The Jaguars - How Jacksonville Became an NFL City

November 13, 2009 109 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

It's one of the most talked about topics at the water cooler - the Jaguars - and their ticket sales woes. Up to this point, the Jaguars have yet to even be close to selling out any of their home games, and most likely will not for the rest of the year. It seems every national media outlet has had at least one writer take a shot at Jacksonville for the lack of ticket sales. Today, Metro Jacksonville begins a seven part series discussing the Jaguars and the Jacksonville Market, and how they compare to other NFL cities.

An Overview of the Series

Part 1 – How Jacksonville became an NFL city
Part 2 – NFL Economics: What’s changed since 1995?
Part 3 – Jaguars on the Field: How do we compare?
Part 4 – Jacksonville and College Football
Part 5 – Jacksonville vs. Other Small Markets
Part 6 – NFL Relocations and the LA Stadium Plan
Part 7 – What does the future hold?

Early Attempts at Pro Football

The effort to bring professional football to Jacksonville dates back to the 1960's. During that time, the startup American Football League (a new league that competed with the National Football League) was courted by Jacksonville numerous times, and was rumored a couple of times to land a team. The city even hosted the AFL All Star Game twice, the only non-AFL City to host the game.  However, plans were scrapped after the AFL merged with the NFL in 1969.

The 1970's brought the city their first professional team, the Jacksonville Sharks of the all-new World Football League in 1974. However, the team didn't even finish the season before shutting down due to economic problems. The WFL tried to locate another team here (the Jacksonville Express) in 1975, however the entire league shut down about halfway through the 1975 season.

Meanwhile, the owner of the Baltimore Colts, Bob Irsay, was growing increasingly unhappy with his situation in Baltimore due to a variety of reasons. The main issue was the condition of their facility, Memorial Stadium, which they shared with the Baltimore Orioles Baseball Team. The stadium was built in the 1920's and was in desperate need of renovation.  A city and state task force even reviewed the stadium, and found that the facility was woefully inadequate for either the Colts or Orioles, much less the two teams sharing the same space.

Irsay talked to folks from Los Angeles, Memphis, Phoenix, Indianapolis, and Jacksonville, where we famously had 50,000 fans waiting in the Gator Bowl when Bob Irsay came to town.  However, Indianapolis won out after building a brand new domed stadium before the team even committed to moving.

Literally in the middle of the night on on March 29th, 1984, 13 trucks from Mayflower showed up, packed everything the team owned, and the Baltimore Colts were no more.

Photo of one of the 13 Mayflower Trucks Leaving the Baltimore Colts Facility

In 1984 Jacksonville got another taste of Pro Football, with the all-new Jacksonville Bulls of the one year old United States Football League. The Jacksonville franchise was fairly successful economically despite being average on the field. However, despite the Jacksonville franchise's financial success, the league itself was not as successful and folded after the 1985 season as a result of poor business decisions, including a failed plan to merge with the NFL.

Jacksonville Bulls Logo

Touchdown Jacksonville!
In 1989, Tom Petway put together a group of businessmen to bring an NFL team to Jacksonville. The next year, the NFL formally announced their intent to expand by two teams for the 1993 season (which became the 1995 season after the labor dispute of 1992). After the NFL formally opened the doors for expansion, 11 cities applied: Baltimore, Charlotte, Honolulu, Jacksonville, Memphis, Nashville, Oakland, Raleigh-Durham, Sacramento, San Antonio, and St. Louis. In support of the expansion efforts, the Jacksonville City Council unanimously voted to commit $60 million to renovate the Gator Bowl, contingent on being awarded a team.

Nashville, San Antonio, Raleigh-Durham, and Honolulu were eliminated fairly quickly, and Sacramento and Oakland were eliminated shortly afterwards. During this vetting period by the NFL, Wayne Weaver emerged as the managing general partner of Touchdown Jacksonville!

With five cities left (Baltimore, Charlotte, Jacksonville, Memphis, and St Louis), the public viewed the favorites as Baltimore and St. Louis. Both had supported NFL teams in the past (it was only because of stadium issues that both cities lost teams, not fan support).  Furthermore, after the NFL inspected the Gator Bowl, they reported that more money would need to be committed to renovate the facility than previously planned. Jacksonville Mayor Ed Austin was able to negotiate a deal with Touchdown Jacksonville! for renovations totaling $112 million. However, the City Council failed to approve this deal, and the expansion process was dead ... or so it seemed.

A month later, Touchdown Jacksonville! and the city resumed negotiations on a $121 million renovation plan, with a maximum of $53 million coming from the taxpayers. This plan was contingent on selling 9,000 club seats in advance - which Touchdown Jacksonville! exceeded in just ten days.

Charlotte was awarded the first expansion franchise, but the NFL delayed announcing the second franchise for a month. This was considered a blow to Jacksonville at the time, as it was thought that either Baltimore and St. Louis were going to get teams. However behind the scenes rumors were circulating that the Washington ownership was quietly trying to kill the Baltimore proposal, for fear that a franchise up the road in Baltimore would eat into their fan base. St. Louis had multiple groups bidding on a franchise and there was a concern that there would be lawsuits between the groups if the city was awarded the franchise. Finally, the NFL had concerns over the Memphis stadium proposal (which was to renovate the aging Liberty Bowl). Fortunately for Touchdown Jacksonville!, the right man was in charge. The NFL owners liked Wayne Weaver, and had confidence in him as an owner.

The Jaguars Original Helmet and Logo

On November 30th, the NFL shocked the football watching world and awarded a franchise to the small market of Jacksonville. And in 19 1/2 months (a record still held to this day in pro sports facility construction) the entire stadium (minus the West upper deck) was demolished and rebuilt into what was, at the time, a facility that was the envy of the rest of the league.  

Don Criqui, the Play-by-Play voice for the Jaguars first game, said shortly before kickoff of that game in front of 73,000 fans, "There isn't a better football facility in America."

How things have changed in 15 years.

Article by Steve Congro