The Jacksonville Jaguars’ recent announcement they are to play two “home” games at Wembley next season was met with the usual fanfare. But in north Florida, the reaction has been angry. In a season in which clubs are guaranteed only 8 home games, the team will play a quarter of their home games more than 4,000 miles away.
The Jaguars have been in the hands of Fulham owner Shahid Khan since 2012 and have played a “home” game in London every year since 2013, but the move to bring an additional match to Wembley has caused fan group Bold City Brigade to form a protest group, the Duval Coalition, which claims to have the backing of 23,440 fans and 825 local business.
That the Jaguars have reached the NFL play-offs only once in Khan’s tenure has only deepened the resentment. All the while, questions persist.
“I honestly don’t know what the future holds for Khan, the Jaguars and London,” says Nate Monroe, a city hall columnist of Jacksonville newspaper The Florida Times-Union. “I think that’s a big part of the problem, frankly. Khan is not being transparent with the Jacksonville fan base.
“Since Khan purchased the team, the city government and the Jaguars have completed several large upgrades of TIAA Bank Field [the Jags’ stadium] – with the city often an equal or more-than-equal financing partner,” Monroe says.
“In 2013, for example, the City Council approved a $63 million [about £48.4m] series of upgrades. That paid for installing a gigantic video board as well as various other upgrades, including a pool. The city paid $43m; Khan paid $20m.
“More recently, the city provided $45m in financing for an amphitheatre, flex field and smaller stadium improvements [which Khan is believed to have matched]. Now, he is asking the city to pony up about $233m for an entertainment centre, as well as a larger hotel, retail and restaurant district. There is no specific legislation spelling out what Khan or his business partner will commit to this, so the specifics are not yet clear.”
In a league that earns the lion’s share of its cash from TV deals, though, Jacksonville is small-time. Only three NFL teams play in smaller TV markets in the United States.
“Jacksonville without a doubt is a small-market NFL city,” Monroe says. “But Khan knew that when he purchased the team for $770m. Today, the Jaguars are worth $2.3 billion, according to the latest Forbes estimate, and there is really no evidence Jacksonville’s size has prevented Khan from making loads of money. In fact, Jacksonville outperforms its market size. The team has increased its local revenue year after year.”
So what’s next? The Jags told i last summer that Khan hadn’t ruled out buying Wembley in the future, despite pulling out of a £600m bid to buy the national stadium in October 2018.
“We know, for example, that he is making this huge $233m ask from [Jacksonville],” says Monroe. “We also know that he’ll be coming back right after that seeking either a new stadium or massive renovations to the existing one. Why can’t he lay all this out now? He’s been piecemealing these huge asks and acts, for each one, as if it’s a make-or-break decision.”
One of the charges against keeping the team in Jacksonville, though, is attendances dropped by 9.7 per cent in 2019, according to the Sports Business Daily website, while Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer wrote last week:
“The city simply hasn’t grown the way it hoped it would when it was granted a franchise in 1995.”
Monroe says: “The crowds were down because the team is putrid. As for growth, this is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States. This is a growing area in one of the fastest-growing states.”