Allure of the Big Game

Jacksonville throws in for college football 
national championship games


Remember when Jacksonville hosted the Super Bowl? Seems like it was almost a decade ago — because it was. Paul McCartney was the musical halftime entertainment, and for some, that was the punch line of the joke. For others, it was something far more elemental: the fact that the NFL dared to hold its showcase game — arguably the biggest event in professional sports —i n the Bold New City of the South.

The horror, the horror!

National pundits — such as Tony Kornheiser of ESPN and the Washington Post, Bill "The Sports Guy" Simmons and a cavalcade of media stars — made all of the jokes that you would expect. "In Jacksonville, there are more Waffle Houses than reasons to live" type material. It was great fun to have the national media lay into Jacksonville for its shortcomings when it came to hosting an event like the Super Bowl; primary among them was that the city lacked a centralized entertainment district that one would expect in a major city, and that there were not enough hotel rooms for the influx of visitors.

The entertainment issue was more or less solved, though with Super Bowl parties being held at far-flung venues like Plush/The Edge in Arlington, it was hard to find a cab to get to them. The issue of lodging had a similarly ad hoc solution, in the form of lodging on cruise ships in the St. Johns River. Somehow, we got through the event, albeit with damage to our reputation nationally and even internationally. Or so the narrative goes.

I am reminded of the Super Bowl logistics issues given the recent announcement by Gator Bowl President and CEO Rick Catlett that Jacksonville intends to bid on national championship games in 2016 and 2017.

"We think we're in a really good position," Catlett told The Florida Times-Union in September. "We've got a heckuva offer. We have 84,000 seats and all the hotels that they're asking for. Plus, we've got premium resorts. … We've hosted a Super Bowl [in 2005], so we know how to do it. I'm very confident that in the next five years, we'll host one of these championship games."

The money needed for the bid—expected to be just south of $20 million—will come from private sponsorship as he told the Times-Union, which is fine. But which private sponsorship? Catlett did not respond to repeated email and phone inquiries.

As a Jacksonville sportswriter, I have a vested interest in a national championship game coming to Jacksonville. I want this to happen — I'd like to cover it, to feel the unique energy that comes when the two best teams in college square off on a neutral field to win it all. The energy of the fanbases, the electricity in the air, the quality action on the gridiron – bring it on, I say.

As a rational human being, however, who looks at life as a series of cost-benefit analyses, and who understands this city's perpetual preoccupation with measuring its civic worth not by its library system or its social services or its roads or its mass transit but by its prominence in the corrupt and bloated world of big-time sports, I have to ask – why would people who were not Jacksonville "homers" or paid advocates choose Jacksonville over bigger cities with more amenities?

First of all, as we saw from Super Bowl week years back, our winter weather can be a crapshoot. Cold, wind, rain — we do get them here. Is that something tourists want to deal with as they walk to our limited assortment of local bars on Bay Street and beyond?

Theme parks? Big-time entertainment? Be prepared to drive. Yes, there are golf courses nearby, and that is swell. But golf is not enough to make up for what a fresh market like San Francisco — a world-class city by any estimation — can offer.

I asked Catlett why Jacksonville would be chosen over the competition — what, exactly, our unique value proposition was. What benefit would this event confer on the average citizen? Some people would make serious money. Some low-level employees might have short-term hourly jobs. But for most of us? Just more people in the traffic jam.

I appreciate why Jacksonville would like to have a national championship game. I just don't see it happening. And maybe that is the best thing for all concerned. Better to leave the big stage for entities that won't wither in the spotlight.

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