Athens longs to see Florida return as Georgia home game

ATHENS — With all due respect to Georgia coach Kirby Smart, the city of Athens is looking ahead to the Tennessee game.

Local residents certainly want the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs to take care of business against Florida on Saturday in Jacksonville, Fla. As ever, it’s “Go Dawgs” around here all the time.

But regardless of the outcome of that game, the hotel, restaurant and entertainment industry is bracing in excited anticipation for the monumental weekend ahead when the No. 3-ranked Volunteers come to town for their Nov. 5 matchup against Georgia. That game is going to be meaningful regardless, both to the SEC Eastern Division race and to the local economy.

“When we’re playing an SEC rival like Tennessee, it’s not unusual to have 25,000 extra people in town, beyond the 94,000 in the stadium,” Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said. “They just come to enjoy the atmosphere. People just want to be here.”

What gets Athenians even more excited is thinking what it might be like to have both the Gators and the Vols coming to town in the same season. No need to take any polls around City Hall, sentiment in these parts is unanimous for the Georgia-Florida game to played on the schools’ respective campuses.

They’ll give you 20 million reasons why. That’s the projected economic impact for the Greater Athens area for a Georgia football game – at least. They’re still quantifying.

“It’s likely much higher with SEC rivalry games,” said Katie Williams, executive director of the Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re actually getting ready to do a research study on this figure, but we do know that it’s significant. Even though we only have six home games a year, football games are the foundation of our tourism economy.

“Georgia home games have huge impact not just on hotels and restaurants but on every small business. Convenience stores, gas stations, grocery stores, the airport, everybody is positively impacted when Georgia has a home game.”

The Bulldogs’ “home game” against Florida this year is being played in Jacksonville. The same goes every other year for the Gators. They’ve sold their home games to the city of Jacksonville, where it has been played annually since 1933, except for the 1994 (Gainesville) and 1995 (Athens) seasons, during a time of construction on the stadium in Jacksonville and in 1943, when the teams didn’t play each other.

The long-standing deal currently brings each school an average of $2 million extra per year free and clear of the costs it takes to operate such a game. The universities have operated on a series of four-year contracts with Jacksonville that have built-in escalators and have gotten increasingly lucrative with each renewal. They’re scheduled for another re-up in 2023.

Specifically, the programs split the ticket revenue from 84,000 seats. In addition, the Jacksonville contract guarantees each school $1 million in 2021, $1.25 million in 2022 and 2023. Each school receives an additional $60,000 for travel expenses, while Georgia gets an additional $350,000 chartered-jet service.

It’s worth it to the city of Jacksonville in exchange for an economic impact that approaches $35 million, according to Mayor Lenny Curry. There also is a multimillion-dollar impact on St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island and Brunswick, which comprise the area in coastal Georgia known as the Golden Isles.

“It’s part of the fabric of the city of Jacksonville,” Curry said. “Other cities have Mardi Gras. You’ve got Gasparilla in Tampa. This football game is about a heck of a lot more than football to Jacksonville. It’s about tradition.”

Still, there appears to be a growing likelihood that the annual neutral-site rivalry might be coming to an end. Georgia and Florida on Monday issued a rare joint statement on the status of the game. It came in circulated emails from the respective athletic departments in response to multiple media requests for comment from both sides of the rivalry.

“The annual game between our two universities is an important tradition. At this time, both programs are focused on our current seasons,” the statement said. “Typically, both schools begin conversations regarding future games in the series as the last contracted game nears. We anticipate following that timeline. When those discussions take place, we will consider a multitude of factors including tradition, finances, future SEC scheduling models with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, and what is best for both schools’ football programs overall.”

The situation appears to be approaching a point of critical mass. The current contract with the city of Jacksonville has one year remaining after this year’s game, though there is a built-in option to extend through 2025. Meanwhile, the SEC is in the throes of another expansion that will add Oklahoma and Texas by the 2025 season. The league schedule is expected to increase from eight to nine games with those additions.

Adding to the uncertainty of the game’s future is the very clear sentiment of Smart. The Bulldogs’ coach of seven seasons pays dutiful respects to the history and tradition of the game being played in Jacksonville, but unwaveringly would prefer to see it converted into a traditional home-and-home arrangement.

His motivation is the same as it for everything – recruiting.

“It comes back to, No. 1, money, and No. 2, to recruiting and getting good players,” Smart said last week. “I firmly believe that we’ll be able to sign better players by having it as a home-and-home because we’ll have more opportunities to get them to campus. But I also think there’s a financial factor.”

With the Bulldogs’ recruiting classes having an average national recruiting ranking of 2.3 over the past five years – including two No. 1 groups – it’s hard to imagine Georgia doing much better.

And the financial factor is not a small one. Smart just signed a new contract that will pay him $112.5 million over the next 10 years. His coaching staff is also among the highest paid in college football, and his recruiting budget is higher than any FBS program. In that context, it’s understandable that UGA might be protective of any available sources of additional revenue.

Still, having just led the Bulldogs to their first national championship in football in 41 years, Smart’s sentiment holds significant sway these days. Increasingly, it is being parroted by the team’s fans.

There remains a core of UGA’s wealthy donor base that takes particular pleasure in an annual fall vacation that also includes taking in a football game. But even some of that group seems to be coming Smart’s way.

Even some Georgia players are starting to espouse Smart’s opinion. Quarterback Stetson Bennett grew up 80 miles from Jacksonville in Blackshear and attended the Georgia-Florida game almost every year.

“You know, the grass is always greener, but it would be cool to play in Gainesville,” Bennett said this week. “It’s hard to say. I don’t really know what it would mean for Jacksonville, Athens, Gainesville, this city and all that stuff. It would be cool to play down there. As far as permanently, I don’t know.”

Georgia senior safety Christopher Smith is a native Atlantan.

“I personally would like to see the game be home-and-home as well,” Smith said. “It brings a different feel. I never had the opportunity to play in Florida’s stadium or anything like that, and that’s something that I’ve always wanted. It definitely would be great to get a home-and-home every now and then, just because, you know, I think the players deserve that experience. Their players haven’t been able to come to our stadium, either, and they’re both great sites to see.”

Athens’ city leaders certainly would agree with that. Game-day weekends are a blast, and they bring in a ton of business.

Williams said hotel occupancy on football weekends increases to more than 99%, compared with 67% the rest of the year, with two-night minimums and a four-times-higher average daily rate (ADR). She said ADRs were four times higher for the Auburn weekend, and she expects they may increase even more for the Tennessee weekend.

Williams said hotel-room inventory is “a bit of struggle” now because two hotels closed during the pandemic. Two others have been built, and at least two more are on the drawing board.

So, there’s a lot of money on the line for Georgia home games, and it’s in the city’s interest to pursue it. Williams said while her group hasn’t actively lobbied UGA athletics to reconsider its arrangement with Jacksonville, she emphasized that they maintain a very good relationship with athletic director Josh Brooks and his staff.

Also, UGA associate athletic director Christie Purks sits on the CVB board.

“I know coach Smart has been very vocal about his position on the Georgia-Florida game, and we support his position,” Williams said.

So does the city of Gainesville, home of the University of Florida. The Gators’ side of the equation rarely is heard in this state, but city leaders there also would appreciate an additional home game per year.

“Gainesville is a rich community, too,” said Girtz, who said he speaks regularly with Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe. “It has a great art scene and many of the virtues of Athens, like our music scene and outdoor activities and opportunities. We’re happy for people to come to the games but also for some of those other experiences.”

Girtz’s son, Noah, by the way, plays in the same baseball league as Kirby and Mary Beth Smart’s son, Andrew. Bringing the Florida game back to Athens could make for some great bleacher talk.