The Jacksonville Jaguars are hot on the field.
They have won three of their last four games to improve to 7-3. Each of those three were better-than-average victories -- over division-leading Tampa Bay, rival Tennessee and a star-studded San Diego team. The Jaguars are in the driver's seat for a wild-card playoff berth this year, and they have not had a losing season since 2003.
Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills will be the third Jaguars home game this year blacked out in Jacksonville.
Welcome to the NFL's small market in the Sunbelt.
The Jaguars still are enduring growing pains in their 13th year as an NFL franchise. They face many of the same problems as Buffalo in the new, richer 21st-century NFL.
"We think we probably got an NFL team 20 years too early," said Tim Connolly, Jaguars senior vice president for business development. "That's something our owner, Wayne Weaver, has said in the past, and it's true."
What Connolly means is that Jacksonville is a growing community, and by 2015 -- 20 years after the Jaguars' inaugural season -- the expectation is the franchise will not be in such a small market.
For now, however, Jacksonville is about identical in size to Buffalo -- basically tied for the fourth smallest in the 32-team NFL, ahead of only New Orleans and Green Bay. Entering the season, Buffalo had the 49th-ranked television market in the country, with 640,000 homes having televisions. Jacksonville was 50th, at 639,000.
Selling tickets is an issue with only about six NFL teams -- Buffalo, Jacksonville, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Oakland and Arizona. The rest of the teams sell out virtually every game every year without much effort.
Selling out takes a big effort in Jacksonville -- so much that the team covered up about 9,700 upper-deck seats in 2005. That move came after 12 out of 16 Jaguars games were blacked out in '03 and '04. The tarps reduced the capacity of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium from 76,877 to 67,164.
"When we have a stadium the size we have in Jacksonville," says Connolly, "we literally have to have one person out of every 10 households to be at our game. If that same market penetration were true in New York City, the Jets would have 800,000 people at every game."
"Jacksonville has no business with a 77,000-seat stadium when Chicago has 64,000 seats," Connolly said.
Since 2000, 19 out of 62 Jacksonville home games have been blacked out. In Buffalo, 12 of 62 have been blacked out over that span. The Jaguars are 60-62 this decade. The Bills are 51-71.
The idea behind covering up seats is to create a scarcity of product and increase demand.
The Bills are doing the same thing, without tarps. By planning to shift one home game a year to Toronto, the Bills essentially are decreasing their stadium capacity by 9,000 seats a game over the course of an eight-game regular season.
While the Bills own the football market in Buffalo, Jacksonville does not have that advantage. It is a college football town.
"We think our fans really are very football savvy," Connolly said. "Fans in Buffalo understand that a 13-10 game is a very good ballgame, and they understand that in Jacksonville, too. We're in the heart of SEC (Southeastern Conference) country.
"But that's one of our problems, too," Connolly said. "With the University of Florida and Florida State going almost 11-0 every year, the football fans here are used to a lot of success."
Another disadvantage Jacksonville faces is it can't regionalize its market, as Buffalo has done to the east and now is trying to do to the northwest.
To the east of Jacksonville is the Atlantic Ocean. To the north are the swamps of southeastern Georgia. There isn't much to the immediate south. Ninety percent of the Jaguars' fans come from the immediate, five-county metro area.
"In the west we bump into Orlando, which is Tampa Bay Bucs country, because they've been here [in Florida] much longer," Connolly said. "We're kind of a composite now, being in our 13th year in the market. We have new Jaguars fans, old Dolphins fans and transplants -- people from the North who like to come to see the Browns or Packers or Giants."
Just like Buffalo, Jacksonville is not a home-office town for big corporations. Just three Jacksonville companies are on the Fortune 500 list. Buffalo has none, although Rochester has three Fortune 500 firms.
Jacksonville's stadium has only 90 luxury boxes, and the average cost of them is about $90,000 a year. Ralph Wilson Stadium has 164 luxury boxes with an average cost of about $65,000 a year. That works out to an annual take, presuming all boxes are sold, of about $10.6 million in Buffalo versus $8 million in Jacksonville.
The fact big markets get $200,000 a year and up for luxury boxes makes the current economics of the NFL just as much a worry in Jacksonville as it is in Buffalo.
"Our owner has been vocal, as has Ralph Wilson, in saying that we have to take a hard look at the NFL's economic model," Connolly said. "We can't become baseball from a competitive standpoint. We don't want to be anything like baseball."
"We're going to compete until we can't possibly compete," Connolly said.
The factor that makes Connolly optimistic about the future of the NFL in Jacksonville is the fact the metro area is booming. The city's population has grown by 200,000 since 1990, and the metro area is growing by more than 20,000 a year.
Presuming the area can handle all that growth -- from the standpoint of schools and infrastructure -- it bodes well for the Jaguars' long-term future.
"We still have seven or eight years to go in order for the market to catch up and sustain it [the franchise]," Connolly said. "But we're going to get 8 to 9 percent of those people who are football fans and who have the income to support the team."