by Mike Sharkey
The pitch, if you can call it that, is short and sweet: The Jaguars need help selling tickets and you are part of the answer. It’s not quite like that, but when it’s coming from First Union/Wachovia president Bob Helms, the sales pitch may look formal, but it has the air of a happy hour cold one.
For the first time in the eight-year history of the Jacksonville Jaguars the team is struggling to sell season tickets. A myriad of elements have conspired to create an almost 14,000 ticket shortfall — the team must sell about 67,000 tickets to avoid a blackout — heading into the 2002 season: high ticket prices, multi-year commitments, a disparity in amenities for fans and two consecutive losing seasons after making the playoffs the previous four years. And, for the first time, the Jaguars and the Chamber of Commerce have asked the local business community to help the cause by creating the “Get in the Game” ticket initiative.
Enter Helms and Winston Wilkinson, the regional president North Florida Administration of First Union Corporation. Together, they have spearheaded the ticket drive and held several meetings in First Union’s board room over the past two weeks with local CEOs urging them to purchase blocks of tickets in the 30-500 range.
Helms and Wilkinson targeted the area’s top 150 CEOs in hopes they would purchase enough season tickets in advance to prevent any of this season’s games from being blacked out locally. Although it’s too early to tell what extent the initiative has worked, Helms did say he thinks it’s working.
“I think it has gone well,” said Helms Thursday morning after hosting another dozen or so CEOs and business leaders, including Jeff Spence of ICS Logistics and the developer of the Shipyards projects, JAA’s John Clark, former Jaguars tight end Rich Griffith and Penny Thompson of Shands, who is also a member of the Downtown Development Authority.
“When we hold these, we ask the business leaders to go away and consider what they want to do,” continued Helms. “Typically, they consult with their employees. We do not get a response the next day, but three or four days later. We’ve had about a dozen large commitments so far.”
First Union was the first to purchase 500 season tickets and Zurich Insurance Services, owned by Jaguars minority owner Tom Petway, matched First Union shortly thereafter.
During his brief presentation, Helms stresses several points. One, there isn’t much time — the Jags preseason home opener is Aug. 16 against Tampa Bay, the regular season opener is Sept. 8 against Indianapolis and neither game is sold out.
“I doubt that anyone here isn’t clear about why we’re here,” said Helms. “We need to establish our position. Aug. 16 is less than three weeks away and there is a serious ticket deficiency. We are about 14,000 tickets short and that’s a pretty significant number. We have a very short time frame and that’s the challenge.”
Two, the Jaguars and owner Wayne Weaver have a reputation to uphold within the NFL and the league’s other 31 owners. To Helms, having several games blacked out would be a detriment to that stature, especially considering the league rewarded Jacksonville with the 2005 Super Bowl.
“It’s in the very best interest of the community to not have games blacked out. One or two is understandable,” said Helms. “We have a good reputation with the NFL , so timing is important. I wouldn’t want to do anything to damage that reputation.”
Three, for the first time in team history, the Jaguars have significantly lowered ticket prices, eliminated the multi-year commitment and created an easy payment plan for fans. With percentage discounts available, businesses can buy upper level tickets for their employees and clients for less than $20 a month.
“The idea of being able to buy tickets for $16 a month is incredible,” said Helms of the 20 percent discount provided by the team for ticket packages of 200 or more. “That’s probably less than most colleges.”
Wilkinson said he originally thought the 500 tickets might be a tough sell for First Union.
“I was a little concerned about those who already had tickets,” said Wilkinson. “What we found was that many who bought the tickets already had tickets. It was a real positive response. We sold the tickets back to our employees at a 50 percent discount and they were gone in two days.”
Helms said the whole experience has been worth it, but he’s not keen on having to do it again.
“What was appealing to me was to do something for the community and provide another benefit for our employees,” said Helms, adding he firmly believes that winning football games is the single best way to sell tickets this year and in the years to come. “I don’t believe we’ll need to do this next year. The team winning will spur excitement and the things the Jaguars have done through fan feedback will help create a more memorable experience for the fans. It will be natural for fans to re-up for tickets”