As a large city with a small media market, Jacksonville 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 Suns, the PGA’s PLAYERS Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, and the annual Florida-Georgia college football game that was being played in an increasingly run-down and outdated Gator Bowl Stadium.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 its luck began to turn around.
The team would begin operations in 1995 at the newly-built Jacksonville Municipal Stadium – now TIAA Bank Field – and enjoyed almost immediate on-field success, winning divisional titles in 1996 and 1999.
Soon after, PGA doubled down on their investments in the area, which had long been home to one of their biggest events, The PLAYERS Championship. They started construction on the World Golf Village in northern St. Johns County, designed to showcase the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The Village itself opened in 1998 and became 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. The Lizard Kings played in the ‘90s but struggled with a lack of on-ice success. The Barracudas played from 2002 and 2008, bouncing around a few small leagues and winning championships in two of them.
The ‘Cudas originally utilized Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena for their home games but were forced out by increased rent costs. After attempting to play home games at Jacksonville Ice, 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. The game took place in 2005 and, despite hotel shortages, it went off mostly without a hitch and rose the city’s national profile.
The success of Super Bowl XXXIX prompted a revival of interest in Jacksonville as a sports city.
The Jacksonville Axemen, a semi-professional rugby team, began operations in 2006. The team plays its home games at UNF and has won three championships
It was also around this time that the city exhibited a renewed interest in professional basketball. In 2004, Jax played host to USA Basketball practices as well an exhibition game prior to the 2004 Summer Olympics.
Following the announcement and subsequent success of this venture,
An American Basketball Association team, the Jacksonville Jam, began operations in 2006. 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 was scrapped due to ownership complications and lack of fan interest
This, however, was not the end for professional basketball in Jacksonville. The Jacksonville Giants
The Giants have won six ABA championships in just under a decade, having won its fourth title in a row earlier this year. This fall, they’ll begin their tenth season of play looking to win a seventh title.
2010 also brought about the arrival of the Sharks, an arena football franchise that would play its games at Veterans Memorial Arena. The team has won three league championships and has only missed the playoffs once in its ten-season history.
Soccer came to Jax in 2013 with the arrival of Jacksonville Armada FC. The team quickly developed a passionate 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. But since then, the franchise has struggled with poor on-field performance and difficulty finding a league to call home. The team didn’t play in 2019 but hopes to bounce back and soon even build its own stadium
Even the city’s oldest sports franchise has found a way to reinvent itself. In 2016, the Suns changed their name to the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, prompting a spike in attendance and memorabilia sales
Most recently, hockey has returned to Jax in the form of the Icemen of the ECHL. The team moved here from Evansville, IN, in 2017 and already made its first playoff appearance earlier this year
While a second major league team is still desired by Jacksonville residents, the city has now become a place for smaller teams to thrive. Twenty years ago, Jax sports fans only had the Jaguars and the Suns. Today, the city boasts several championship-caliber minor league franchises.
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 may get that second major league team someday soon.