The Jacksonville Jaguars want to be London’s team, at least on a part-time basis.
Playing an annual home game across the pond is imperative to the long-term viability of the franchise in Jacksonville. It boosts local revenue. It increases sponsorships. It masks some of the financial challenges associated with being in one of the league’s smallest markets.
It’s what the Jaguars (3-4) have done each of the last five years and what they will do for the sixth consecutive season Sunday against defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia (3-4). It’s also a game they hope to keep on the schedule well into the future.
It has nothing to do with the advantage Jacksonville believes it has against opponents unaccustomed to making the lengthy trip that tends to screw with internal body clocks. It’s about the all-important bottom line.
“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure we don’t lose London as a key contributor to what we’re doing here in Jacksonville,” Jaguars team president Mark Lamping said last week.
Owner Shad Khan tried to strengthen the franchise’s foothold in London by bidding $790 million (£600 million) on Wembley Stadium in April. He withdrew his offer for the English Football Association’s main asset last week after recognizing the extent of opposition to the sale.
Khan and the Jaguars insist the move was never intended to create a potential relocation spot for the NFL team but rather a way to gain more control over American football in the burgeoning British market. It also would have funneled more money back to Jacksonville.
“Owning Wembley was never the silver bullet to financial stability for the Jaguars,” Lamping said. “It was one plank in a very long bridge that we’re trying to build, so we have to find a replacement plank.”
Down-the-road solutions are clear, yet complicated.
Khan has partnered with a real estate developer on a proposed $2.5 billion revitalization/entertainment district outside Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field and stretching along the St. Johns River. The project would require significant financial support from the city, including a massive cleanup of a parking lot built on petroleum-contaminated soil.
If it breaks ground, it would eventually give Khan another revenue source to go along with the 5,500-seat amphitheater the city and the Jaguars constructed outside the south end zone.
Khan already has spent $76 million on Jacksonville’s public-owned stadium, improvements that include renovations to premium seating areas, an indoor practice facility, the amphitheater, the installation of the world’s largest scoreboards, two pools and a revamped locker room and weight room.
The entertainment district could be years away, which is part of what made buying Wembley so appealing.
“The fact that it’s not going to happen, that puts pressure on us to find other ways to generate the revenue that would have come from there,” Lamping said. “I’m confident that we’ll do that. But from a financial standpoint, it’s not necessarily a positive; it’s certainly a negative. It’s a negative that through creativity we should be able to overcome.”
The Jaguars are under contract to play one home game at Wembley every year through 2020. The deal Khan struck with the NFL for those games grants the Jaguars extended territorial rights in the United Kingdom, as well as all the ticket revenue at the 90,000-seat stadium.
That gate accounted for 11 percent of Jacksonville’s local revenue in 2017.
Owning Wembley would have allowed the Jaguars to play there indefinitely and provided them additional revenue from food and beverage sales and suite rentals for any non-NFL events held there.
Other NFL teams have figured out the financial windfall of playing overseas, which is why there’s no longer a shortage of hosts willing to move home games abroad. After Sunday’s game, only three teams — Carolina, Green Bay and Houston — will have never played in London.
Jacksonville would be amicable to having back-to-back games over there, too, but only if one is as a visitor. It could happen next season since Oakland, which is without a home for 2019, hosts the Jaguars.
“The Jags have built exceptional relationships locally — with fans, with Wembley and the FA, with local boroughs, with the Mayor of London and the national government,” said Mark Waller, the NFL’s executive vice president of international and events. “We are thrilled with how their presence reinforces the NFL’s commitment to grow the sport here.”
Jacksonville has several full-time employees in London to handle year-round marketing, including a number of events designed to grow American football abroad, and has seen a 300-percent increase in the team’s London-based fan club over the last five years.
Still, there are no guarantees the team will be able to extend its deal with the NFL after 2020, which is the final season before the league’s collective bargaining agreement expires, or be able to maintain territorial marketing rights.
“Suffice to say their commitment is long-term and they are passionate about it, and we see that reflected in everything they do,” Waller said.
Relocation rumors and reports have been as much a part of the Jacksonville franchise as inaugural coach and current top executive Tom Coughlin.
It was Los Angeles for years and London of late. Since agreeing to buy the team for $770 million in 2011, Khan has maintained his commitment to keeping it in Jacksonville and finding creative ways to make it work in a market that ranked 29th in the NFL in population, 30th in per capita income and 30th in gross domestic product.
He took pride in Jacksonville not being mentioned in the conversations about L.A. before the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers landed there and took exception to speculation that buying Wembley would prompt the team to move to logistically challenged London.
“I know it frustrates Shad,” Lamping said. “You don’t do the type of stuff of that’s he’s doing, you don’t invest the type of money that he’s investing, if you’re planning to leave.
“Hopefully, at some point in time, we’ll be judged fully by our actions and not what speculators choose to say.”
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