Jacksonville aims to keep Georgia-Florida game at all costs

Georgia fans take their seats socially distanced style at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville Saturday for the annual rivalry game against Florida.

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia fans take their seats socially distanced style at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville Saturday for the annual rivalry game against Florida.

ATHENS — Republican Lenny Curry won the 2015 mayoral election in Jacksonville in a stunning victory over his incumbent Democratic opponent, Alvin Brown. That was on May 19, 2015.

The next morning, months before he would be officially sworn in, Curry undertook his first action as the city’s new mayor. He called the athletic directors of the universities of Florida and Georgia.

“That’s the first thing I did as mayor,” said Curry, who is now in his second term. “I knew they had a strained relationship with City Hall before and that we had a contract that was about to run out. We needed to rebuild the relationship into what it should be. I think we have effectively done that, which has taken give-and-take on both sides. But I feel like we’re in a good place now, as represented by the recent extension.”

Due to run out the next year, Curry got an extension through the 2021 season done in short order. Then, in 2019, Curry used his personal Twitter account to announce a second extension to keep the game in Jacksonville at least through 2023. The new agreement includes an option to extend it for another two years.

It’s a sweet deal for the respective universities. It guarantees them $1 million each, free and clear, and the payout is automatically increased by $250,000 every other year. That does not include travel expenses, which the city also provides to both schools.

But the real windfall is the schools “split the gate” on tickets. Where Georgia makes about $3 million per home game, which it would make every other year in a home-and-home situation. It makes about $2 million every year, or $4 million every two years in this arrangement.

As far as Curry is concerned, it’s worth every penny. There’s the economic impact for Jacksonville, of course, estimated to be about $35 million annually. But he said there’s more to it than that.

“To outsiders who maybe don’t understand, I’ll explain: 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.”

So, Georgia-Florida will remain an off-campus game for the schools through the 2025 season. Curry is determined that it continue well past that. But Kirby Smart would just as soon it end there.

Credit: UGA

The rub

Georgia’s coach doesn’t come straight out and say he doesn’t like the game in Jacksonville. His criticism is decidedly nuanced and focuses primarily his claim that it has negative effect on recruiting. Specifically, the Bulldogs and Florida lose a home recruiting opportunity every other year.

“All I’ll ever say is the home atmosphere we have is incredible and the ability to bring recruits in is big,” Smart said this past week. “If I knew every year we’d have home games like we’ve had this year, it would probably would be less of an issue. But it’s an issue when you don’t have what might be your biggest rivalry (at home) and you don’t have the ability to bring official visits in and recruits in every other year.”

Georgia and Florida are unable to host recruits when they play in Jacksonville. However, they can provide a limited number of tickets to prospect who request them. But Smart’s beef is that the Bulldogs lose an opportunity to show off UGA’s campus on official visits.

“It certainly is valuable (during a) time when kids are deciding before the early signing date in December and enrolling in January,” Smart said. “Those are the most critical weekends you can have to get kids on campus. I stand by the fact that we miss out on one of those opportunities every other year and everybody else on the country doesn’t.”

Ironically, in the same week Smart made that statement, the Bulldogs received commitments from three elite recruits and moved up to No. 1 in the 247Sports.com composite national recruiting rankings for the Class of 2022. If that ranking holds up, Georgia will have averaged a No. 2 national recruiting ranking over the last six classes under Smart, including three years as the nation’s No. 1 team.

Seems to be going OK

The Bulldogs (7-0, 5-0 SEC) are currently ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press media and USA Today coaches’ polls as well. Next week, the first College Football Playoff rankings come out. If Georgia takes care of business on Saturday against Florida (4-3, 2-3) -- which opened as a 14.5-point underdog -- it will be posted No. 1 in those rankings as well. So, things appear to be going all right for the Bulldogs.

Overall, Smart is 3-2 as Georgia’s coach against the Gators. The Bulldogs won three in a row from 2017 to ‘19, then fell 44-28 last year with an injury-ravaged roster.

Georgia played without noseguard Jordan Davis, safety Richard LeCounte and wide receiver George Pickens, lost Pickens’ replacement Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint in the first quarter and quarterback Stetson Bennett for the rest of the half and effectively for the game with a shoulder sublux he suffered on the same play. The Bulldogs also lost safety Lewis Cine to a targeting penalty midway through the second quarter. It was a perfect storm of circumstances for the Gators, who were ranked No. 8 and went on to win the East.

Previous Georgia coaches have complained about the game being played on Florida soil. The Gators’ football facility is located just 75 miles from TIAA Bank Field, so they bus to Jacksonville. In contrast, the Bulldogs fly to Jacksonville out of Ben Epps Airport in Athens. However, the flight time by Delta charter -- one hour -- is actually less than Florida busing from Gainesville, Fla. (1½ hours).

Meanwhile, if the circumstances favor the Gators, the record doesn’t show it. The Bulldogs lead the overall series 53-43-2 and have won six of the last 10 coming into this year’s game.

Former Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity has always been a proponent for keeping the game in Jacksonville. For him, that has to do with as much competitive advantages as it does finances.

“If you took over time Florida’s record in ‘The Swamp’ and Georgia’s record in Sanford Stadium, I think you’re going to see that chances are good that you’re going to go 1-1 over a two-year period if you went home-and-home,” said McGarity, who retired from UGA last year and now loves just outside Jacksonville in Ponte Vedra, Fla. “I’ve always felt like, if you have the better team, you’re going to have a chance to win every year in Jacksonville. You have half the fans from each team in there. You’re chances of coming out of the Swamp with victory are not as good as they are in a 50-50 arena. If I’m going to go 2-0, I feel like I’ve got a better chance in Jacksonville. The crowd’s not going to be a factor.”

There are other factors that figure in as well. For example, 38 players on Georgia’s roster are from Macon, south and into Florida. Likewise, a huge number of UGA alumni encompass that same geographic region.

For them, Jacksonville is significantly closer than going to Athens. And the annual flock of fans to the Georgia coast provides a fall economic stimulus that otherwise wouldn’t be available to that region.

Josh Brooks, who succeeded McGarity as Georgia’s AD in January, won’t share his personal thoughts on the matter. That’s understandable. Recent surveys have shown the Bulldogs donor base to be pretty much split on the issue. So if Brooks has a strong opinion, he’s not going to share it at the risk of being at odds with half of Georgia’s fans.

Reducing capacity

The Georgia-Florida game is a sellout every year. Crowds of 84,463 and 84,789 attended in 2018 and ‘19, the last two years that TIAA Bank Field was at set up full capacity. Attendance was limited to 19,210 for last year’s game in observance of social distancing during the pandemic.

As always, half the tickets go to each school. But there will be fewer seats for this year’s game and for the foreseeable future.

Jacksonville raises the seating capacity of TIAA Bank Field each year by installing temporary seating at considerable expense in the North and South end zones. According to Curry, that costs the city about $1 million each year to erect the seating.

This year, the schools accepted the city’s proposal to compensate them with $400,000 each for potential lost ticket revenue to not install the seating in both end zones. While that would eliminate 6,000 seats, it will reduce capacity by about 4,000. The temporary bleachers cover up a premium-seating area on a patio, which will now be available for the schools to sale.

“Every year it has been talked about,” Curry said. “The temporary seating is difficult to install and remove, I’m told. And it’s expensive. So, we just decided to ask the schools in our negotiations if we could compensate them and not put them in and they agreed.”

This photo shows the north end zone of TIAA Bank Field when temporary seating is installed. Otherwise, it is an open-air patio with premium seating and concession and restroom access. (Photo from TIAA Bank Field)

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Jacksonville’s City Council still has to approve the measure. It is scheduled to vote on it Tuesday.

The fact is, demand for tickets is not as great as it once was. In recent years, both Georgia had Florida have had to make a second pass at donors to exhaust their allotments. It’s not a reflection on this particular game, but more of a college football trend in which staying home to watch games on television is a viable option much less expensive.

“Given the recent demand for more premium seating in the stadium and the fact that both schools’ ticket demands could be met, all parties agreed the temporary seating could be discontinued this year to make a premium area available,” Georgia’s Brooks said in a statement provided to the AJC. “The change will also have a positive impact on fans at that end of the stadium and will help with some of the ingress issues we have experienced in the past.”

The party is on

Georgia players aren’t interested in the politics or economics of the game being in Jacksonville. But they do enjoy playing in the game, which traditionally has had a major impact on the SEC’s Eastern Division race.

That’s especially true for UGA players that grew up in South Georgia or Florida.

“I remember everybody coming down to the beach,” said Bulldogs right tackle Warren McClendon, who hails from nearby Brunswick. “It gets really busy down there for us is my biggest memory about it. Being close to home, having my whole family there means a lot to me. So it’s a big game.”

Senior linebacker Quay Walker is from Cordele, which is three hours away.

“More than watching the game, they probably like the tailgating,” he said of his family. “That’s what they enjoy.”

Indeed, the three-day tailgating atmosphere in tropical climes remains the greatest attraction for the respective fan bases. That’s what created the no longer acceptable nickname of “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” That’s also what fills up hotels and condominiums on the barrier islands known as the Golden Isles.

That’s why Jacksonville plans to continue to do whatever it can to keep Georgia-Florida in its backyard. For now, they know that’s at least three more seasons.

Curry’s final term as mayor will expire before that deal ends. But he said he’ll continue to fight to keep the game in his town.

“To be back with a full crowd of people from Florida and Georgia rooting and hollering and screaming, I’m so excited about that,” Curry said. “There are generations of families that have been coming here for decades and families that live here that this has been a tradition for as well.

“You take away a game like this one, I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t want to be the mayor that lost that.”