Best seats at NFL game might be poolside in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Erin Rohe is a stay-at-home mom with four children below the age of 10. Her days are organized around preschool runs and errands. "I don't get out much," she said Sunday afternoon with a smile.

She did have a ticket to the Jacksonville Jaguars' game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, though, and she decided to check out the new party deck with its cabanas and pool overlooking the field on a sunny mid-70s afternoon.

"I didn't have a [swim]suit," she explained, "but I was here, and the energy was so amazing. I just wanted to get in."

So Rohe just walked into the pool, in her Maurice Jones-Drew jersey and her shorts.

"I'll dry off on the way home," she said.

Rohe was not the only one. At least two people waded into the water in their jeans Sunday. A New England Patriots fan named Shawn Livesey whipped off his Tom Brady jersey and hopped in.

"It was awesome!" he said, before being interrupted by a Steelers fan who was wondering if Livesey took his watch.

EverBank Field has gone from a football wasteland to a budding social mecca almost overnight because of this Vegas-style plaza replete with scantily-clad servers, cushy lounge areas and pools that have nearly as many eyes on them as the game going on below. The "Clevelander Deck," borrowed from the Miami hotel (and the Marlins' outfield bar), is basically a trendy nightclub with beach weather. Its cabanas and even its rail seats overlooking the field have already sold out for the season.

"This is the best thing they could have done," raved Trent Sebok, 38, who parked his boat nearby, took a rickshaw to the stadium, and spent the day lounging with his girlfriend, Britni. "Even if the team sucks, you have a good time."

As the game went on Sunday, and only one offensive touchdown was scored all afternoon, the stadium seats began to empty out and the party deck filled up. The pool areas were more crowded in the fourth quarter than in the first.

"Nobody really cares about the game," Sebok said. "I have no idea what the score is." He went on to say he did have seats, but never sat in them.

That might be a little disconcerting for Jags executives (not to mention players), but one pool-half-full outcome is that the team is 0-5 and team owner Shad Khan is popular enough on the party deck to run for mayor. He poured in millions for the stadium upgrade, and so did the city.

"I'm so blown away by what the owners have done," Rohe said. "The city needs something big like this."

EverBank used to be known for the tarps that covered huge swaths of the stands during games. Now, although there are 9,500 fewer seats, there is more noise. And the sightlines are very good from the deck, as pool dwellers can watch the game from the water, on one of the 80 TVs or on one of the mammoth new end-zone scoreboards.

Of course there are other places to cast a gaze, including models on stilts, lifeguards in Baywatch-red suits, and locals in swimwear.

The timing of the opening of the Clevelander Deck isn't ideal, considering the NFL is trying desperately to shore up its image in the wake of several domestic violence incidents. Waitresses in midriff-baring outfits don't exactly make a family-friendly statement for the league. Yet the women here seem to enjoy themselves as much as the men. And there were some kids in the pool as well on Sunday.

"My husband is actually watching the game," said Natalie Lynn, 36. "I like to be where the fun's at. It's an eye-opening experience."

It's also a revenue stream. Jags senior vice president of sales Chad Johnson says the upgrades have added $2 million in new revenue already, and the team has only nine true home dates (including exhibitions) because one game is in London. Cabanas cost $150 per person, and $250 for poolside tents. Bouncers with earpieces were blocking wannabe-bathers all afternoon.

"It's exclusivity," said Kevin Mason, an alcohol distributor who was in a cabana with his five-month-old son, Tatum. "It's the club atmosphere."

The cabanas had carafes of cranberry juice and O.J. you'd see in any swank nightclub, along with beer, peeled shrimp and other appetizers. There were also food stands, including a hot nacho bar.

(Yahoo Sports)
(Yahoo Sports)

"It's a very positive thing for the entertainment industry," said Derek McCray, who manages the club Suite here in town. McCray, with a mohawk and a Blaine Gabbert jersey, said the party deck is a great spot for recruiting customers even though he says his town "is not ready for the pizzazz of Miami."

The only complaint had to do with issues of access: who gets in, who stays out. But that's part of the nightclub feel.

And that appeals to the non-traditional social crowd – people like Mason, who can bring his infant son, or Rohe, who can get away for the afternoon and return home for dinner with her kids. Johnson says 90 percent of the business from the party deck and the other new areas is coming from new customers; the Jags have basically unearthed a completely fresh fan base.

The stadium left the Clevelander Deck open for two hours after the end of the Steelers game, and the organization is considering new ways to take advantage of the crowds. Johnson says there's been talk of opening the deck on Saturdays so fans could come watch college football on the televisions. And although the seats will return for this year's Florida-Georgia game, the deck might be available for those games in the future if the schools are open to it. "We’re literally going through the evaluations now," Johnson said. "We're looking at options." That doesn't mean EverBank will become Spring Break: Duval County. The Jags still want the product on the field to dominate, and without distractions. "If we see it’s starting to lean too edgy," Johnson said, "we will take steps to pull that back." So far, the cheers have drowned out the concerns.

"I was a little freaked out at first," Rohe said. "You know what people do in the water. But the energy here is like Vegas in Jacksonville, with the NFL."

All the stadium needs now is a winning team.