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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Fan's Voice: We are Jaguars Fans. We Exist

This is the first installment of the Fan's Voice series of guest posts on Banshee Sports.  It's a series that allows dedicated NFL fans to share their thoughts about the team they love.  This debut installment is written by Eric Harrison.

Two of the best events of my life are births that took place on November 30.  My son was born November 30, 2010, and that day is probably the happiest day of my life.  Having a child involves unconditional love, pride, joy, frustration and sometimes sadness.  So does loving a football team.
Seventeen years before my son was born, on November 30, 1993, the Jacksonville Jaguars were born.  I was in middle school, and that day became the happiest day of my young life when I heard the announcement.  I am a Jacksonville Jaguars fan and I exist. 

As a 12 year-old the process of getting awarded the 30th NFL franchise was rather abstract.  I knew we had a one in four chance of getting a team (with Charlotte having been awarded the 29th franchise a month earlier).  For years our city had tried to lure a football team to town.  The Colts, Saints and Oilers, all flirted with us and then left us hanging.  Ironically, Jacksonville was the 1980’s answer to Los Angeles today.  Owners would demand concessions from their city and threaten to move to Jacksonville, but they never came. 

A lawsuit by the Jaguar car company caused
 Jacksonville to change their logo before they
ever played a game.
Jacksonville’s bid seemed a long shot.  We had to sell 10,000 premium tickets in 10 days at one point just to stay in the game.  We did.  Still, our opponents included two former NFL cities, St. Louis and Baltimore.  Two cities that were much bigger than Jacksonville.   Two cities most people thought “deserved” a team.

Jacksonville is no St. Louis, and it is no Baltimore.  It's got a relatively large population of about 1.5 million in the metro area.  It has wonderful people, weather and beaches and a fascinating history unknown even to many residents.  But it is a lot more like a huge small town than it is a city.  It's southern in a way that Birmingham is southern.  It's conservative.  It's Christian.  In the fall of 1993, the first season of NYPD Blue was not being broadcast in Jacksonville.  It was too risqué.  To most, Jacksonville wasn't the sort of place that "deserved" to play in the big leagues.  But on November 30, 1993, Paul Tagliabue announced that the committee had selected Jacksonville as the 30th NFL franchise.

I think a lot of people have harbored resentment about that announcement ever since.  Jacksonville didn’t deserve a team.  Jacksonville?  During the bid process Charlotte’s mayor scoffed and said that the only thing Jacksonville had to offer the NFL was cockroaches. 

1996 was our second season of play.  After going 4-12 in our inaugural season we began 1996 with a 3-6 record.  Then the Jaguars caught magic in a bottle and earned a playoff birth with a 9-7 record.  In our first ever playoff game we shocked the Buffalo Bills 30-27 in Orchard Park, ending Jim Kelly’s career and setting up a game in Denver the following week against the Number 1 seed in the AFC.

ESPN regular Woody Paige was a columnist for the Denver Post in 1996.  In a lame attempt at humor Mr. Paige gratuitously bashed the City of Jacksonville and the “Jagwads” in advance of the game: 

How do you get worked up to play somebody called Jacksonville with a bunch of nobodies? Jacksonville? Is that a semi-pro team or a theme park? Isn't Jacksonville the only Florida city without a beach? (Note: I am from Jacksonville Beach, Florida)
 Who do these upstart Jaguars think they are, anyway…?
 Can we get a legitimate NFL team in here next Sunday?

As the largest underdogs in NFL Playoff history the Jaguars defeated the Denver Broncos 30-27.  No football team, legitimate or semi-pro, went to Mile High the following week.

The City of Jacksonville erupted with the victory.  That night 40,000 people went to the stadium downtown.  40,000!  At 1:30 AM the team’s charter flight took a detour so that it could fly over the stadium and see the thousands of delirious folks who had gathered to celebrate their win.  Once they landed, the team hurried to the stadium to celebrate with their fans. 

Fast forward to February, 2005 and there’s Super Bowl fever in Jacksonville because the big game itself is being held in town.   Jacksonville is a wonderful place with nice hotels, nice restaurants and fun bars.  But they’re not all located in one district.  Jacksonville’s downtown is pretty quiet after 5PM.  Jacksonville is not New Orleans.  It is not Miami.  It is not Atlanta or even Tampa.  To make quota on hotel rooms, cruise ships had to be docked along the riverfront downtown.  It’s a novel concept that went off fairly well.  It also was a stark reminder that Jacksonville in 2005 just wasn’t a Super Bowl kind of town.  To make matters worse, a February Nor’easter was in effect for most all of Super Bowl week.  It was Jacksonville in February.  Sometimes it’s 70 and fantastic.  Sometimes it’s 50 degrees with a 30 mph wind.   That week it was the latter.

It was the most panned Super Bowl experience ever by the media.  All in all the week went fine.  The game went off without a hitch and the lights even stayed on the entire time. But the criticism made some sense.  Jacksonville wasn’t ready to host a Super Bowl.

For those who always felt Jacksonville an undeserving NFL city, that week made the city an even bigger target.

The Jaguars have not won a division title since 1999.  We have been to the playoffs only twice since then.  It’s been a bad run.  For years the team ran a boring system under Jack Del Rio which focused on defense and playing a ball control running game on offense. When you are losing year in and year out and playing a boring brand of football, it’s not terribly fun.  Then the economy crashes and you have scenes like the one in this photo.

It was bad.  I drove to Jacksonville in 2009 to watch them play the Rams.  There were 38,000 people there.  If that. Yes, fan support was lagging in 2009.  There were blackouts.  There should have been more but the team intervened to stave off several.  Here was proof Jacksonville was the illegitimate NFL city some people had convinced themselves it was.  Too small.  Too Southern.  Too redneck.  Too podunk.  Not sexy.  Jacksonville?  So the chorus began across the nation.  Move the Jaguars.  Move them to a real city like Los Angeles.  Move them to somewhere me and my media brethren think is worthy of a team

Jacksonville ranked 30th of 32 teams in attendance that year.  The Jaguars drew a measly 49,651 a game in 2009. But, Detroit and Oakland drew even fewer fans.  Jacksonville has never once had the lowest attendance in a season.  The impression the national media gives is that we do every year.

In 2010 the Jaguars missed the playoffs again and were the constant focus of jokes and speculation about the team moving.  Everywhere you turned there was a joke about the L.A. Jaguars.  That season the Jaguars had no blackouts and sold 63,032 tickets a game, ranking 24th in the league.  They sold more tickets than the Arizona Cardinals, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders.

Jacksonville is the 2nd smallest market in the NFL.  Jacksonville has at least 500,000 fewer citizens in its metropolitan area than every other town on that list.  That’s not to make excuses.  If we want to play in the big leagues we have to play on the same footing.  But Jacksonville, pop 1,500,000, sold more tickets in 2010 than Chicago, pop 9,500,000.  Could Chicago sell more tickets with a bigger stadium?  Sure.  But have you ever heard these figures?  What impression was made by ESPN, Yahoo!, etc. about the Jaguars?  That they had the lowest attendance in the league.  That they have no fans. 

In 2011 the Jaguars were a putrid 5-11 but we still sold 62,331 tickets a game, good for 25th in the league.  Again there were no blackouts.  Again Jacksonville sold more tickets than Chicago, Miami, Arizona, Oakland, Tampa, St. Louis and Cincinnati.  Yet the perception continued.  The Jaguars need to move.  Jacksonville is not a legitimate NFL city.

Last year the Jaguars were mind-numbingly bad.  They finished 2-14, the worst record in franchise history.  At the start of the 2012 season it had been 5 years since our last playoff appearance and 13 years since we last won a division title or hosted a playoff game.  We were blown out by a combined score of 95-20 in our first 3 home games last season.  Yet we sold an average of 64,984 tickets per game.  That was good for 20th in the league.  To repeat: 20th in the league for a 2-14 team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a half a decade and hadn’t won a division in over a decade. 

Last season, suffering through the worst season in franchise history and after a decade of misery Jacksonville trounced places like Tampa, Miami and Minnesota in attendance.  Minnesota made the playoffs, yet the Jaguars drew a higher % of capacity and 4,000 more fans per game than did the Vikings and removed the tarps from some sections for 3 of the 8 home games.

Of course the tarps are Exhibit A for those who claim Jacksonville can’t support the Jaguars.  They’re the visceral representation to the uninformed that the Jaguars just can’t sell tickets. 
Why the tarps?  They are there so that our stadium is actually a reasonable NFL size.  With the tarps on the capacity of Ever Bank Field is 67,000+.  That makes it bigger than 11 other stadiums in the league.  Bigger than Chicago’s stadium.  Bigger than Pittsburgh’s. Without tarps the 2nd smallest market would have the 4th largest stadium in the league.  The stadium was intentionally built too large for the NFL because of hosting the annual Florida –Georgia game.  They could sell 100,000+ for that game.  Were it not for Florida-Georgia, our stadium would have been built smaller from the outset and there would be no tarps.
Sold out Alltel Stadium. Common in 1990's

When the team was winning, Jacksonville would routinely sell out a tarpless 73,000 seat stadium.

During the 90s? No tarps.  Not a seat in the house to be had.  In 1997 Jacksonville hosted a Monday Night game against Pittsburgh that drew 73,000 fans.  The Jaguars won when they blocked a game winning Steelers field goal attempt and ran it back for a touchdown.  Al Michaels, no stranger to the Earth moving during a broadcast, said that the stadium was literally shaking during the touchdown return and aftermath.
We are Jacksonville Jaguars fans.  We exist.

Why bother writing this?  I don’t know.  Like your children, your hometown sports team fills you with pride and unconditional love.  It is a particular and special point of pride when that team is from a town like Jacksonville.  In the past when I’d tell someone I’m from Jacksonville there would often be a pause for the look of confusion on the other person’s face and then I’d have to say “Florida”.  They’d nod in a way suggesting vague familiarity.  Now I don’t have to say “Florida”.  They know about Jacksonville.  That’s because of the Jaguars. 

Hearing your team and town relentlessly bashed over and over again with false information gets a little tiresome.  Hearing that your city is unworthy and illegitimate can hurt because by extension, that means you are unworthy and illegitimate, too.  It’s nice to have an opportunity to set the record straight.  Do we sell out every game?  No.  But that’s true throughout the league. Nobody cares about Jacksonville, so it’s easy to make fun of us.  It’s easy to form a quick opinion and move on.  Illegitimate.  No fans.  Get rid of ‘em.

I’m a 32 year-old man now.  On December 1, 1993 twelve year-old Eric ran round Fletcher Middle School in Jacksonville Beach high-fiving a bunch of other 12 and 13 year-olds.  We got a team.  We’re all in our 30’s now.  A lot of us have kids.  We love the Jaguars and we are multiplying.  We are here to stay.  We belong in the NFL. 
We are Jaguars fans.  We exist.

Eric Harrison was born and raised in Jacksonville Beach, FL.  He's now an attorney, husband and father in Lynchburg, VA.  Knowledgeable on many sports and politics, Eric is well-worth a follow on Twitter.  If you'd like to be the next contributor to the Fan's Voice series, please contact Wild Banshee via Twitter or email.

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