. Households in comparable cities such as Kansas City, Nashville, Buffalo and Indianapolis average about $125,000 annually, according to a league survey Connolly cited.
• In an area where many people tend to buy their tickets late, the team is unwilling to let a corporation act as a patron saint by purchasing 1,200 or 1,500 tickets as the blackout deadline nears. Although Connolly said there have been offers, Jacksonville is hardly loaded with big businesses. It boasts the headquarters of just four Fortune 500 companies, none ranked higher than 261st.
• The team's average season-ticket account has just three seats, meaning the Jaguars have far more accounts than many teams, Connolly said.
• Reports that the team could be sold and move to Los Angeles surface occasionally, though Weaver has worked hard to quash them quickly.
"It's just a matter of demographics in our market," Connolly said. "People joke, 'We're not very big, but we're slow. There are not very many of us, but we're not very rich.'"
Bill Sutton, the associate department head of sports business at the University of Central Florida and a consultant who was a marketing vice president for the NBA for seven years, points to other concerns.
In the 2004 season, The Florida Times-Union reported that Weaver laid off at least 10 front-office employees and that when the senior vice president of sales and marketing, Dan Connell, resigned, he was not replaced.
Then the tarps arrived in 2005.
"When you put tarps over seats, you're kind of advertising to the NFL and the world: 'We can't sell tickets,'" Sutton said. "It's an embarrassment. The NFL is America's pastime. If you can't sell the NFL out, it's not the people, it's you
"I consider them underperforming off the field. I just don't know what their objectives are. If I'm a corporate sponsor, you've got to deliver a stadium full of eyeballs. If I have to wait every week to see if you're on TV, that's very disappointing to me."
In 2007, the stadium naming rights deal with Alltel expired. Macky Weaver, the team's executive director of corporate sponsorship, said that complex agreement combined naming rights with other sponsorship and was worth more to the team than the $620,000 annual figure that has been reported. The team and the city are close to a new agreement that will make dividing naming rights revenue more straightforward, he said. The implications of a 10- or 20-year deal mean the team won't rush to find its next partner, though he said he's had some significant conversations.
Sports marketing expert David Carter, the founder of the Sports Business Group and a professor at USC, said he doesn't consider the Jaguars' answers excuses, just small-market realities that are a big issue dividing some owners.
"In a market that is more fan-driven than corporate-driven, winning is going to be at a higher premium in order to maintain interest," said Carter, who also works for real estate billionaire Ed Roski, who has a plan to build an $800 million stadium in Los Angeles in hopes of luring an NFL franchise.
The three Jacksonville blackouts in 2008 resulted from a total of 5,500 unsold seats in a building that was expanded up to 78,125-seat capacity for Super Bowl XXXIX in February 2005.
Connolly said that with roughly 3,000 seats per game unsold entering this season, prospects for sellouts look good. The team hasn't even put partial packages or single-game tickets on sale yet.
Although players such as Garrard, running back Maurice Jones-Drew and cornerback Rashean Mathis have matured, the market is still working on it, said Jerry Mallot, executive vice president of Cornerstone, the economic development program connected to the Jacksonville chamber of commerce.
"I think the fact we built one of the largest stadiums in the NFL in one of the smallest markets is reflective of why we haven't filled the stadium or why we've covered up seats," he said. "We're learning how to support a major league team here. It's still been only a little over 10 years. But the fans are rabid here."
Rory Gregg, 30, is a lifelong Jacksonville resident and a $500 season-ticket holder in the north end zone.
He said a lot of football fanatics he knows still invest their time and money in college games, and don't want to overextend.
But Gregg sees big things coming for a team he expects to return to the playoffs.
"We are a football town, and people are on a pretty good high with this team right now," he said. "The hype now and the potential is equal or higher than in 1999 at an all-time high. We've been pretty spoiled as fans. Look at our short history and we've been to the playoffs six times and the AFC championship twice.
"People have gotten that taste, and that's the level they've grown to expect. Other franchises have fans that have worn bags on their heads for years."
Connolly feels certain his team is about to provide him the best marketing tool there is: a window of Super Bowl possibilities.
Whether enough fans and businesses will join the ride and stick with the Jaguars remains to be seen, and the team's long-term health remains a question. In the short term: covered seats, yes; bags on fans' heads, no.
Paul Kuharsky covers the NFL for ESPN.com.