The Jacksonville Jaguars have long been accused of wanting to beat feet out of town because, well, “Jacksonville” explains it as well as anything, I guess. Whether it’s to London, where current boss Shahid Khan is watching his Premier League team Fulham accelerate its plan to return to the safety of the Championship, or St. Louis, which is still locked in a lawsuit with Rams owner/waxwork Stan Kroenke, or Area 51, or Krakatoa … well, you get the point.
But Khan has always dismissed the notion with some platitude about being committed to the city and blah-blah-blah-de-blah-blah . . . until now. Now, club president Mark Lamping is playing stern uncle and saying that the city would have to come up with major stadium renovations that would pass a 75 percent vote of the other NFL owners before Khan would even consider signing a lease extension.
Now guess what this little bullying gambit sounds like, and your first guess will be how the Rams relocated to their ancestral Los Angeles home. Your second will be how the Raiders found their geographical soulmate on The Strip.
In an interview with columnist Gene Frenette of the Jacksonville Times-Union, Lamping spelled the game out clearly. Either the city comes up with more than half of the cash needed for the $450 million sprucing-up for “developments and incentives,” including $50 million for an outdoor entertainment district, around $90 million for infrastructure upgrades and an interest-free $65 million loan to Khan, who as the fifth wealthiest team owner is worth a paltry $7.9 billion, or…
The “or” isn’t spelled out, but the message is clear, and the m.o. is clearer still. Without the money, the lease won’t be extended, and it won’t be Khan’s fault. It’ll be the league’s decision, and well, what can a lonely billionaire do?
Well, he could pay for his own upgrades (5.6 percent of that net worth), but billionaires don’t get to be billionaires by picking up every check. This is the blackjack play, where you pay the gambler to make the bet and if he wins he keeps the money, and if you don’t, he hits you with a blackjack and goes to another table to make the same offer to another sucker.
But the NFL has entered its relocation mania stage, with three teams having moved in the past five years and more willing to slap an industrial-strength chokehold on the local mayor to get free money, then complain that it isn’t enough and eventually haul ass out of town.
The kicker with Jacksonville is that it has been mentioned endlessly as the logical and likeliest team to go to London to begin the league’s colonization of the old world. Whether this happens or not depends largely on the possibility of expansion to other parts of Europe (which means your forlorn team could be next), or in the shorter term, as a way to avoid losing the St. Louis lawsuit. They could even do the old Canadian Football League trick of making up an imaginary team and waving it in front of a city (Halifax) and saying, “Stadium me or I can never leave the netherworld of your imagination.”
This has time to play itself out, to be sure. For one, the city could cave. For two, the city could joust with the team and then cave. For three, the team could endlessly threaten to leave until the city caves. For four, the team could leave. There is no fifth option. It’s how this always plays, and it is just another example of what the NFL really is:a banking and real estate holding company with mesomorphic statuary. Football is just the thing it uses as bait, and in the case of the Jags, it’s lousy bait. The Raiders have lost a lot in recent years but it had a history that hooked two unfortunate towns before Nevada stepped up. Jacksonville just has a rich guy with a hammer looking for a plank.
It will work because Florida has a long established tradition of doing anything to anything to host someone else’s amusement. Jacksonville politicians will hump up the money because they think the Jaguars have a special hold on the community (read: re-election). Khan will want more than the original deal, and Lamping will trot out and explain why the league will look poorly upon civic hesitation, let alone refusal. And you wouldn’t want to make the league cross because you know how Jerry Jones can be.
And in the end, somebody ends up sleeping with a horse’s head. Sure it’s an old plot line, but to a rich guy, what’s a horse more or less?