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Football Notes

Teams finding their product is a tougher sell

By Albert R. Breer
Globe Staff / July 4, 2010

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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 [Microsoft tycoon Paul] Allen as owner, because he’s so open to these things and wants to do them,’’ Rizzardini said. “And it also helps to have a fan base that expects it. It’s part of our culture here. People expect cutting-edge technology.’’

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.’’

PRIORITIZING PROPERLY

McCloughan gets his house in order

Scot 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.

THE NEW DEALS

Ways of doing business changing

With 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.

ETC.

Favre’s getting ahead with summer school

Brett 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.

Bills have a long-term plan
The arrival of Buffalo’s new regime was headlined by the promotion of 70-year-old national scout Buddy Nix to general manager and the hiring of 58-year-old Chan Gailey as coach. That ran counter to hopes in Buffalo that the team would infuse young blood into the organization. But a coup of a hire flew under the radar. The Bills were able to lure the respected pro scouting coordinator of the Steelers, Doug Whaley, out of Pittsburgh. Steelers front-office types don’t usually defect to begin with, but given that Whaley, 38, grew up in western Pennsylvania, played at Pitt, and was considered a rising star in the organization, landing him was a major win for Buffalo. Whaley was a college scout with Seattle from 1996-98, and spent the last 10 seasons with the Steelers. He’s considered a future GM, and the Chiefs showed interest in him in late 2008 for the job that went to Scott Pioli. The idea in Buffalo is that Nix — whose work as Chargers assistant GM helped build San Diego into a juggernaut — will be the leader on the college side, and Whaley will be point man on the pro side. And Whaley will be groomed as Nix’s heir.

Rookies get a reality check
The NFL’s rookie symposium concluded last Wednesday, and one of the most powerful messages was sent by ex-Vikings receiver Cris Carter. “You better watch your money,’’ he told the assembly of draft picks. “Because when you get old like me, you better know that you still got some money. You’re the one out there making it. You’re the one out there risking your neck.’’ It’s helpful to the players individually to heed the message, but it’s just as important for them collectively, as their union braces for the labor unrest ahead. Executive director DeMaurice Smith has instructed players to hold back 25 percent of their salaries, so they can withstand a work stoppage without putting the players’ association’s negotiating position in peril. Where Smith has to worry is with the rank-and-file, and that now includes rookies. The average NFL career lasts less than four years, meaning the majority of the league is made up players in their mid-20s or younger, and those are the free-spending types who may lack the financial wherewithal to stand by their union while forgoing paychecks.

Coryell belongs in rarefied air
Don Coryell’s death last week at age 85 brought to light his contributions to not just the league, but the sport as a whole. And that’s why his Hall of Fame candidacy is fascinating. In the ultimate team game, winning championships is paramount, and is the one factor keeping Coryell out of Canton. But if you look at Coryell’s impact on the sport — the only coach to win 100 games in both college and the pros — there’s no question he’s worthy. John Madden and Joe Gibbs both coached under Coryell, and later won Super Bowls. Further down the coaching tree, Norv Turner and Mike Martz led historically acclaimed offensive groups to multiple Super Bowls. In the end, Coryell was very much to the vertical passing game what Bill Walsh was to the short-range aerial attack. Maybe Coryell’s death will spur a reevaluation of his legacy. As Gibbs said, “Here is a guy that was successful coaching at a small college, a major college, and two different pro stops. He truly was an icon.’’

Three and out
It’s very difficult to blame Chris Johnson for his drive to get a new contract in Tennessee, which is severely hamstrung by the rules of the uncapped year. And it’s not just because of his off-the-charts production, but also the position he plays. Tailbacks age in dog years and Johnson just set the NFL record for yards from scrimmage at age 24. He’ll be 27 when his five-year rookie deal expires, but at 200 pounds and carrying the load he is now, honoring that contract would represent enormous financial risk . . . If the Michael Vick situation gets worse, and the Eagles are forced to look for a veteran reinforcement at quarterback, they’d be well-served to steer clear of Jeff Garcia. Even if he does have loads of experience in the system, Garcia has always been the kind of backup to breathe down a starter’s neck, not support his development, which is not what Philly needs for Kevin Kolb, stepping into Donovan McNabb’s sizable cleats . . . It’s a sure bet that plenty of NFL types will be paying Pat Tillman their respects today. His tale remains fascinating, and if you want to learn more about it, a hard-hitting, big-screen documentary titled “The Tillman Story’’ is set for an Aug. 20 release.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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