JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (TheStreet) -- The Jacksonville Jaguars and Buffalo Bills are playing in two of the NFL's smallest markets, but the comparison ends there for Jags fans who've avoided home game blackouts all season.
Bills fans won't be so lucky, as a local-market television blackout of Sunday's home game against the Cleveland Browns -- the third blackout for Bills fans this season -- was assured when the game wasn't sold out 72 hours before kickoff. The Jags hadn't sold out by that time, either, but their 1,700 unsold tickets qualified them for an extension from the league. Earlier today the team announced that Sunday's home game against the Oakland Raiders would be televised on
, continuing the Jaguars' blackout-free 2010 season.
That streak has just a little to do with the Jaguars' play of late, with quarterback David Garrard battling back from injuries, running back Maurice Jones-Drew rushing for more than 1,100 yards this season and the team winning four of its last five games and taking sole possession of first place in the AFC South. Some credit, however, should go to the Jaguars' subpar 7-9 campaign last year.
During that stretch, the Jaguars lost their local broadcast of seven of the season's eight home games when the team couldn't sell out EverBank Field. Potential scapegoats included the local market, which contains only 1.5 million people and joins Buffalo and Green Bay, Wisc., as the smallest markets in the league. The American City Business Journals ranked Jacksonville seventh among the NFL's 30 markets (the New York Jets and Giants and Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers share markets) in total personal income, down 1.4% since 2007.
The economy could also be blamed, considering the area's double-digit unemployment. Perhaps the housing crisis was at fault, considering that Jacksonville's housing market derived half its home sales from foreclosures earlier this year. Maybe it was just stubborn or fair-weather fans' refusal to pay the team's second-lowest-in-the-league $57 average ticket price or their choice to invest in
Sunday Ticket package instead. Maybe it's the networks' fault, with CBS,
ESPN leaving Jacksonville for dead in favor of their sweet NFL broadcast deals.
Neither the Jaguars nor their fans bought into any of it. Even before the team's recent success, the Jaguars pleaded with fans to buy ticket packages and set up "fuel gauges" for ticket sales to let fans see how their purchases could help prevent blackouts. It became a matter of pride, and Jags fans responded by adding 13,000 season ticketholders to the books. After pulling the plug on home games for most of 2009, all that stands between the Jaguars and a sold-out season -- and, potentially, a return to the playoffs -- is one Dec. 26 home game against the Washington Redskins.
Within one year, rumors of a move to Los Angeles have been quelled -- and are now the Minnesota Vikings' problem -- and questions about this mini-market's commitment to its NFL team have been quieted. If the Jags fans' fellow Floridians in Tampa, who haven't seen a Tampa Bay Buccaneers home game all season, want to avoid having their franchise targeted for a move or if execs up in Buffalo want to tone down talk about a cross-border bounce to Toronto, they should take a page from Jacksonville's playbook. Winning on the field helps, but connecting with fans and showing your base what's in it for them can lead to huge wins off the field as well.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.