JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars lost 17,000 season ticket-holders after last season, a staggering number that could lead to blackouts for every home game in 2009.
Most blamed the sluggish economy. Some pointed to the slumping team. Either way, team owner Wayne Weaver has to find a way to get them back.
How about Tim Tebow?
Weaver told The Associated Press this week that drafting Tebow, the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner who grew up in Jacksonville and has top-ranked Florida seeking its third national championship in four seasons, is something he will consider next year.
Think LeBron James in Cleveland. James, from Akron, Ohio, turned the foundering NBA franchise into an Eastern Conference power and made the Cavaliers the hottest ticket in town.
"Star power is incredible, and Tebow is an iconic figure," Weaver said, noting that Brett Favre's arrival in Minnesota prompted about 7,000 season ticket sales. "That's very compelling. He clearly is an outstanding football player and would be an asset to any football organization."
Weaver pointed to Tebow's popularity, marketability and leadership skills as reasons he would be a perfect fit in Jacksonville. Weaver also believes there's no doubt Tebow will play quarterback at the next level.
Weaver has already started to hear chatter about drafting the 6-foot-3, 240-pound left-hander who has broken several school and Southeastern Conference records.
It was one of the first questions asked when he spoke at a business luncheon Monday. There are "Draft Tebow" stickers circulating the city. And that rumor about the Jaguars commissioning a survey to see what effect Tebow would have on ticket sales?
"I don't know that it's actually a survey," Weaver said.
This much is certain: Weaver expects the Tebow talk to increase between now and April's NFL draft.
"The game is such an important part of this community, and Tebow is such an iconic figure that people would legitimately think, 'Wouldn't it be great if he was a Jaguar,'" Weaver said. "I'd be silly to sit here and think that's not going to be a huge thing.
"Clearly there's going to be a groundswell for Tebow, and we'll have to make that evaluation if we have a draft pick that's going to be anywhere near him," he said.
Tebow's draft stock is routinely debated. He has taken every meaningful snap from the shotgun formation, has a long windup, throws sort of sidearm and finishes each pass with a leg kick. His arm strength is average and his ability to read defenses is questionable.
But his accuracy, durability and determination to be an NFL quarterback might be hard to overlook -- especially for the Jaguars.
Jacksonville's ticket woes are arguably the worst in the league. There's virtually no chance for the team to avoid blacking out Sunday's home opener against the defending NFC champion Arizona Cardinals, and the situation looks just as bleak for the other seven home games.
Teams normally need to sell out games 72 hours before kickoff to prevent a local television blackout, and Weaver doesn't even anticipate getting a deadline extension from the NFL -- something that prevented blackouts in Arizona, Cincinnati and Oakland last weekend.
"We're far enough away that I don't want to send any false hope out to the community," Weaver said.
It's the latest setback for a franchise that doesn't have a lucrative naming-rights deal for the stadium, already covered up nearly 10,000 seats to reduce capacity and lower ticket-sales requirements and faces constant speculation about relocating to Los Angeles.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has seemingly made Jacksonville the poster child for blackouts.
"It's no fun to be in that position," Weaver said. "It is what it is. I'm not going to hang my head. I'm going to work hard and keep doing everything we know how to do to get out there. We've got to realize we're in a difficult economy and do everything we can do to make it affordable."
The Jaguars have tried just about everything.
They didn't raise ticket prices. They focused on group sales. They created value meals at concession stands. They offered season-ticket packages for half the games and recently introduced a "flex pack," which allows fans to buy tickets to any three games and save $30.
The response has been minimal.
Jacksonville mayor John Peyton showed up at practice Wednesday and appealed to fans to buy tickets.
"The viability of this team in our city is critically important," Peyton said. "The Jaguars have become part of the fabric in this city. It's hard to imagine not having this team here and we need to do a better job citywide supporting this team."
The five-county Jacksonville area has 1.3 million people. It wouldn't seem like a stretch to find 60,000 to attend Jaguars games, especially since there's no other major league teams competing in the area.
It wasn't a problem when the franchise started in 1995. But after the newness wore off and losing seasons followed -- the Jags have made the playoffs twice in the last nine years -- attendance started to dwindle. The economic collapse and last year's 5-11 record have season-ticket sales at an all-time low.
Weaver said the market was hit hard because it only has two Fortune 500 companies, CSX (No. 240) and Winn-Dixie (No. 340), and lots of service-based industries.
"The people who own our tickets are families and small businesses, and they're the ones going through the toughest time with tight credit and other things," Weaver said. "We're not in this by ourselves. But we just felt it worse because of the size of our market."
Weaver insists he's committed to Jacksonville and sees signs that things will turn around.
The father of a 14-year-old boy recently called Weaver to let him know his son spent all summer working odd jobs so he could afford season tickets.
"This young man is so passionate about the Jaguars," Weaver said. "He's grown up with us. That's all he knows. There's thousands more like him out there that are growing up with us. As they come of age and they have their own disposable income, they're going to start buying season tickets."
It might happen sooner if Tebow comes to town.