The NFL is expected to announce its regular season schedule later this week.
JACKSONVILLE — The Jaguars are ready for prime time.
They showed that last year, improving from 3-13 to 10-6 to win the AFC South and falling one win short of the Super Bowl.
But do NBC, ESPN and FOX, which broadcast games on Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights, respectively, believe the Jaguars are ready?
The answer is coming soon. The NFL is expected to announce its regular season schedule later this week and the Jaguars’ 2017 surge would usually slot them for multiple prime-time games.
“Maybe you will see one game on Sunday night and one on Monday night,” said Jon Lewis of Sports Media Watch. “Prime time seems about right for the Patriots-Jaguars game and maybe for Steelers-Jaguars, too.”
Three factors could dictate the Jaguars being denied the usual 4-5 prime-time games that are given to teams of their caliber:
• Market size: According to Nielsen last September, Jacksonville ranked as the nation’s 42nd-largest television market (700,890).
• Tradition: The Jaguars have been in existence since 1995 and have reached the postseason only three times (2005, ’07 and ’17) since 2000.
• Offensive star power: Offense moves the ratings needle and the Jaguars are a defense-led team.
“They will get some Thursday love,” said Austin Karp, assistant managing editor of Sports Business Daily. “These TV executives are just not keen on putting a small market team like Jacksonville on.”
The Jaguars represent a conundrum for networks: They should be interested because they are a good team, but can they attract enough viewers?
“I think because of last year’s success, deep in the network room discussions, they’re probably not as fearful of the Jaguars in 2018 as they were in previous years,” said Richard Deitsch, who writes about sports media for The Athletic.
MUCH TO OVERCOME
The Jaguars have played 10 Thursday night, 11 Sunday night and 15 Monday night games in franchise history. But they have appeared only once on NBC’s Sunday night package since it started in 2006 — a 26-21 home loss to Pittsburgh in October 2008. They have not appeared on ESPN’s Monday night schedule since two home games in 2011.
According to Karp, the Jaguars’ 2010 Monday night game against Tennessee was the lowest-rated game on ESPN’s schedule that year and their two 2011 games (vs. Baltimore and San Diego) were the two lowest-rated games.
The Florida Times-Union looked at the schedules of teams the year after they lost in the conference title game, like the Jaguars did at New England. Every conference finalist since the 2010 schedule has had at least four prime-time games scheduled a year after making the final four, not including games that were later flexed. Last year, Pittsburgh and Green Bay had five prime-time appearances apiece.
Might the Jaguars get only three, which would be the fewest for a conference finalist since Baltimore and Philadelphia nine years ago, or even fewer?
“I can definitely see that,” Karp said. “There hasn’t been a change in the quarterback situation and there wasn’t a lot of massive wheeling and dealing like you saw with the Rams.”
For the three reasons listed above — tradition, market size and star power — the Jaguars present a challenge.
Only New Orleans (51st), Buffalo (53rd) and Green Bay (69th) have fewer television sets than Jacksonville among NFL teams. The networks want as many New York Giants (No. 1 market), Philadelphia Eagles (No. 4) and Dallas Cowboys (No. 5) games in prime time as possible and don’t want to gamble with markets like Jacksonville.
The networks also want teams with tradition, teams like the Packers, New England (No. 10 market) and Pittsburgh (No. 24.), on prime time.
A fair comparable for the Jaguars is New Orleans. The Saints have experienced more success – including a Super Bowl win in 2009 – and have been a consistent prime-time ratings winner.
“Yes, New Orleans is a smaller market, but they have (quarterback) Drew Brees and a rabid, rabid NFL fan base,” Karp said. “Jacksonville has not brought that to the table yet.”
Deitsch calls the Saints an “anomaly because they can break through what their market number is. Their ratings aren’t small market. They fit the profile of a market in the 20s.”
Brees represents star power in general and offensive star power in particular. The Jaguars’ best players – Jalen Ramsey, Calais Campbell, Telvin Smith, Yannick Ngakoue – all play on defense.
“You really need a 1985 Chicago Bears-type defense to sell in terms of television to bring in viewers [who live] away from the home market,” Deitsch said. “The Jaguars have a phenomenal defense, but the league sells their play-makers. It’s very easy to promote (Giants receiver) Odell Beckham, (Patriots quarterback) Tom Brady, (Saints tailback) Alvin Kamara, name-your-All-Pro-skill-player verses a team who has the majority of their stars on defense.”
Said Lewis: “The market size doesn’t really hurt as much as the fact they don’t have the star quarterback. (Blake) Bortles isn’t the kind of player who gets people running to their TV sets.”
An obvious plus for the Jaguars was their playoff run, particularly being exposed to the nation in their win at Pittsburgh, which led to the game at New England.
The Bills-Jaguars wild card game drew 25.3 million viewers, but the Jaguars-Steelers game drew 31.4 million and Jaguars-Patriots game peaked at 44.1 million. The AFC title game was the most-watched NFL game of the 2017 season up to that date.
“Those two games [against Pittsburgh and New England] may give the networks an indication that, with the right opponent, the Jaguars won’t drag down the number,” Lewis said.
The Jaguars’ schedule strengthens their case for playing on Sunday night (NBC), Monday night (ESPN) or Thursday night (FOX signed a five-year deal for those rights earlier this year).
The Jaguars play home games against New England and Pittsburgh and play at Dallas. Overall, they play a combined nine games against teams in top-10 television markets. Placing the Jaguars in prime time against a marquee opponent figures to be the best route because everybody wins – the league gets to showcase a rising team and the network gets a big market. The defending Super Bowl champion Eagles are on the Jaguars home schedule but that game will be in London.
“Patriots-Jaguars would be a game that most networks would want,” Deitsch said. “A rematch of the AFC championship game so there is a lot of marketing that can be put behind that. A really, really attractive game, but again, the caveat being that it’s not Cowboys-Eagles, it’s not Cowboys-Packers. But in terms of an AFC matchup, it is an attractive enough of a game that every network would want it.”
Said Lewis: “ESPN always gets one Patriots game a year and it’s usually not the Patriots’ biggest game.”
A Steelers-Jaguars rematch also makes sense for prime time, possibly Thursday on FOX. The Jaguars played on Thursday night each year from 2011-16, but the game appeared on NFL Network, which also has a section of Thursday games this year.
“It’s tough for me to think a Jaguars’ Thursday night game would be on the NFL Network branch this year,” Lewis said. “It might be a FOX game against another marquee team. To me, the NFL Network exclusive games are reserved for teams that really aren’t any good and the Jaguars have moved past that.”
The marquee spot of Sunday afternoon is the 4:25 p.m. doubleheader game which is seen by most of the nation. The Jaguars could find themselves in that slot as well.
“CBS is going to want one of those for sure and anytime they can get the Patriots, they want it,” Karp said. “A place where you might see more of the Jaguars is (at 4:25 p.m.). CBS has had a lot of problems getting good match-ups for their Sunday afternoon national window. They have nine of those this year.”
One game CBS will also want is Jaguars at Dallas because it has only one other Cowboys game (home vs. Tennessee) on its schedule. It is very easy to see that as a 4:25 p.m. game at AT&T Stadium and former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo on the call.
Networks, to protect themselves against the Jaguars being a one-year flash, could schedule them in prime-time early in the season. In 2016, Arizona played Weeks 1, 5, 6 and 7 in prime time. Could the networks pass on the Jaguars in prime time this year and instead wait for 2019 to see if they are a one-season wonder?
“I don’t think you would want to wait a year,” Deitsch said. “You would want to capitalize on the Jaguars’ great year last year and get them on this year with the hope they are a legitimate AFC contender.”