With little fanfare across the NFL — but unmistakable joy inside the domestic fan base of the Jacksonville Jaguars — the contract tying London to its most familiar American football franchise ended in October.
For all intents and purposes, the Jaguars’ obligation to London expired.
Unless you are somewhere inside the orbit of the Jacksonville franchise or spend your time studying the NFL’s unrelenting drumbeat of business operations, you probably didn’t notice. But there’s a reason that London expiration is going to be of some serious importance to the NFL in 2021. Chief among them are three significant points of business involving the league and the Jaguars in the coming months. And believe it or not, the team securing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft — and presumably the future of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in a Jaguars uniform — could factor into decisions that shift hundreds of millions of dollars in NFL decisions, if not billions.
We’ll get to that in a moment. First, the serious business at hand for the NFL and the Jaguars.
What if Jaguars can’t get city to buy into ‘Lot J’ project?
For nearly three years, the Jaguars and owner Shad Khan have been pursuing the development of a mixed-use entertainment park near the stadium. Dubbed the “Lot J” project, Khan hoped to pump hundreds of millions into a complex that would deliver a financial windfall that could make his team more financially competitive in his smaller market.
It’s the kind of venture that has been promoted for years by the league’s top power brokers like the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones and New England Patriots’ Robert Kraft: Turning tracts of empty land into swaths of retail, hotel and entertainment hot spots, each aimed at turning the stadium into a year-round hub of financial activity.
Khan has also pitched the Lot J project as an opportunity for the team to remain financially competitive in the NFL. That might be important if the Jaguars were to bow out (or get booted from) their annual “home” game in London, a game that Khan pegged as producing 11 percent of the Jaguars’ total home revenue in 2019.
To say the least, the Lot J project is important to Khan, the Jaguars and in some respects, also the NFL’s bottom line. Maybe even to the point of an unambiguous (and frankly unlikely) relocation threat if things devolve. The sticking point: Khan wants investment from the city, to the tune of potentially as much as $233 million in taxpayer support and incentives, matching hundreds of millions of his own capital in the project. With a vote on the development deal slated for January, city council members are balking at the idea of doling out the money without some element of strings attached. They want to know that the Jaguars are going to stick around for the long term. And right now, that doesn’t seem like the safest bet, given that Jaguars lobbyist and outside attorney Paul Harden recently insinuated that Khan has been advised at some point to look at relocation.
That’s the gist of the NFL’s first order of business with the Jaguars. The league and other team owners want to see if the city will pony up for a development project that could make more money for the franchise — and in turn, the NFL.
Why NFL could push Jaguars to keep their London presence
All of this could impact the NFL’s second order of business with Jacksonville: Deciding whether the team will continue to factor into the league’s London presence, as it had for seven straight seasons heading into a 2020 slate that would have included two “home” games at Wembley Stadium.
That pair of London-based home games ruffled the Jaguars’ domestic fan base to the point of creating a petition opposing the move, further complicating a relationship that has long left outsiders to speculate that a permanent move overseas could be in the offing. So it came as no surprise that Jacksonville fans were happy to see the team’s contractual ties to the London game end in October, along with a declaration from Khan that nothing was “on the table” for a return. Not yet, anyway.
All of this brings the Jaguars’ “Lot J” vote into some focus, with the league more inclined to keep the Jaguars as a consistent part of the London equation if there isn’t other development to help with the Jaguars’ domestic bottom line. If the project isn’t happening, other NFL franchise owners aren’t going to sit idly by and watch the Jaguars drag on profit margins. They’re going to push for remedies. And if that means pushing the Jaguars toward more London revenue, so be it.
3 scenarios of how Trevor Lawrence impacts Jacksonville
The league’s third point of business with the franchise could have a significant impact on the previous two — even to the tune of changing the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars. It’s possibly the most important turning point in the 26-year history of the Jaguars:
The selecting of Lawrence with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
Assuming Lawrence declares for the draft and that he’s remotely close to the once-in-a-decade quarterback evaluation that many franchises have on him, the NFL is going to find itself a silver lining to Lawrence landing in one of its smallest markets rather than its biggest, which is where Lawrence was seemingly headed until the New York Jets unfathomably won back-to-back games the past two weeks. On its face, the presumption is that the NFL would rather have Lawrence in a marquee television market and rebuilding a franchise located in its biggest city. The flip side to that is Lawrence could now become a chip toward pushing the Jaguars to another level financially.
As far as the NFL is concerned, Lawrence could be the player who helps accomplish one of three things for one of its small-market teams:
Scenario 1: Lawrence successfully creates the momentum for the Jaguars to expand their fan base in the Southeast, allowing the team to push for more infrastructure investment from city coffers and eliminate what has been an annual drag on the league’s bottom line through the broadening of its business model.
Scenario 2: Lawrence successfully raises the Jaguars, but the fan base doesn’t grow considerably leaving Khan at odds with the city about surrounding stadium development and reconsidering the encouragement of other NFL team owners who prefer to see the Jaguars relocate to a larger market.
Scenario 3: Lawrence elevates the Jaguars but the team’s financial bottom line and infrastructure do not significantly improve, leaving the NFL to move toward a deeper marketing of the Jacksonville franchise and Lawrence specifically as the “star” commodity it can sell through an increased number of dedicated “home” games for the Jaguars in London. And maybe a permanent franchise relocation to London.
Any one of those three scenarios would represent a significant shift in dollars — either from the city toward the Jaguars or from the NFL’s strategic use of London or other open domestic markets as a relocation tool. Almost all of them depend on Lawrence becoming the franchise-changing player so many believe he can be. That’s a Paul Bunyan-sized load to carry for someone who isn’t even in the league yet. But you can already feel the impact, as the conversation about jobs has shifted from the Jets and other suitors squarely upon Jacksonville.
As one prospective coaching candidate said this past week when asked to shape up the NFL’s openings: “With Lawrence, Jacksonville is the top job. That’s the one.”
Lawrence isn’t the only draw. The Jaguars have an opening at general manager and are expected to have an opening at head coach when the season ends, creating the kind of clean slate “GM + coach + quarterback” synergy that can remake an entire franchise for 10 years or more. And lest anyone forget, Jacksonville is armed with the best salary-cap situation in the NFL heading into the offseason, with the bulk of its roster signed and currently more than $80 million in space to expend in a market that will be flush with free-agent options and not enough suitors. Only the New England Patriots have more money available, but far less of the current roster is signed than in Jacksonville.
Add all of this up and there is a seismic event setting up in Northern Florida. One that could change the fortunes of not only the Jaguars, but how the NFL views one of its most consistently tricky small-market teams — not to mention the slate of overseas games and the viability of London or other cities as relocation suitors.
Few draft picks in NFL history have had this much riding on them — and maybe that’s what the Jaguars have needed to remake this franchise for the next decade or more.
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