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Ten weeks into the 2009 season, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium has been one of the NFL's most buzzworthy facilities. Not for being big and flashy like the Dallas Cowboys' new billion-dollar home "it isn't" and not because it's on a farewell tour like Giants Stadium. (Not yet, at least.)
Instead, "The Jack" has been a hot topic for the national media because it's practically empty for Jaguars games.
There are over 67,000 seats in the stadium, not including almost 10,000 in the upper corners that remain covered like training wheels for drawing a "sellout" crowd. But Jacksonville sold less than 46,000 tickets on average for each of the team's first three home contests this year, with reported attendance figures closer to 40,000 per game.
The upshot? Walk-up ticket buyers can score seats that would be prime real estate in other NFL stadiums.
Lower-level tickets were available on the team's website less than a week before the game, including one in the corner of the north end zone that provided an excellent view of the Jaguars' 24-21 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
With Jacksonville residents spending their Sunday afternoons elsewhere in one of the many churches within walking distance of the stadium, perhaps the Jaguars have won three of their four home games. At 5-4 on the year, they're dark horse playoff contenders despite bidding good-bye to over half of last year's 53-man roster and starting four rookies from their 2009 draft crop.
Factor in top-tier superstars like running back Maurice Jones-Drew and cornerback Rashean Mathis, and Jacksonville's on-field product figures to be respectable for years to come. Like the team, the fan experience at The Jack isn't mind-blowing, but it has its pluses.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
"Stadium Classics" stands spread throughout the stadium cater to the traditionalist "peanuts and Cracker Jacks" crowd, selling hot dogs, sausages, popcorn, pretzels and the like for $5 apiece. For a few bucks more, though, several local-flavor niche options offer a departure from the regular: "El Gato Grande" (which translates, fittingly, to "The Big Cat") is an outpost of Burrito Gallery, a local Meixcan restaurant, and Andrew Jackson's BBQ makes a decent 'que in the trademark Florida style: sauceless, smoky, and tender.
Soft drinks are $4-$6 and beers are $5-$8 everywhere, with stiffer concoctions available for $10.
Want the camaraderie of a bar at the game, or just to get closer than a nosebleed ticket would otherwise allow? The Bud Zone, situated behind the lower-level seats in the stadium's south end zone, is a full-on sports bar, complete with rows of TVs tuned to other NFL games. In the past, this part of the stadium has been open (with no cover charge) for fans to watch the Jaguars' away playoff games and the NFL Draft.
Nothing beats a pro football stadium "even an empty one" for year-round atmosphere at a bar.
With that said, the feel of this stadium itself leaves something to be desired.
The lackluster attendance detracts from the magic of game day, to be sure. There's bustle outside the stadium and around the concourses, but not the kind of heavy human traffic that screams "This is NFL football, the place to be!" at venues like the New England Patriots' Gillette Stadium or even FedEx Field, home of the Washington Redskins' financially-exploited, pessimistic fans.
Still, those in attendance would be milling around in an atmosphere worth at least a "4" had the Jaguars not ripped out a walk-through exhibit showcasing the team's 15-year place in football history. "Decades of the NFL," marked by an overhead entrance sign featuring Jacksonville greats like Mark Brunell and Jimmy Smith, filled one side of the lower concourse, with a sprawling Jaguars logo on one wall and a visual history of NFL football on the other, as recently as last season.
In its place? A merchandise hallway shilling the same garden-variety shirts and souvenirs found in the many team shops around the stadium. From inside, it's easy to forget that The Jack is the site of "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" and the accompanying Florida-Georgia football game""every year and hosted the Super Bowl in 2004.
Churches. Lots and lots of churches. St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, St. John's Cathedral, First Presbyterian Church, Church of the Immaculate Conception, First United Methodist Church, and the nine city blocks occupied by First Baptist Church - all within a 15-minute stroll of the stadium.
Looking to take in a worship service before kickoff? Pick one.
Out-of-towners in search of other entertainment, though, have fewer options. With most of the Jacksonville Landing "a riverfront mall downtown" and surrounding shops closed until noon, even if the Jaguars' game starts at one o'clock, the immediate area around the stadium is the only part of Jacksonville that's awake.
Thanks to Tailgate Bar & Grill, which sits in a grassy lot across from the stadium's east entrance, it's not a terrible predicament.
Catering to those who aren't in with one of the many tailgates set up in lots around the stadium, Tailgate's outdoor grill cooks up $7 wings, fish, shrimp, turkey legs, and barbeque ribs ($8) in addition to burgers and dogs, and beer comes in small (16oz. - $4) and large football-shaped (44oz - $8) cups. Meanwhile, WOKV (690AM) broadcasts its Jaguars pre- and post-game shows from upstairs, starting at 10am on game days.
For a Monday or late-Sunday game, or after an early game, the Landing is worth a visit. A quiet morning stop, Jacksonville's downtown center picks up its pace as the sun sets with live music, dining options ranging from Hooters to Koja Sushi and the more-upscale Benny's Steak & Seafood, and a view of the bridges that criss-cross the St. John's River.
To be fair, the fans who fill two thirds of The Jack deserve at least a 3 rating especially those in the rowdy north end zone. They're pin-drop quiet for the Jaguars' offense and raucously loud for the defense. They wear jerseys, body paint, team-color beads, and anything else to show their support. After first downs, touchdowns, and big plays, there are high-fives for everyone around.
Most endearingly, they pick favorites apart from the team's superstar players. Tight end Ernest Wilford, in his second stint with Jacksonville after the team decided against re-signing him last year, earned respect as a red zone target in his first two years with the team and has a banner dedicated to him in the south end zone. Recently-released long snapper Joe Zelenka also enjoyed a significant following among Jaguars faithful as the NFL's only player at his position with a fan club.
But there just aren't enough butts in the seats to give these fans their full due. Those present are true-blue enough for any fan base, but almost 17,000 season ticket holders decided not to renew for the 2009 season and the city at large seems only mildly interested in its team. With the stadium at two-thirds capacity, the fans get two thirds of their grade.
Then again, that's 17,000 people who aren't taking up parking spaces near the stadium or forming lines for concessions or bathrooms. Parking in The Jack's immediate vicinity goes for $20, but $10 lots abound in all directions, including several to the west along Duval St.
After the game, leaving the stadium is a matter of painlessly shuffling out along cone-lined lanes. Traffic disperses in all directions, north and south on I-95 and west on I-10, clearing up within an hour or so of the game's final whistle.
The Jaguars realize that they aren't exactly packing this house on game days, and the price of a day at The Jack reflects that fact. Despite an on-field product that would command higher prices in every facet of the fan experience in most other NFL cities, they continue to attempt to lure Jacksonville citizens to games by reducing their impact on a fan's wallet.
One metric the NFL uses to measure its teams' affordability is the Fan Cost Index (FCI): the average price for a family of four to buy four tickets, soft drinks, and hot dogs, two small beers, programs, hats, and parking. League-wide, the average FCI is close to $415; at a Jaguars game, it's barely above $300.
For any team except the 2008 Lions, that's relatively fair. For Jacksonville, a team on the rise with enough star power to entertain, it's a bargain.
One point for the jaguar statue in front of the stadium's west entrance, whose heel is signed "Go Jags!" by team owner Wayne Weaver and dated to 1995. A great photo opportunity if there ever was one.
And another for the Jacksonville coaches' fondness for pre-game "catch." Receivers coach Todd Monken is all business with up-and-coming star receiver Mike Sims-Walker, but head coach Jack Del Rio tosses around with the players in early warm-ups and running backs coach Kennedy Pola has thrown with fans on occasion.
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