As the 2005 NFL season drew near, there were plenty of reasons to be excited about the Jacksonville Jaguars’ upcoming season.
The team was coming off of its first winning season in five years, in just their second year under head coach Jack Del Rio. Star running back Fred Taylor was still in his prime, the team’s defensive line featured the scary combination of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, and a young Byron Leftwich was showing (misleading) flashes of potential. The city was also coming off a successful – though at times embarrassing – stint as the host of the Super Bowl earlier in the year. Football should’ve been hotter than ever in Jax.
But instead, the decision was made by then-owner Wayne Weaver to cover 9,713 seats in what was then known as ALLTEL Stadium, in anticipation of poor ticket sales.
It was far from an unreasonable move, despite the team’s upward swing at the time. The Jags ended up having 12 out of 16 of their home games blacked out on local television in the two seasons prior to the tarp being installed, as NFL rules at the time required blackouts on any home game that wasn’t sold out.
The team then sold out every game in 2005, thanks to having just under 10,000 less tickets to sell.
Now, thirteen years later, the Jags have announced that they will do away with the tarps for the 2018 season, increasing the stadium’s capacity to just under 70,000.
For some, it may not seem that important. Because of various renovations over the years, removing the tarps will now only add 3,501 seats. And the NFL has since relaxed its blackout policies, meaning the tarps haven’t served a real function – other than inflating stadium stats – for at least the past three years.
But the symbolic importance of shedding those unsightly tarps cannot be understated.
When Weaver first installed the tarps in ’05, the move was widely ridiculed around the sports world. After all, a team that had led the league in revenue just a decade earlier was conceding its inability to sell enough tickets to even stay on local television. Fans from other teams who frequently fell victim to blackout policies bemoaned the move as unfair – both mocking the tarps and, ironically, demanding that the league allow their teams to use them as well.
And the embarrassment only compounded itself when, even after the addition of the tarps, the team still couldn’t sell out games consistently. The team had to black out all but one of its games locally in 2009 – four years after the tarp was installed.
Obviously, by this point, the on-field product wasn’t helping. After finishing 11-5 in 2007, the team failed to finished over .500 for a full decade.
This could’ve easily been the end of the road for the “Jacksonville” Jaguars. Weaver, tired of losing money on a losing team, was ready to sell, and the buzz around the league was that any new ownership group coming in would probably want to move the team out of Jax.
But instead, the city took an active interest in keeping the franchise at just the right time. Following the abysmal ticket sales in 2009, the city launched an initiative aimed at increasing sales and also found a new sponsor, EverBank, for its stadium. The team then saw the league’s biggest attendance increase the following season.
Without that uptick in local support, it’s hard to believe that Weaver would’ve convinced Illinois-based businessman Shahid Khan to take a chance on the Jags – and more importantly, on the city of Jacksonville.
Khan took over and immediately began enacting changes aimed at improving fan experience. He planned out massive stadium renovation projects with the city’s help, adding gimmicky draws such as swimming pools and giant scoreboards. He hired a new team president, Mark Lamping, and the two shared a similar long-term goal: ditch the tarps.
The renovations continued, with the southern end zone becoming an entertainment zone adjacent to Daily’s Place, a massive new amphitheater.
And gradually, despite an inferior on-field product, going to Jags games became fun again. The team began to consistently fill at least 90% of the stadium, even as it delivered one atrocious performance after another, because now there were ways to have fun in and around the stadium even if the Jags were losing.
All the while, Khan trusted that making smart personnel decisions would eventually bring the on-field product up to par with his renovations.
Last season, that vision was finally realized. The Jags were a few questionable calls away from the Super Bowl – and will begin next season as an early favorite.
And for the first time in thirteen years, the tarps came off – temporarily – to offer more fans a chance at seeing the team’s first playoff game in a decade. Those extra seats sold out within an hour of being made available.
So now, entering what may be the franchise’s most pivotal season yet, Khan and the Jags will take a leap of faith and remove those tarps permanently. It represents a major uptick in the level of confidence Jags executives have in their fan base, and takes away one of the stadium’s most frequently derided “features”.
Again, to some, they’re just tarps.
But to others, they’re symbolic of an era of being the NFL’s punching bag, the laughing-stock of the sports world. And their removal is an equally symbolic statement: those days are over, and they’re not coming back.