‘Very positive feedback’ for keeping Georgia-Florida game in Jacksonville

Jaguars plan for hundreds of millions in improvements to stadium, surrounding area
Florida and Georgia fans mingle at RV City outside of TIAA Bank Field, Friday, October 28, 2022, in Jacksonville, Florida. Georgia fans prepare for the annual Georgia-Florida game on Saturday. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Florida and Georgia fans mingle at RV City outside of TIAA Bank Field, Friday, October 28, 2022, in Jacksonville, Florida. Georgia fans prepare for the annual Georgia-Florida game on Saturday. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS – The Georgia-Florida game will remain in Jacksonville for the foreseeable future if the hometown NFL franchise has anything to do with it.

To be clear, the Jaguars have everything to do with it.

Jaguars executives met with officials from both UGA and Florida earlier this year to make sure the universities are well aware of that sentiment. At that meeting, the universities were provided details about Jacksonville’s plans for a massive renovation of the stadium currently known as TIAA Bank Field and the surrounding area next to the St. Johns River. They believe the changes will transform it into a venue that will rival all NFL franchises and attract major entertainment events to the area.

Topping that list of events is the annual neutral-site game between Georgia and Florida long known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.”

“From the first day that Shad Khan purchased the Jaguars, we made it very clear to the universities of Georgia and Florida and the Gator Bowl that our view of those games was 180 degrees different than the previous ownership of the Jaguars,” Mark Lamping, president of the Jaguars, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday. “The previous owners felt the Gator Bowl and the annual Georgia-Florida game was an inconvenience that the NFL team would just as soon not have to deal with. We said from the beginning we feel just the opposite.

“We know how important this game is. The single most important event that happens in Jacksonville each year is not a Jaguars game, it’s the Georgia-Florida game.”

The Jaguars and the city of Jacksonville are planning to put money behind that statement. A lot of it.

A two-year renovation project that will involve taxpayer involvement and will exceed $600 million is expected to begin in 2026. Lamping would not confirm those estimates, but he said the construction would include a complete overhaul of the current facility and include mixed-use developments around the stadium.

Built atop the existing building’s infrastructure, the renovation will include an open-air roofing system to provide shade and airflow for the seating areas. Construction already is underway on a Four Seasons hotel, office park and mixed-used development next to the stadium in the area known as Jacksonville Shipyards.

Shahid Rafig Khan, aka “Shad,” is a Pakistani-American billionaire who bought the Jaguars from Wayne Weaver in November 2011. Lamping joined Khan in 2012 after overseeing the $1.6 billion construction and development of MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

Lamping said the Jaguars have been planning the Jacksonville project “in earnest” for the past three years and have kept Georgia and Florida in the loop every step of the way. School officials were shown detailed renderings at the most recent meeting in March.

“I can say that we received very positive feedback from both of the universities,” Lamping said. “They were appreciative, first, that we took the time to ask their opinion, and then that we were respectful enough to show them what we were thinking about before going forward.”

The architecture firm HOK, which collaborated on the design of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, won the bid for the redesign over seven competitors. Lamping said they’re “probably 98% there” as far as settling on a final layout and configuration.

The timing of the Jaguars’ renovation dovetails nicely with the expiration of the Georgia-Florida contract with the city of Jacksonville. The current contract expires with this year’s game, but it includes an option to extend the agreement through the 2025 season.

Construction on the Jaguars’ two-year project would begin in 2026. Because of the extensiveness of the work, it’s possible that both the Jaguars and Georgia-Florida would need to seek alternate sites to play during the 2026-27 seasons. The thought is the Bulldogs and Gators would switch to home-and-home for those two years. That’s what they did when the original Gator Bowl stadium was demolished and rebuilt on site for the Jaguars in 1994-95.

However, there also are scenarios being discussed in which construction would be paused during those two seasons, thus not effecting competition schedules.

“It depends on the renovation strategy that is selected,” Lamping said. “... If they needed to find another place to play, the hope and the expectation – because of the meaningful upgrades to the stadium – is that there would’ve been discussions regarding the game returning to Jacksonville once the stadium is complete.”

An ongoing mayoral election also may have an impact. A runoff between Democrat Donna Deegan and Republican Daniel Davis will be decided Tuesday. Both are on record saying they don’t want to see the Jaguars leave town during construction.

However, outgoing Mayor Lenny Curry said this week he expects the Georgia-Florida game to relocate to their respective campuses during the construction.

Georgia Athletic Director Josh Brooks issued a statement on the subject this week.

“We look forward to having conversations with the appropriate city of Jacksonville officials, which will provide more information on the scope of construction, the timeline of the project and how it would impact the future of our game versus Florida,” Brooks said.

One thing that will not affect the future of the game is SEC expansion. Adding Oklahoma and Texas for the 2024-25 academic year, the league is having to redesign its intraconference scheduling model to accommodate 16 teams rather than 14. While the conference has utilized an eight-game schedule for the past 30 years, there is growing sentiment among membership – and certainly television – to change to a nine-game format that would include three permanent opponents while rotating through the other 12 SEC schools home-and-home over a four-year cycle.

However, there remains some SEC schools that prefer to keep an eight-game schedule. A proposed 1-7 format (one permanent and seven rotating opponents) also would allow round-robin cycling over a four-year period. League presidents are expected to vote on a new scheduling proposal at the end SEC Spring Meetings in Destin on June 2.

In either scenario, though, Florida and Georgia are expected to remain permanent opponents. But the schools purposefully remain vague about the future of their game. After all, it’s in their best interest to leverage their positions with Jacksonville, which they have done for decades. That’s why contract lengths rarely have exceeded four years and have been constantly renegotiated.

The Bulldogs and Gators, who have played their annual game in Jacksonville every year except two since 1933. They are not, however, the only SEC teams to play annual neutral-site games.

Oklahoma and Texas play the Red River Rivalry annually in Dallas. Arkansas and Texas A&M have played annually at AT&T Stadium – “Jerry World” – in Arlington, Texas, since the Aggies joined the SEC in 2012.

Oklahoma-Texas is not expected to be affected, but Arkansas-A&M could be, depending on whether a 3-6 or a 1-7 scheduling model is adopted. The new SEC schedule will be determined based on designation of permanent opponents per school recommendation, officials confirmed this week, but the conference does not dictate where the games are played.

Based on revenue production and TV viewership, the SEC has no reason to discourage such matchups.

“It comes down to finances,” said Greg McGarity, former Georgia’s athletic director who currently is president and CEO of Gator Bowl Sports. “You’re generating tremendous dollars every year, instead of every other year. That’s why you choose to play neutral-site games. It’s going to be even more resourceful now than it has been in the past because the schools can control the dollars. They can make as much money as they want.”

That certainly has been the case with Georgia-Florida. The city of Jacksonville has taken very good care of schools over the years. Based on the terms of the current contract, which includes an option to extend through 2025, each team makes about $4.5 million a year. UGA typically averages about $4 million in revenue per home game, but would make that only every other year in the case of a home-and-home arrangement with the Gators.

That’s a $25 million difference – $45 million versus $20 million – over a 10-year period. Meanwhile, it actually costs SEC teams about $500,000 to travel to away games. The Jacksonville contract pays all travel costs for both teams.

“It’s significant revenue, I don’t care what your budget is,” McGarity said. “It will always produce more revenue to play a neutral-site game, but you’re also talking about a game that has historical value and a strong television presence.”

Meanwhile, the city of Jacksonville is not standing pat. It, too, is going to fight for a revenue stream that makes an estimated economic impact of $35 million per year. Accordingly, the $2.75 million each school currently receives in incentives is expected to increase in a new agreement.

Georgia fans remain decidedly split on keeping the game in Jacksonville. The season-ticket base is polled regularly and, though there rarely is a clear favorite, the sentiment on remaining in Jacksonville has decreased incrementally over the years.

That has been influenced considerably by Georgia coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs’ eighth-year coach has been outspoken about preferring to play the Gators home-and-home so that the football program can host official recruiting visits on campus every other year.

“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,” he said after the Bulldogs beat Florida for the fifth time in six years last October. “But I’m not fighting the fight for anything.”

Having coached Georgia to back-to-back championships, Smart’s popularity is at an all-time high, and his opinion holds sway. But improving recruiting is a curious claim. The Bulldogs haven’t finished outside the top 5 nationally in recruiting in the past seven years.

Meanwhile, Georgia spends more money on recruiting than any team in the country, according to annual budget reports. Smart will earn about $12 million in salary in the coming year, and he also has the top-paid coaching staff in college football. It would seem counter-productive to encourage a change that would reduce revenue while increasing spending.

“I always respected Kirby’s argument from the perspective of a football coach,” McGarity said. “But decisions have to be made on what’s best for the institution, which takes into consideration all your sports. And Kirby’s not going to leave the University of Georgia because he has to play in Jacksonville. He understands finances. I used to joke with him: ‘We’ll just take $2 million out of a football recruiting.’”

McGarity never would have done that, of course, nor will Brooks. But the bottom line remains the bottom line, and Jaguars are doing what they can to enhance the situation.

They have big plans for TIAA Bank Field and its perch alongside the St. Johns River, and those plans very much include the Bulldogs and the Gators.

“We have objectives beyond the Jaguars’ experience here,” Lamping said. “We want Georgia-Florida to continue to come to Jacksonville for years and years to come. We want the Gator Bowl to be in position to host under an expanded College Football Playoff. We also want to host many other non-NFL events, concerts and things like that. It’s not just the stadium, it’s what’s going to happen outside the stadium. We believe it’ll be a vibrant, mixed-use entertainment development that gives people a much better experience before and after games.”