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NFL Annual Meeting: Jaguars perception improving

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PHOENIX – Mark Lamping likes what he's hearing.

It's not just this week at the 2015 NFL Annual Meeting, either. To hear the Jaguars' president tell it, he hears positives about the Jaguars and Jacksonville pretty consistently.

That's not to say the Jaguars' situation is perfect. And that's not to say the work is done.

But Lamping said strides made during Shad Khan's three-plus years as owner – strides that continued in increasingly visible ways this past year, particularly in terms of in-game experience – have been significant.

"I think it's really dramatic," Lamping said Monday at the Arizona Biltmore, where league officials, team officials and owners from all 32 teams gathered for the '15 annual meeting.  "Look at EverBank Field today versus three years ago, and the fact that we don't talk about blackouts because we haven't had a blackout in a number of years. We've gotten rid of most of the tarps inside the stadium; that was always a glaring sign of failure in some respects.

"The results in terms of attendance, our local revenue … all of those are pointed in the right direction and that's thanks to our fans and the many loyal supporters we have throughout the region in the business community.

"It's dramatic and we're proud of what we've done over three years, but we also understand we've just sort of scratched the surface and have a long way to go."

Lamping also noted that while a major topic at the meetings this week is potential franchise relocation to Los Angeles the Jaguars aren't included in the conversation.

"I think the best barometer of that is people aren't talking about the Jaguars relocating," he said. "There are a number of teams that are in the discussion – three teams, in fact – that are talking about moving to Los Angeles, and we're not one of them."

Lamping said the Jaguars' recent stadium improvements – including the installation of the pool decks and Video Boards before the 2014 season – have drawn attention of officials around the NFL. The in-game experience at EverBank Field this past season was rated No. 1 in several key areas – and among the top four in all eight categories – in the NFL's 2014 Voice of the Fan Survey.

"On the very positive side of it, clubs have taken notice that we've moved to the top of the league in terms of our season-ticket holders' reaction to what's happening inside the stadium," Lamping said. "To be able to do that in the context of quite honestly not a very good football team – at least as far as the results are concerned – people are impressed by that."

Added Lamping, "We get questions all the time, 'What did you guys do to fix your in-game experience?'"

Lamping, the Jaguars' president since 2012 who last week signed a five-year extension, also on Monday discussed plans to re-design the club seat area at EverBank Field. The project would renovate the upper and lower club areas on the west and east sides of the stadium, with Lamping calling the process a "complicated" one that likely would have to begin in January 2016 to be completed in time for the 2016 season.

"It will be interesting to see what happens," Lamping said. "I can tell you it's a very important project for us."

Lamping said Khan is committed to funding the project so long as there is a mechanism for a portion to be reimbursed over a 15-year period from a portion of the sales tax generated by EverBank Field. The sales tax rebate must be approved by the state legislature, with Florida's Joint Legislative Budget Commission last month moving funding decisions for several stadiums around the state to the regular legislative session.

"Any decision that's made by a legislative body that has to do with a sports team tends to be very controversial," Lamping said. "The positive is the enabling legislation that passed last year went through the same process, where everyone in the legislature had a chance to vote for it or vote against us. Last year, the majority chose to support it and we hope that same thing happens this year."

Lamping said the team's approach to the project is consistent with a longstanding public-private partnership when it comes to EverBank Field.

"The stadium is owned by the city of Jacksonville," Lamping said. "It was built in large part by contributions not only from the Jaguars, but from the state in the form of a sales tax rebate and locally in terms of a reinvestment of a small portion of the bed tax.

"For us to go forward and say, 'Hey, don't worry about it anymore. We're going to pay 100 percent of what's going to happen in the stadium' … if you were renting a house you wouldn't do that, and it's no different with us.

"We've had a great partnership. We expect that that partnership will continue to even stronger in the future, and Shad is going to continue to do more than his share."

Lamping also addressed one of the most significant news items from the meetings Monday: the NFL's decision to suspend its blackout policy, under which teams blacked out home games if 85 percent of seats weren't sold 72 hours before kickoff. The Jaguars haven't had a blackout since the 2009 season.

"It really doesn't affect us, because right after Shad (Khan) bought the team he decided we're just going to remove that from Jaguars language," Lamping said. "Fortunately, our fans have supported the team extremely well. Part of our bargain is making sure they have the opportunity to see the games.

"We think that's our best marketing tool, to have our games on TV."

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