One of the primary barometers for a premier city is its ability to consistently draw in big-name entertainment and cultural events, whether in the form of musical concerts, conventions, or sporting events. And in order to draw big-name acts, a city needs world-class entertainment venues such as a municipal arena.
Jacksonville, at present, has two primary big-event indoor performance venues: VyStar Veterans Arena and Daily’s Place. The arena ranked 102nd worldwide in arena ticket sales last year, while Daily’s Place ranked 43rd among amphitheaters.
But the city has come a long way to have two major indoor venues – and in fact, until 1960, it didn’t have a municipal arena at all.
The Coliseum, Jacksonville’s first municipal arena, didn’t open its doors until late 1960, but that doesn’t mean the city was without an indoor performance venue.
The old Duval County Armory building, built in 1916, served for many decades as something of an unofficial city performance venue. Its large auditorium featured a stage and balcony, making it suitable for hosting major events like concerts and boxing matches.
Another venue, The Arena, sat at the corner of Main and Beaver streets and had room for about 1,000 people. Wrestling promoter Jimmie Murdock hosted weekly boxing and wrestling tournaments along with vaudeville-themed acts, running the venue for over two decades before the Coliseum rendered it obsolete.
Downtown Jax also had plenty of smaller-scale performing arts theaters and movie houses, but none with a capacity of over 2,000. When Elvis Presley played a series of shows at the Florida Theatre in the ‘50s, tickets sold out almost immediately and fans gathered outside the theater hoping to
JACKSONVILLE VETERANS MEMORIAL COLISEUM
By the late ‘50s, it was clear to city leadership that, in order to keep up with other growing metropolitan areas, it needed a municipal arena.
The Jacksonville Coliseum was conceived amidst a flurry of civic projects that also included a new county courthouse and city hall building. It featured a Mid-century modern design that complemented the other projects from that era. The design was helmed by local architects George Ryad Fisher and A. Eugene Cellar.
The arena opened in November 1960 as the 11,000-seat Jacksonville Coliseum; its construction took two years and cost around $3 million. By the end of the decade, its name was changed to Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
The Coliseum quickly began drawing big-name acts to the city and by 1964, it landed its first regular tenant: the Rockets of the Eastern Hockey League. In 1969, it became the home of Jacksonville University’s basketball team; it would be the team’s home arena for three decades and hosted conference tournaments in 1981, 1999, and 2000.
Over the course of over four decades, the Coliseum housed five professional hockey teams, two basketball teams including the ABA’s Floridians’ brief residency during the ‘70s, an indoor soccer team, and an arena football team.
By the ‘90s, however, the need for a newer, more modern arena became glaringly apparent. The Coliseum had developed a reputation among performing artists for its subpar acoustics, and its relatively small capacity limited the amount of revenue the performers – and the city – could bring in from each show.
VYSTAR VETERANS ARENA
Preparations to replace the Coliseum with a new arena emerged in the early 2000s as part of the Better Jacksonville Plan.
The Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena was built between 2001 and 2003 at a cost of $130 million. Its architects, HOK Sport, designed it to fit in with both the existing Old St. Andrew’s Church building as well as the new Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.
The 16,000-seat arena opened in 2003, with the Coliseum being imploded shortly thereafter.
Like the Coliseum, the new arena became home to Jacksonville University’s basketball team; it served in that capacity until the team moved out in 2015.
The new arena helped attract major events such as a Team USA basketball scrimmage in 2004 and NCAA men’s basketball tournament games in 2010, 2015, and 2019. It’s also served as the host to the Sharks, Giants, and Icemen since their inception.
Last year, the arena was renamed VyStar Veterans Arena, gaining a title sponsor but continuing to honor local veterans.
It was recently announced that the arena may take part in hosting a portion of the Republican National Convention later this year. While those plans are in doubt due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it still shows that the arena is capable of landing an event as big as a political party convention.
With the sports district set for an overhaul, led by the Jaguars’ development of Lot J and the Shipyards, the arena is sure to remain a crucial element of the city’s entertainment venue options for years to come.