Teams finding their product is a tougher sell
The Jacksonville Jaguars’ problem selling tickets could have the most severe of consequences.
The threat of the team relocating is so real, in fact, that its website already has declared a call to arms for the fan base to save the franchise.
But the truth is that many of the issues the Jaguars are sorting through are shared by the NFL’s 31 other teams. The economy stinks. Unemployment is high. And the game experience at home is so good that it makes driving through snarls of traffic, paying through the nose, and missing a lot of other football an unworthy pursuit.
“Fans’ expectations with the prices being where they are, they’re expecting a good time, they don’t want drunk fans spilling beer all over them, they want a courteous, helpful staff, and a good overall experience,’’ said Jaguars vice president and chief financial officer Bill Prescott. “Our biggest competitor, everyone’s biggest competitor, is HDTV. There’s no doubt, to view a game in your own living room, the beer is colder and cheaper, the restroom is closer, and there’s no line.
“As a team, we need to deliver something they can’t get on TV.’’
There were 22 blackouts league-wide last year, up from nine in 2009. Those were confined to five teams — Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland, St. Louis, and Jacksonville — and 14 of them were home games of the Jaguars and Raiders.
But in some ways, those numbers serve as the proverbial lipstick on a pig.
The Buccaneers, for example, were sweating out blackouts week to week, and wound up having to buy the final tickets on multiple occasions to keep the games on television locally. As a result, the organization made a decision this offseason to shed some pride by going public with the problem.
In a market where unemployment has risen at the steepest rate nationally, and where a real estate crisis has been ongoing for years, the Bucs have plastered billboards all over the city pumping the sales of $35 tickets and $25 passes for kids to get in on game day.
Even in traditionally strong markets there have been problems. The Jets and Giants held open practices at their new stadium in mid-June to try to attract customers to boost premium seating and sales of personal seat licenses.
On the opposite coast, the Seahawks have seen their season-ticket renewal rate fall by 8 percent over the last three years. Seattle’s extensive waiting list for season tickets, of course, ensures that those voids will be filled, but the club doesn’t plan to ignore the changing climate.
“People’s time is that much more precious these days, with all the other things they can do,’’ said Seahawks chief operating officer John Rizzardini, a Rhode Island native. “People are more cautious about how they spend their time and money. We have to be cognizant of that, to make the game-day experience that much easier for them, win or lose.
“We can’t control the outcome of the game. But we can control how they feel about the experience.’’
Rizzardini said the most obvious difference in the fan today, versus five or 10 years ago, is the “need for instant information.’’
The NFL took a big step in that regard in moving to provide the RedZone Channel — a part of the Sunday Ticket package that brings critical plays from all the games to one place — in all 31 stadiums. But teams are aware that they can’t stop there.
The Seahawks’ big renovation now, rather than any brick-and-mortar project at Qwest Field, is to improve bandwidth in the area surrounding their stadium. That will make it easier for fans to use the smartphone app the club is in the process of developing to add to the game-day experience.
“It helps to have [
Patriots president Jonathan Kraft chairs the NFL’s digital media committee and has been at the forefront of these kinds of ventures, so the home team can be expected to be involved in this as well.
For some teams, like the Patriots and Seahawks, it’s a matter of keeping the fans coming and keeping them happy. For the Jaguars, who have covered sections of their stadium to reduce capacity from 78,000 to 67,000, it’s a matter of survival.
The city is trying to rally to keep the team, which many believe to be a futile fight, but some of the club’s problems are just a supersized version of the pinch felt league-wide.
“We can’t sit back,’’ said Prescott. “We have to be proactive and solve the problem, instead of waiting for the economy to fix it.’’
McCloughan gets his house in orderScot McCloughan lived in the cot-in-the-office culture for so long that crazy seemed normal. Three months ago, the then-49ers general manager reached for sanity to make that wrong right again and get his family back.
McCloughan is back in the game after a three-month hiatus, working as the Seahawks’ senior football executive. But he’s a different man, with an overhauled outlook on life and football and the way the two intersect.
“I understand now that the job can’t consume your life,’’ the 39-year-old said last week. “I’m still young, and I still love football. But it was consuming my life, and it’s just not as important as your health or taking care of your family.’’
After the 2009 season, McCloughan resolved to take an honest look in the mirror after 16 years in the business. And he didn’t like what he saw. So he and the 49ers’ ownership started dialogue that concluded with his departure in March.
McCloughan started in San Francisco in 2005 as personnel chief for new coach Mike Nolan. In 2008, Nolan was fired and replaced by first-time coach Mike Singletary. That December, Jed York, then 27, was promoted to president as his parents, principal owners John York and Denise DeBartolo York, pushed away from the operation.
And what it meant was what started as a pure football job had become so much more. And instead of changing and adapting, McCloughan was cramming more on his plate. He acknowledges now, “I got spread so thin, I could never catch up.’’
“I got almost numb,’’ he added. “And I had no one to blame but myself. I was losing my family, and I sat back and had to think about that. As we know in this business, jobs come and go. Family doesn’t. Those three kids, you’ve got a chance to impact their lives, and I wanted to be a part of that.’’
Last month, he had things in order well enough to consider opportunities in Green Bay and Seattle, places where ex-colleagues Ted Thompson and John Schneider run the personnel side. He chose the Seahawks, who will allow him to stay in Northern California and work as a sort of national college scout.
He’ll hit the road to look at prospects in the fall, which is a return to his roots in football. McCloughan and the Seahawks plan to go through 2010 with this arrangement, and discuss an expanded role next year. For now, McCloughan knows how having a new lease on his personal life will make him better professionally.
“With football, I always felt like the more I worked, the better the team would do, and that’s not always the case,’’ he said.
Ways of doing business changingWith training camps opening at the end of the month, it’s clear that the flow of rookie contract negotiations is just one more place where the uncapped environment has not just upset the apple cart, but flipped it on its side.
More than two-thirds of the 156 players drafted in the final four rounds in April are under contract, a far higher number than accustomed at this juncture. Conversely, not a single first- or second-round pick has signed.
Clubs and agents expect difficult negotiations with high picks and, according to those making these deals, it seems both have decided to get the lower-round contracts — which generally are formulaic — out of the way early to clear the decks for the tougher contracts.
First among the complications is a logistical factor. Rookie deals for high picks have long had a large piece of their guaranteed value tucked into a second-year option bonus (a mechanism to keep it from counting against a team’s rookie pool and ease cash flow). But with this year’s class, chances are good those bonuses will be due at the onset of a lockout.
So that player will go into the lockout without that money, and if there is no 2011 league year, it gives the team room to argue that the bonus never came due. That means agents will need to have language inserted protecting players drafted in the top 45 or so in these deals, which is where all this takes a wayward turn.
“Teams are going to be hesitant to put new language in the deals until a CBA is reached,’’ said one agent set to be involved in first-round contract talks. “They’re hesitant to start changing in the first place.’’
Someone has to go first and, as another agent of a first-rounder said, “the first to sign is either getting a great deal or a [bad] one. And I’m betting on the latter.’’
Which is what scares these guys off in the first place.
More worrisome to the high picks is the dynamic many thought was at work with restricted free agents Vincent Jackson, Marcus McNeill, and Logan Mankins — solidarity among clubs to play hardball.
“Teams are going to try to put it on a player,’’ said a third agent in the first-round mix. “The risk is that if a situation like [Michael Crabtree’s 2009 holdout] occurs, they can put the pressure on and say, ‘You won’t get paid for two years.’ ’’
Each agent said he believes teams will wise up in the long run, act in good faith, and avoid poisoning relationships that are just beginning. Still, all have their radar up, and that’s making for tepid negotiations.
Favre’s getting ahead with summer schoolBrett Favre was back tossing the ball around last week with students at Oak Grove High School near his home in Hattiesburg, Miss., months after undergoing ankle surgery that was a sure sign that he’s trying to return for a 20th NFL season. But his landing in Minnesota figures to be a much softer one than last year’s. Before his mid-August arrival, there was a sense of resentment among some players about Favre missing a large chunk of training camp. But above that, coach Brad Childress’s credibility was on the line. Because of his handling of a situation involving former Viking Troy Williamson in 2007, and the benching of Tarvaris Jackson in 2008, some players already had trust issues with their coach, and had the Favre situation gone wrong early, he may well have lost his grip on the locker room. The calculated gamble paid off, as Favre quickly won his teammates over and the Vikings started 10-1. A year later, the Minnesota players know of Favre’s capabilities and determination, and that Childress was right last year. So while the cameras may camp out in Hattiesburg for the next month or so, the Viking ship won’t be rocked by uncertainty.
Albert R. Breer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.