As a large city with a small media market, Jacksonville has long had the desire for professional sports teams but lacked the allure needed to convince leagues and investment groups that the city was a worthwhile venture for them. Numerous attempts at gaining expansion franchises were either shot down or didn’t make it past one year of existence. For decades, the only permanent sports fixtures in the area were minor-league baseball’s Jacksonville Suns, the PGA’s PLAYERS Championship, and the annual Florida-Georgia college football game being played in an increasingly run-down and outdated Gator Bowl Stadium.
Then in 1993, the city was awarded an NFL expansion team: the Jacksonville Jaguars, and our luck began to turn around.
The team would begin operations in 1995 at the newly-built Jacksonville Municipal Stadium (later Alltel Stadium, now Everbank Field), and enjoyed almost immediate on-field success, winning divisional titles in 1996 and 1999.
Soon after, the Professional Golf Association (PGA) doubled down on their investments in the Ponte Vedra Beach area, which had long been home to one of their biggest events, The PLAYERS Championship. They began construction on the World Golf Village in St. Johns County, designed to showcase the World Golf Hall of Fame. The Village itself opened in 1998. It would become home to an IMAX theater, a number of resort-style hotels, and a restaurant partially-owned by actor Bill Murray.
Hockey came to the First Coast as well, although ultimately it became a failed experiment. The Jacksonville Barracudas played from 2002 and 2008, bouncing around a few small leagues and winning championships in two of them. They originally used Jacksonville Veterans’ Memorial Arena, but would be forced out by increased rent costs. After attempting to play home games at Jacksonville Ice, a small recreational ice rink located in the former Philips Highway Plaza, the team realized it simply wasn’t going to work out and folded in 2008.
In 2000, the NFL voted to award Super Bowl XXXIX to Jacksonville. It would be held in 2005, by which point the Jaguars had started to decline in productivity and struggled to fill Alltel Stadium for home games. Further complicating our hosting stint was the fact that Jacksonville was ill-prepared to host an event of such magnitude, with cruise ships being docked and used as extra hotel space to accommodate the massive influx of visitors.
Nonetheless, the game went off without a hitch and rose the city’s national profile. While the cruise-ships incident drew some mockery, the majority of analysts agreed that everything went better than expected and that the city handled its overwhelming task with grace.
The success of Super Bowl XXXIX prompted a revival of interest in Jacksonville as a sports city. The first newcomers were less than glamorous: the Jacksonville Axemen, a semi-professional rugby team, began operations in 2006. The team continues to this day, having won a championship in 2010. They use UNF’s Hodges Stadium as their home venue.
It was also around this time that the city gained a renewed interest in professional basketball. In 2004, the city played host to USA Basketball’s practices as well an exhibition game prior to the Summer Olympics. Following the announcement and subsequent success of this venture, buzz began within the city around the idea of professional basketball coming to the First Coast.
An American Basketball Association team, the Jacksonville Jam, began operations in 2006. They played at UNF Arena, which also had served as home to training camp and exhibition games for the NBA’s Orlando Magic. The team won a divisional title, but struggled to attract a fanbase or remain financially stable. A planned re-launch in the Premier Basketball League, under the new name of “Jacksonville SLAM”, would be scrapped due to ownership complications and lack of interest.
This, however, was not the end for professional basketball in Jacksonville. The Jacksonville Giants would begin operations, also in the ABA, in 2010. So far the Giants have been vastly more successful than their predecessors, having won three regional titles and three league championships – the most recent coming in 2016. The team has also gained a much larger following in the First Coast community, with games being broadcast in high-definition by CW17 and the team having even set an ABA attendance record in 2014. They play most of their home games at Veterans’ Memorial Arena, with the remainder being played at the local Edward Waters College.
The Giants are not the city’s only successful minor-league team; the Arena Football League’s Jacksonville Sharks won ArenaBowl XXIV in only their second year of operation. Despite recent troubles for the league itself, the Sharks have stayed afloat and remain as one of eight currently-operating AFL teams, playing at the Veterans’ Memorial Arena on Sea Best Field.
The most recent addition to the First Coast sports family is soccer; Jacksonville Armada FC was formed in 2013 and began play in the National American Soccer League this past year. The club had little on-field success, finishing in last-place in the league and firing their coach, but the response of Jacksonville residents to the club is a point of optimism for the future. The team has a passionate, rapidly-growing fanbase — the Armada’s first regular season game set a modern-era league record for attendance, and average home attendance was just under 8,000. The club has ambitious plans to build its own stadium down the line, but currently plays its home games at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.
While a second major league team is still desired by Jacksonville residents, the fact is that the city has become a place for smaller teams to thrive. Twenty years ago, we only had the Jaguars and the Suns. Today, we now can also boast two championship-caliber minor league franchises, with a third now entering the mix and hoping to join in on the success. We can only guess what may happen over the next twenty years, but given the First Coast’s current rate of growth and recent success, we just might get that second major league team.