By Gene Frenette, GateHouse Florida
JACKSONVILLE — Many college football traditions have gone by the wayside, some of it due to conference realignment and others lost to plain, old-fashioned greed or negligence.
Just don’t expect the Florida-Georgia game to fall into that category and move away from Jacksonville any time soon.
Is it impossible? No, because few things in sports last forever. But it’s going to take a lot more than occasional grumbling about Florida owning a geographical home-field advantage, or a lament from Georgia football coach Kirby Smart about losing a recruiting weekend, to compel the schools to abandon a good thing.
Prying the Florida-Georgia game away from the same venue it has played continuously since 1933 (except 1994-95 for Gator Bowl renovations) would take a bizarre turn of events. It’s anchored down pretty tight at TIAA Bank Field. Jacksonville would have to fumble the ball in a bad way because nobody of considerable influence wants the game going anywhere.
Not Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, not Georgia AD Greg McGarity, not the Jaguars, and certainly not Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry. He’s never been shy about ripping the previous administration of Alvin Brown for not being more pro-active in negotiating a contract renewal with the schools, so Curry would view it as a personal affront to see the Florida-Georgia game and its $35 million economic impact go elsewhere on his watch.
But Jacksonville’s foothold on this game goes beyond staging 86 years of nearly uninterrupted tradition. It’s the fans feeling connected to the 50-50 atmosphere of coming to Jacksonville, the RV city experience, the relationships forged over decades of this city trying to accommodate the wishes of the most heated SEC rivals besides Alabama and Auburn.
All those factors, however, are secondary to the most important reason why Jacksonville should have this game on lockdown for the foreseeable future: money.
Florida and Georgia are now pocketing $3.3 million in profit annually to play in Jacksonville. That’s what makes any discussion of going to a home-and-home series so foolhardy because every year, the away team would receive no money and spend several hundred thousand dollars on travel costs that are now covered.
Smart can lament all he wants about Georgia losing one recruiting weekend every two years. Aside from the fact he’s already brought home a top-3 recruiting class nationally every year since his arrival, there’s no way McGarity or school president Jere Morehead would leave $3.3 million on the table. And nobody in the UF administration is going to consider that option either.
None of this means Jacksonville can take for granted the game will always be here. If anything could put the game’s future in jeopardy, it’s complacency. The city flirted with that a little bit during the Brown administration, letting communication with the schools slip through the cracks so badly, Curry, Jaguars’ president Mark Lamping and other officials had to mend some fences after the mayor took office in the summer of 2015.
The last contract didn’t get signed until March, 2016, seven months before it was due to expire. Normally, a deal is consummated well over a year before the last game is played, though the Jaguars’ unfinished renovations to 3,000 club seats factored into the delay.
Curry was adamant when the last contract got signed to include a provision that negotiations would start sooner in the process, so he’s been more diligent about not letting communication issues become a problem.
As McGarity told the Times-Union when the 2016 deal was consummated: “The city was very responsive once [Curry] came on board. Little things in deals are big things. This isn’t a slam dunk or formality. We don’t want the game to move, but don’t give us a reason to move it.”
If there’s any legitimate threat to the game leaving Jacksonville, it’d be a combination of two things: not acquiescing to the schools’ contractual demand of the Florida-Georgia game capacity remaining 82,917, along with any future push from Georgia to maybe bring Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium into the equation on a biennial basis.
It’s no secret the replacement venue for the demolished Georgia Dome has become a huge neutral-site player on the college football landscape. With an expanded capacity of 75,000, though it’s almost 8,000 less seats than TIAA Bank Field, the only way Atlanta can significantly outspend Jacksonville for the Florida-Georgia game in terms of payout would be to charge at least double for club seats.
Between tradition and the economics that plays out in Jacksonville’s favor, nothing short of an unforeseen disaster is going to force the Florida-Georgia game out of TIAA Bank Field. Next year, look for a new five-year Florida-Georgia contract to be signed through 2026. Jacksonville is not going to be another Birmingham, which lost the SEC Championship Game to Atlanta in 2005 and will never get it back.
As long as Jacksonville makes keeping the Florida-Georgia game a top priority, nobody is going to hijack its greatest single-day sporting event.
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