The city of Jacksonville has held the Florida-Georgia game for almost a century. Are both schools ready to change that? (Photo by Neil Shulman, In All Kinds Of Weather)
The Florida Gators and the Georgia Bulldogs are notorious for not being able to see eye to eye.
It was Georgia, after all, that cast one of the two deciding votes that retroactively vacated Florida’s 1984 SEC Championship. The two sides can’t even agree on how many times they’ve met on the football field. And Florida and Georgia are constantly at odds about what the future of their football rivalry should look like- and specifically, where it should take place.
So when the University of Florida and the University of Georgia released a joint statement that says they’re exploring all available options for the future of the game, the message is clear: they’re serious. And the game’s days in Jacksonville might be numbered.
Let’s start at the beginning. This game has been played in Jacksonville every year since 1933, with the exception of 1994 and 1995 when the Jacksonville stadium required renovations in preparation for the incoming NFL team, the Jaguars. Ever since then, with vacillating volumes that hinged on Georgia’s recent results in their border war with Florida, Bulldog fans were always quick to point out one major issue: the location. Because for them, well… it sucks. It’s technically a neutral-site game, and both teams get half the tickets, but it’s just a little easier for one school to utilize its tickets than the other.
There is no good way to get from Athens to Jacksonville. The best way to do it is to take multiple state and county roads to the southeast, and sort of meander your way down to Savannah for about three and a half hours. At that point, you hop on I-95 south, and stay on it for another hour and a half. And that only puts you in the Jacksonville city limits; Jacksonville is, of course, massive in terms of sheer land, meaning you have at least another half hour to go from the city limits to where you actually want to be in Jacksonville. Add that all up, and that’s five and a half hours in a car, almost a full day of driving, and that either kills half of your day Friday and Sunday or makes for a really long Saturday. As a Gator fan who has been flying down to Gainesville from just outside of New York City for 4+ games a year since 2018, I can empathize with that. It’s a lot.
Of course, for Florida, this issue isn’t there. From Gainesville to Jacksonville is about 90 minutes in a car, meaning UF students can hop in a car and get there in no time.
Now: the fact that the location is more convenient for Florida than it is for Georgia doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Alone, that factor would not spur any change. Georgia fans and even some administrators have been complaining about this forever, and it hasn’t mattered because Florida simply held its ground on the issue through the decades. Georgia coaches and higher-ups have proposed everything from playing the game on a home-and-home basis in Gainesville and Athens the way almost every other SEC game is, to putting the game in Atlanta (an obvious “let’s see how YOU like it!” counter to Jacksonville that was never going to gain any traction) and even a four-year rotation of Gainesville, Athens, Jacksonville, and Atlanta.
To each such suggestion- and as recently as the summer– Florida brass simply rolled its eyes and replied, “no.”
Maybe that’s because for all the allure the city of Jacksonville brings, for all the work the city does to turn itself into a two-day fan-fest for both teams, for all the history there, and for each and every one of the $1.25 million dollars plus travel expenses that Florida receives (well, both schools receive $1.25 million) each year for playing the game in Jacksonville, Florida is finally seeing some of the other benefits to moving the game elsewhere.
For one thing, there’s the ticket issue.
TIAA Bank Field typically hosts 67,814 fans for a typical Jaguars game. That number, though, is expanded for big events, such as the Super Bowl and Florida-Georgia. As many as 17,000 temporary seats can be installed, bringing the maximum possible attendance up to about 84,750- a more than respectable number for a game of this stature (and oftentimes, attendance could eclipse even that total).
However, the stadium’s restrooms, concessions, gates, and ramps- were not built to accommodate an extra 17,000 people. Prior to the 2021 game, Florida and Georgia both realized this, and mutually agreed to not have 5,600 of the 17,000 extra seats put into place so as not to overwhelm the stadium. That limited the attendance of last year’s game to just over 76,000, and will again for this week’s Florida-Georgia game. In other words, both schools can sell 76,000 tickets to this game every two years- and mind you, both schools chose to limit themselves in ticket sales because the fan experience was so bad.
This wouldn’t be a problem at either school’s home stadium. Sanford Stadium in Athens can eclipse 93,000 fans, and though the Swamp’s capacity is going to shrink considerably once Athletic Director Scott Stricklin orders renovations to begin, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium should still be able to hold well over 80,000 people, if not 85,000. And both stadiums were built with monster crowd sizes in mind.
So even if we take the most dramatic number and say that the Swamp’s attendance numbers will be maxed out at 80,000 people, that’s still 4,000 tickets every two years- to a high-profile game, mind you, that the UAA can name its price for and watch fans flock to pay it- that Florida would sell that it is not currently able to sell. And Georgia can sell a whopping 17,000 extra tickets to its biennial home game against its hated rival that it currently cannot.
Then there’s the scheduling-and-commerce combo issue.
Naturally, Jacksonville wants to keep the game. In a world where politics drives people to madness, the Florida-Georgia game accomplished a rare feat: getting five different politicians to wholeheartedly agree on an issue. But that doesn’t mean either Florida or Georgia has to follow suit.
For as critical to Jacksonville’s economy as the Florida-Georgia game is, neither school is located there. Both schools are in their own cities, with their own economies to worry about; they are under zero obligations to worry about Jacksonville’s economy. For any home college football game, a college town’s business booms as food and beer are consumed by tens of thousands of people and hotels are fully booked months in advance. Playing this game in Jacksonville removes the opportunity for both college towns to profit from the rivalry’s craze.
And that, in turn, is just the doorway to the main problem here. Schools want to host a certain number of college football games a year in order to not only sell X number of tickets- they can still do that in neutral site games- but entertain large throngs of humans for the aforementioned reasons of commerce.
Additionally, by playing the Florida-Georgia game on the schools’ home campuses once every two years, as opposed to zero times, ever, a gateway is pushed open to begin playing more marquee non-conference opponents.
Eight years ago, when a twenty-year-old me was still fuming at the thought that the Gators’ grotesque 21-16 loss to Miami would be the last time the teams played, I even went into detail about what had to happen for the Florida-Miami rivalry to resume: the Florida-Georgia rivalry had to be taken out of Jacksonville. (For the record, I’ve cooled considerably on that opinion since writing that in 2014; I’d still like to play Miami every year, as they are a long-time rival, but my itch to beat them was satisfied in 2019 and I don’t really want to gut the Jacksonville tradition to do so.)
But having said that, we currently live in a world where the SEC schedule consists of only eight games in a twelve-game season. Texas and Oklahoma set to enter the league in 2025 is all but guaranteed to change that, as there’s no way to cobble together even a semblance of schedule strength parity in a 16-team league with just eight conference games. The SEC may think long and hard about it, but it’s incredibly difficult to envision the conference not going to a nine-game conference schedule model.
Florida and (especially) Georgia are two teams that schedule marquee non-conference opponents. The Gators have home-and-home series set with Miami, Arizona State, Notre Dame, California, Colorado, and NC State in the next decade; Georgia has home-and-homes with UCLA, FSU, Ohio State, Louisville, and NC State in the next dozen years. And that’s on top of the schools’ yearly rivalries with ACC teams at the end of the season. (Both schools also set nonconference dates with Texas that will likely be scrapped, as the Bulldogs’ series with Oklahoma was.)
In a world where marquee nonconference games are a luxury that will almost surely be reduced by 25%, with teams’ schedules going from consisting of four non-SEC games to three, Florida and Georgia will therefore lose control of what to do with one of those remaining games. Both schools will keep their in-state rivalries, but the choice of what to do with one of those nonconference games will be taken out of their hands.
And yet, there’s an easy way for them to get that choice back- by taking the game out of Jacksonville, and adding one big-time home game to each team’s schedule every two years. That extra home game would then make up for the lost commerce of, say, choosing to play a road game at NC State. Now, by hosting the Florida-Georgia game, schools open a spot on their schedules that they do not have to play a home game on. The schools can play an extra marquee non-conference opponent on the road in the year in which they host the Florida-Georgia game, and will get to host that marquee non-conference opponent in a highly-publicized showdown another year.
Which brings us back to the beginning. At least to me, Florida and Georgia issuing that joint statement says that the two schools have figured out that there are real benefits to moving the game to each team’s campus- and those benefits go way beyond allowing schools to host recruits at the Florida-Georgia game in Jacksonville- and that after nearly a century of history in Jacksonville, the time has come to explore other options.
I’m not strongly advocating for one way or another. I see positives and negatives to both. I experienced the setting for the first time in Jacksonville last year, and it was great. There’s so much more to the weekend than just the game; it’s a full day and a half of non-stop partying on or near the banks of the St. John’s River, with two proud fanbases both displaying their school’s colors and celebrating their teams’ places in the magical sport of college football.
Moving the game to Gainesville and Athens is a particularly nasty middle finger to the scenery, the pageantry, and the history of Jacksonville. I get all of that. And if I did have a say in the matter, despite my acknowledging all the scheduling possibilities a home-and-series wiith Georgia would open up as well as the increase in ticket sales, I’d vote for keeping the game in Jacksonville- the weekend in Jacksonville is just that special. But it’s not in my hands.
What we know for sure is that not only is this year’s Florida-Georgia game set to be played in Jacksonville, but next year’s game is as well. The contract expires in 2023, with options to renew it in 2024 and 2025. So there is still time to experience the game colloquially known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party as it has existed since 1933, with a two-day fan fest in Jacksonville leading up to the game in the Jaguars’ home stadium.
As with many things in life, though, there may not be as much time as you think.