Business is booming in Duval once again thanks to a shift in culture
By Jonathan Jones
The ticketing group with the Jacksonville Jaguars were coming to the end of another losing season last December. The team was 1-12 in the middle of a pandemic, and they’re trying to sell customers on extended payment plans, access, special events and other ancillary benefits that didn’t have to do with the product on the field.
Two weeks later, the Jaguars sat at 1-14 after a loss to the Bears. But the New York Jets had just won their second consecutive game to move to 2-13, ensuring the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft would go to the Jaguars. Now customers were flooding the Jaguars with calls trying to get the best seats available for the upcoming season.
New, younger customers were calling. Season-ticket holders from years prior were calling to renew their account that had lapsed. When Urban Meyer came aboard as head coach, a second wave of calls came in. Chad Johnson, the Jaguars’ chief content officer and SVP of sales and service, wound up hiring 20 people for season-ticket sales and services.
And come next Thursday, the Jags are expecting a third and final wave that will be capped with Trevor Lawrence becoming the franchise’s No. 1 overall pick.
The Jaguars are eight days away from entering the next phase of their new era of football that has already included a change in the primary home jersey color, from black, to fan-favorite teal, and an increase in behind-the-scenes football resources that were required for Meyer to take the job.
The team will roll out new branded messaging post-draft as well, with taglines and strategies that Meyer involved himself on at times.
All of that should culminate in the team selling out its 100- and 200-level season-ticket allotment shortly after the draft, allowing the ticket office to turn its focus toward single-game tickets for the 2021 season. And that’s the funny thing about potential. In less than four months, the Jaguars will have gone from their worst on-field year in team history to its most successful off the field.
“And 2018, coming off that AFC championship run, was our best financial year as a franchise,” Johnson tells CBSSports.com. “And as we look where we sit today, our numbers are pacing at similar levels to 2018 and our expectations are that we will surpass those numbers and that this will be our best financial year. So we feel we’re very much set up for success.”
The marketing plan
Julian Duncan came to Jacksonville in 2018 after stints with Nike and Under Armour and has yet to experience a winning season with the team. Upon arrival, the Jaguars chief marketing officer went around to people inside and outside the building to get their views on the team and found “that there was a lot of negative vibes” surrounding the team with one winning season since 2008.
Then he asked a simple question: “What do you want the Jacksonville Jaguars to stand for?” That’s when he heard people say that Jacksonville is a city that’s about hustle, where southern hospitality is aplenty. Where residents like to earn their keep and where there’s a big, bright future ahead for the city.
So for the past 18 or so months, Duncan and his team have built a brand identity around some of those concepts that will be unveiled following the draft.
Yes, this is a team that has a strong relationship with London — by far the strongest of any NFL team. The Jaguars lead the league in games played overseas, and team owner Shad Khan once tried to purchase Wembley Stadium three years ago.
But even if one home game per year (or more) is played in the U.K., the Jaguars want it to be known that they are committed to Jacksonville. Khan and his employees will say “judge us by our actions” when asked about the franchise’s interest in London.
There have been tens of millions in stadium upgrades, various community investments over the years and an attempt at a public-private partnership for an entertainment district near the stadium that ultimately failed in local government by one vote. At an event two years ago marking the team’s 25th anniversary in Jacksonville, Khan said “25 years from now, here we will be.”
The Jaguars were never contenders to move to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, and since Khan took over in 2011 the days of local TV blackouts are long gone. But the Jaguars are still a far cry from being “the hottest ticket in the business” as Khan hoped for a decade ago. The 7.2% increase in the average renewal season-ticket price still keeps the Jaguars as one of the most affordable tickets in the league.
Face of the franchise
No one person will determine how hot a Jaguars ticket is than Lawrence, whose talents brought Meyer out of retirement and will pack stands this fall. According to sources, his comments published last week in Sports Illustrated caught some in the Jaguars’ building by surprise. And it’s unlikely Lawrence will take part in another interview with an independent outlet between now and next Thursday.
The quarterback told SI “it’s not like I need (football) for my life to be OK” and that “I don’t have this huge chip on my shoulder, that everyone’s out to get me and I’m trying to prove everybody wrong.”
Over the weekend he felt the need to clarify his statements and the sentiments around them in a three-tweet thread. (And since this is a piece on marketing, it’s worth noting Lawrence is reportedly set to sign with adidas even though he wore Nikes in the SI photoshoot.)
His comments will be interpreted depending on your motivations. Need to embrace debate? You wonder if he has that true edge to be one of the all-time greats. Looking for more nuance? You see a 21-year-old married Christian man who believes there has to be more to life than what you do for a living.
It may not be what most fans want to hear. I doubt the Jaguars are preparing Lawrence billboards across northeast Florida to read “DUUUUUVAL: I don’t need you.”
One reading of Lawrence’s original comments would put him at odds with Meyer’s vision of a locker room filled with “the most competitive people on the planet.” But the head coach has already referred to him as a “competitive maniac” who “wants to become the best version of himself for the National Football League, which is, well, it is somewhat refreshing.”
When Duncan and I spoke the day following the story’s publication, he found the comments “super interesting.”
“I think what we’re going to see in not only him but other athletes coming up, you’re going to see a real strong generational expression that we probably haven’t seen. They’re Gen Z,” Duncan, 44, said. “Before they’re athletes, they’re from a different generation. And that generation informs how they actually see the world, which you can kind of see loudly and clearly coming through in that article.”
A winning brand
And it’s that open mindedness that will lead the business side of the Jaguars into this new era. Meyer and GM Trent Baalke hired veteran PR maven Amy Palcic to head the team’s football communications. Meyer, known as a program and brand builder at Florida and Ohio State, has gotten even more involved.
Duncan notes Meyer’s psychology degree and how the coach “likes to dig into how people think and mindsets.” He wants to understand the differences among social media platforms, what the brand should stand for and what the future should look like for the Jaguars.
So often when a sports franchise turns the page to a new chapter, there’s talk about “culture.” It’s a nebulous term that’s usually loosely defined. To get out of the NFL‘s doldrums, the Jaguars will need to clearly define its new culture.
When I ask Duncan what that culture means, he flashes some National Geographic knowledge before tying it all together.
“If you think about the jaguar — our mascot, our totem — it’s an apex predator. Nothing hunts a jaguar. It has no natural predators,” Duncan says. “There are some other characteristics that go along with being a jaguar, being powerful, resourceful, creative, opportunistic. Those are all transferable apex qualities over to being a marketeer. And if you want to live up to being an apex marketeer, you’ve got to do the right things with respect to your culture.
“Coach Urban has come in and he’s doing something very similar. He sets it out as the leader: here’s what success looks like, and here are the things that we need to do collectively to get to that place of success.
“It’s more of a cultural shift that you see happening in the building. And that shift actually works because there’s alignment at the very top. And when you’ve got that kind of alignment going on at the top, it can’t help but cascade throughout the football side and the business side.”