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Home and away Shahid Khan


COVER STORY | FOOTBALL

Home and away Shahid Khan is the NFL’s first foreign-born owner and the first to fully embrace the league’s international strategy for growth. As the Jacksonville Jaguars prepare for the first of four trips to London over the coming four years, Khan insists he can achieve what many believe to be the impossible: build an international fanbase and attract a new wave of local support in and around Jacksonville. By David Cushnan. Photographs by Graham Fudger.

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he National Football League (NFL) has been making an annual autumnal transatlantic trip to London to play a single regular season game since 2007 and if this year’s match-up did not result in the thrilling contest the league is always hoping for on such occasions – New England Patriots easily defeated a limp St Louis Rams on a typically grey late-October afternoon at Wembley Stadium – it did perhaps mark the end of the first chapter in the NFL’s gradual international expansion. Next year comes the next step. There will be two regular season Wembley outings instead of one, with the Minnesota Vikings playing the Pittsburgh Steelers on 29th September in an additional game announced in mid-October, and the Jacksonville Jaguars beginning what might best be termed an annual temporary residency in the British capital, starting with a game against the San Francisco 49ers on 27th October 2013. For while some teams, the Patriots amongst them, have played in London more than once in the past six seasons, the Jaguars have committed to playing a regular season game in the UK for each of the next four years, at a stroke taking on the bulk of an international expansion strategy that the league has been hinting at and taking baby steps towards for some time. While Wembley’s 90,000 seats have been filled each time the NFL has come to town over the past six years, mainstream appeal outside the United States has been harder to come by. Despite the best efforts of the NFL’s proactive UK division, based in London, to stir up interest, with appearances in the lead-up to each London game by players past and present

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“I have two kids; this will be a family business and it will pass on to them and hopefully be a multi-generational business for years to come.” and a now-annual fan festival in Trafalgar Square on the eve of games, the oncea-year novelty has clearly begun to wear off. UK-based NFL devotees have been pressing for more; at the same time, casual UK sports fans – in other words, those the NFL hopes to attract in the longer term – clearly require more if they are to be truly snared by the league. The NFL is banking on the Jaguars, a small-market team but one under the stewardship of a forward-thinking new owner, becoming the league’s de facto international franchise until at least 2016. Shahid Khan is evidently up for the challenge. “I think it’s significant for the league and significant for the Jacksonville Jaguars,” the 61-year-old says. “When I was introduced as the owner I articulated that we needed to be more international and develop a fanbase outside Jacksonville and it’s not only to get more fans but to be part of the NFL international experience, spreading the game overseas and, with that, end up obviously hoping to be accepted as London’s team and develop fans there.” Khan is just completing his first year as owner of the Jaguars, the only major league franchise based in a north-eastern Florida city with some 850,000 residents and bold plans for growth. He acquired the team from founder Wayne Weaver for US$760 million late last year – the transaction and ratification of the deal

went through in January – and joined a select group of 32 who own teams in the United States’ richest, most popular professional league. Moreover, he immediately became one of the more fascinating members of the gang, as a recent Forbes cover story and a profile on CBS’s 60 Minutes news programme testify. Khan has become a national story – and, as a result, so too have the Jaguars. An auto parts trader who bought FlexN-Gate in 1980 and has since built it into a company that boasts annual sales of some US$3 billion, Khan is the NFL’s first foreign-born owner. Although educated at the University of Illinois, Khan was born in the Pakistani city of Lahore and only moved to the USA when he was 16. Initially an employee at Flex-N-Gate while still a student, he began his own truck parts business, Bumper Works, in 1978 before returning to Flex-N-Gate to buy the company. Lucrative contracts with Ford, General Motors, Chrysler and Toyota followed. Flex-N-Gate now has many thousands of employees and nearly 50 manufacturing plants dotted across the US, Argentina, Canada, Mexico and Spain, making Khan a fortune in the process. So why exactly did this Pakistan-born, Illinois-educated, auto parts trading, impressively moustachioed, highly successful, apparent personification of the ‘American Dream’ need the hassle and sheer stress of owning an NFL team? The


Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, pictured at the Leaders in Football conference on Wednesday 10th October

answer, delivered in Khan’s softly spoken, considered style, is simple and should really come as no surprise. Opportunity knocked. “I think you know my story,” he says. “I was born in Pakistan, I came to the US and so it was not a sport that I grew up with but it’s a sport I discovered and obviously love and am passionate about. You get to a stage in life; there’s only 32 clubs, they don’t sell very often – that means you have to be ready when the opportunity comes. I got the opportunity, had the ability to do it and loved the sport. “I also think it’s a great business – it’s profitable where you have the means to invest, whether it’s a new stadium, a new fan experience, which I think is important. I have two kids; this will be a family business and it will pass on to them and hopefully be a multi-generational business for years to come.” Khan is speaking just a couple of hours after touching down in London, along with a healthy entourage of Jaguars staffers including president Mark Lamping, for what will be the first of several visits to London over the coming months ahead of the team’s UK debut next autumn. Part promotional visit, part networking opportunity, it is a whistle-stop tour including a keynote speech the following morning at the Leaders summit at Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge, interviews with various UK media outlets, a reception with UK business leaders on behalf of the Jaguars and the city of Jacksonville, meetings with the likes of London & Partners, the city’s major events promotional organisation, and, naturally enough, a trip to Wembley to watch England’s soccer team play San Marino in a World Cup qualifier. Khan is clearly a firm believer in the Jaguars’ voyage of international discovery, but not exclusively from an international growth perspective. The potential promotional benefits it may yield for the city of Jacksonville, where Khan says his first year has been “very warm and wonderful and welcoming”, are equally important to him. “It’s about getting exposure for Jacksonville,” he confirms. “It’s a smaller community – about a million British [people] travel to Florida

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Shahid Khan’s playbook: Buying an NFL team

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y the time Shahid Khan was approved as the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars by the NFL’s other team owners in January, he was already well established as a member of the elite club of top-tier businessmen, many of them from NFL dynasties, that own the 32 franchises. Indeed, the process of buying an NFL franchise that Khan relates is more akin to a presidential campaign, including rounds of lobbying and gathering support, than buying a sports team. “I spent probably six or seven years before that getting to know the owners, so most of them I had met a number of years before,” Khan says. “Again, unlike any other sport this is one where, quite under the radar, you have to go and meet people, introduce yourself and, frankly, win their support way before the time comes. “Most of the people in the room, the first day you go in, your case comes up and in my case I was fortunate along with a number of recent transactions to be unanimously accepted. I knew most of the people so that makes the transition much easier. Quite frankly, before the approval process they were a source of guidance to me, a source of information to me and a source of inspiration to me.” That being so, Khan is

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understandably reluctant to name names when asked who has been particularly helpful during his early months at the Jaguars. “I’ve got 31 mentors,” he smiles, joking that to name one would annoy 30 others. “In all honesty, I’ve called on just about everybody. It’s like ‘smart man learns from experience, wise man learns from the other guy’s experience’, so why reinvent the wheel? I’ve spoken to a lot of them and they’ve been very, very helpful to me. “It’s terribly competitive,” he adds. “What’s fascinating is that for the three hours the game is on it is hypercompetitive but the rest of the time, the best way to describe it would be ‘coopetition’ – you cooperate to grow the pie and then you’re very, very competitive to win the game. There’s a huge amount of cooperation outside the game itself and that’s the secret to the strength of the league and strength of the sport.” Khan does, though, single out one man for special praise. “I think he is really an amazing guy,” he says of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. “I might be biased but I think he’s the best commissioner in any sport on the planet. He has a very difficult job, an unpopular job at times and he is performing admirably.”

each year and we’d like them to come.” Despite facing the unappetising prospect of losing one of only eight regular season games each year until 2016, Khan insists that “the fans in Jacksonville have really embraced this effort and are supporting us fully”. He adds: “Obviously this wouldn’t happen without their support. I think it’s very, very important we have their support and we have that. I think they see the value in it. Quite frankly, Jacksonville is going to get some good exposure. We have people coming from Britain to Florida and we want to be one of the reasons they come in – and we want fans from Jacksonville to come to Wembley, discover Wembley. We’re going to put packages together for them to be in London, so it’s a huge win-win. Getting here early is very important, to be seen and participate and make an effort where we’re vying for success, and move the needle.” Losing just one home game a year would certainly be more palatable for Jacksonville-based Jaguars fans than the prospect of the franchise relocating. Khan is on record expressing his commitment to Jacksonville; at the same time the Jaguars have regularly appeared on speculators’ lists of candidate franchises to be relocated at some point in the next few years – perhaps to Los Angeles, which will shortly have a stadium to meet its desire for an NFL team, or even, whisper it, to London. Khan, of course, is far too cute to be drawn on any of that kind of speculation. He does, however, believe the NFL’s desire to push for international growth has merit, even if he is unsure of the endgame. “This is a journey and I’m not sure what the destination is,” he muses. “The NFL is very powerful in the US, very popular in the US. I think somebody might even make the argument it’s reaching saturation, so our growth possibilities are outside the US. London is absolutely a wonderful and logical place to be – a great global city, one of the great cities of the world. “Myself personally, I think the league and other owners have a huge amount of respect for the fans in London,” he continues. “They are one sophisticated lot. Obviously they are very passionate but I think also demanding. If you look at some of the experiments, whether it was NFL Europe or the exhibition games, they were


The Jaguars’ four-year commitment gives long-term shape to the NFL International Series and Khan hopes Jacksonville fans can “discover Wembley”

Despite international ambitions and rumours of a move to another city, the Jaguars have been working hard to improve the EverBank Field experience

OK but really the lesson was the fans want the real NFL experience, nothing diluted; a game which is meaningful and has all the intensity and passion you would expect of an NFL game. That was a key lesson. From our viewpoint, we want to make a longer-term commitment, which is four years in this case, and come over here and develop and increase the number of fans.” Marrying together local acceptance in Jacksonville and international expansion everywhere else is a task not without its complexities, of course. To that end, Khan says he has worked hard on nurturing his relationship with fans in Jacksonville whilst at the same time seeking to broaden the team’s catchment area across Florida and beyond. “To me the first thing was to develop a relationship with the fans

and then extend the fanbase and really turn it from Jacksonville to more of a regional market,” he explains. “And I felt strongly and articulated a viewpoint that we need to be international. NFL is going to be growing as an international brand and the Jacksonville Jaguars, our future should really also be tied to that – to take advantage of it. That is the area I’ve spent most of my time and energy on.” That Khan and his team hosted business leaders on their London trip in October is significant. In what might be interpreted as a demonstration of how important the success of the Jaguars’ annual game in the UK is to the NFL, the league has relaxed its commercial rules and will allow the team to seek deals in the country. Previously, teams visiting the UK have

only been able to sell gameday rights, limiting the commercial opportunity. “The fundamental aspect of this is that we wanted to have the team that was going to spend some extended period of time in the UK to be able to build a fanbase for the NFL and also to grow the Jacksonville community and Jaguars brand,” was how Chris Parsons, the NFL’s vice president of international, explained the NFL’s shift in thinking to ESPN in October. “The way the deal works is they do get some incremental rights to that market, which historically teams that have gone over there have not been able to access. It’ll allow them to build partnerships.” In no particular order, Khan says his priorities for the UK are to generate “sponsors, fans and general

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COVER STORY | FOOTBALL

awareness of the sport”, adding: “We want Jacksonville Jaguars to be a more recognised brand, we want to have more fans, we want the NFL to have more fans and the London fans to experience NFL and hopefully grow an appetite for more games.” It is a mantra that is a theme of the interview, although while the conversation inevitably veers towards London time and time again, Khan is as keen to point out what has already been achieved in the team’s true home market. Jacksonville may be the fourth smallest market in the NFL – only Green Bay, New Orleans and Buffalo have teams in smaller television markets – but the spectator experience is one area where Khan believes he can make a difference. The Jaguars have played in the 67,246-capacity, city-owned EverBank Field since it opened – and the team was formed – in 1995 but a recent spate of improvements have been spearheaded by Khan. “This is a business and a sport,” he points out, “where there’s a huge amount of competitive balance. All teams spend up to a hard cap and we do that, but what we do control is the fan day experience.” The Jaguars have, by way of example, invested in a new sound system and developed other initiatives such as letting fans bring their own food and allowing children shorter than 34 inches to enter the stadium without a ticket. “It is hard economic times certainly in America but we’ve done a number of initiatives to make it more fan-friendly,” Khan insists. Although he admits it makes it harder for him to turn the Jaguars into genuine NFL contenders, or even potential Super Bowl challengers, Khan believes competitive balance is “the holy aspect of NFL”, adding: “The sport, frankly, wouldn’t be the same without it so when you get into it, you understand it, you like it, you respect it, you want it to continue. “It’s about selling tickets, obviously; also demonstrating that there’s support for the team and, most importantly, that there’s the energy in the stadium. Then, do the fans have a good experience? In the NFL the competitive balance is profound, nobody can guarantee what can happen on the field but I think pretty much we can work up to a level where the gameday experience is good. If fans have a good experience, they will come back.”

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Jacksonville Jaguars: ten-year financial record Source: Forbes

2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003

Value US$770m US$725m US$725m US$866m US$876m US$811m US$744m US$691m US$688m US$569m

Player expenses US$135m US$128m US$133m US$135m US$126m US$121m US$102m US$87m US$94m US$65m

Operating income US$29.6m US$32.8m US$25.9m US$26.9m US$27.6m US$22.1m US$22.5m US$34.6m US$16.6m US$36.5m

Revenue US$238m US$236m US$220m US$217m US$204m US$189m US$173m US$169m US$153m US$142m

Shahid Khan’s playbook: Management style “

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ou go through a progression in life,” Shahid Khan says thoughtfully. “I started out basically as one guy in a garage and then I had one employee, another employee and so on. Things change over time, they evolve and you find out after a while what works. What I’ve found that works is you have to empower people, not micromanage, support them, hold them accountable.” Although Khan is devoting much of his time to promoting the Jaguars and Jacksonville, he says he “knows where my priorities are”, adding: “I have a day job, which is significant. I have 17,000-plus employees making auto parts so there’s a huge amount

In a wider sense and speaking as a new member of the NFL’s inner circle, Khan is surprisingly cautious when asked about the league’s gigantic long-term television contracts, which were confirmed last year and guarantee some US$5.9 billion every season. “It’s a great time,” he says, “but one lesson from business: boom times are when complacency sets in, so these are also cautionary times, certainly from my perspective. The best decisions get made in hard times and some of the worst in boom times, so we really have to be careful that we stay vigilant, we don’t take the fans for granted, we don’t get complacent and we keep working harder

of responsibility towards them. But success in business really comes down to listening to the customer, taking care of the customer and finding the best people and putting them in the right place. The other thing is making money so you can reinvest. All three of those things, whether you’re in auto parts or the NFL, carry over. “There are 31 other teams,” he continues. “They’re all doing things well in different ways. What we have to do is benchmark and learn from them and some of the things apply to us, some of those things might not apply to us. There’s plenty we can take from everybody. There’s plenty to learn, especially for someone like me – a huge amount of learning.” to maintain the momentum we’ve gained.” Khan himself has much work to do in appeasing an existing fanbase and attracting a larger, far more eclectic one. “I think for me we want to serve the community,” he concludes. “Football, the NFL, is a civic asset – it’s a business and a civic asset. We want to make a difference, we want to win games and we want the fans to have a great experience. “It’s very simple. We want to contribute to the future success of the NFL.” At home or at the Jaguars’ new home away from home – and whatever the community – Shahid Khan has every intention of doing just that.


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