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Post Add stadium renovations to WLOCP uncertainty

Sunday May 14, 2023

A renovation of the Jacksonville stadium area has been something we’ve had our eye on for a while. Two years ago ESPN detailed plans for a $441 million development project surrounding TIAA Bank Field including a $120 million football facility for the Jaguars. That facility is under construction and should be ready in time for the 2023 NFL season. This facility is a prerequisite for something a little more relevant to us:

The Jaguars hope the project is the first step in what they are calling the Stadium of the Future for Jaguars fans, meaning eventual significant renovations — or possibly even a brand-new one — within the next decade.

We’ve learned more about those “eventual significant renovations” this week. Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry discussed plans for those renovations on local radio and laid out a timetable that could leave the Georgia-Florida game without a venue in 2025 and 2026.

Worth noting is that the mayor’s office had to clarify “that nothing is set in stone and the time period could be subject to change from two years to one.” In other words these are still fluid plans that have yet to be finalized and approved at any level. According to Andy Staples “the Gators have been operating under the impression that if the stadium renovation goes forward, it would start in 2026 and make the facility unavailable in 2026 and 2027.” On the other hand a two-year schedule for a complete down-to-the-studs renovation might prove to be optimistic. So even the timetable is up in the air. The important takeaway is that some time later this decade the Jacksonville stadium is likely to be unavailable for the WLOCP.

The news comes as the future of the game in Jacksonville itself is uncertain. The current contract between Georgia, Florida, and the city of Jacksonville runs through 2023 with a two-year option to extend through 2025. The deadline to take that option is coming up next month, but there’s still another layer of uncertainty: the SEC has yet to finalize its future scheduling format when Oklahoma and Texas join the league in 2024. Everything from 8 vs. 9 conference games, the elimination of divisional play, and the preservation of traditional rivalries is on the table. We’d hope to get some resolution to that question at the SEC spring meetings taking place at the end of May.

So a lot could be happening over the next six weeks. If we get clarity about the future SEC football scheduling format, that could inform the decision to take or leave the option to extend the contract with Jacksonville. But even that option might need to be modified if the stadium won’t be available in the final year of the deal.

Ticket crunch

Stadiums are shrinking. New stadium projects emphasize amenities over capacity. When you’re competing against a large, crystal-clear HDTV picture in an air-conditioned room, that’s probably not a bad strategy. When studies find that “70 to 80 percent of ticket revenue comes from the first 15 to 20 rows,” the right move is to maximize the experience for those fans over cramming another 20,000 people into bleachers. Nashville will spend over $2 billion to build a new football stadium with a capacity around 60,000 – and they plan to bid on Super Bowls and CFP games! Buffalo is looking at a new stadium with a capacity between 60-63,000. Even the massive college football palaces are hopping on the trend: work at Bryant-Denny stadium to improve premium seating will lead to a modest reduction in capacity.

Georgia and Florida already accept a smaller venue by playing in Jacksonville (or any NFL stadium.) But even that capacity has shrunk. The current contract with Jacksonville requires requires a capacity of at least 82,917 fans. Anyone who’s been to the game is familiar with the temporary seats in either endzone that got them to this number. Of course attendance was limited in 2020, and in 2021 and 2022 capacity was reduced to 76,700 with a concession of $400,000 to each school. Why? Again, premium seating. The decision was made not to put temporary seats in the north endzone in favor of a premium seating area.

The nominal capacity in Jacksonville is currently 67,814 without the temporary seating. In 2019 attendance was 84,789. Now it’s 76,700. I don’t want to presume too much about a stadium redesign that hasn’t made it to blueprints yet, but if the Georgia-Florida game is that important to Jacksonville and its stadium partners there has to be consideration for capacity. That might put Jacksonville at odds with current stadium trends, or it might require a creative solution to allow for temporary expanded capacity in a design built around the premium experience.

We’ve already seen capacity come down by about 10%. A further reduction would make this game even less accessible and more on par with postseason games. It doesn’t seem all that crazy to suggest that by 2029 10-15,000 fewer fans will have access to this game than in 2019. (And that would be about 20,000 fewer fans than either home stadium could support.)

Jacksonville or Home-and-Home

It’s been clear for some time that the financial benefits have kept the game in Jacksonville. The schools pay relatively little in terms of operating and travel expenses for the game, and there’s a handsome payout split by Georgia and Florida. That combination nets each school quite a bit more than they’d gain hosting on campus every other year. So long as that remains the case any arguments about recruiting, fairness, or a trip to the Golden Isles will be overshadowed by the windfall.

Large payouts for neutral site games are nothing new. Georgia pulled down $5 million to play Oregon in Atlanta last season and will do so again playing Clemson in 2024. It’s not hard to imagine that a marquee SEC rivalry game like Georgia-Florida would command a premium price from any of the cities Staples mentioned. (Don’t forget about the expense side of the ledger either. We hear about payouts, but remember that it also costs a good amount of money to host a home game.)

If Jacksonville is unavailable for a couple of years, the assumption would be a home-and-home series like 1994-1995. Staples reminds us that what keeps the game in Jacksonville could just as well to apply to a number of sites in Florida and Georgia.

…if Jacksonville’s stadium winds up being unavailable for two years, don’t be shocked if the game gets shopped to Atlanta, Orlando, Tampa or Miami. And if one or two of those cities bite, don’t be surprised if the price for Jacksonville to reclaim the series goes up prior to 2028.

Even with the Mercedes-Benz stadium a convenient short drive away I can’t see any other neutral venue coming close to capturing the WLOCP vibe. That seems ridiculous to say when most people’s idea of a good Georgia-Florida trip is to spend as little time in Jacksonville proper as possible. There are many ways to experience the WLOCP, but it’s hard to see the culture of “all those places where all those Dawg people have got these condominiums for four days” being replicated in Atlanta or Orlando. I’m willing to make an exception for my preference for home games to continue the tradition of playing this game in Jacksonville, but no thanks to turning it into just another generic neutral site game in a reduced-capacity NFL stadium. Either keep it in Jacksonville or return it to the campuses.

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