Kirby Smart wants to move Georgia-Florida out of Jacksonville; money says otherwise

ABC. Always be ’crootin, as in recruiting. The mantra of college football, it’s both strategy and warning, a reminder that if you’re not out there planning for your future, someone else is planning it for you.

Coaches have a relationship to recruiting that sails right past “obsessive” and deep into “highly problematic.” The legend of Nick Saban grousing that winning national championships cost him valuable recruiting time is absurd and absurdly on-brand.

Kirby Smart, coach of reigning national champion Georgia, hasn’t gone that far but he too has invoked the holy crusade of recruiting in taking aim at one of his university’s cherished traditions: the Georgia-Florida Game. (Florida-Georgia if you’re in Gainesville, of course.)

Home games work wonders for recruiting. The pageantry, the spectacle, the on-site attending to recruits’ every need sells a whole new batch of potential talent on coming to play for good ol’ State U. But teams can’t host recruits at off-campus games like The Game Formerly Known As The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. So, for Smart, playing the game in Jacksonville — where it has been held since 1933 — is pretty much pointless.

Oct 30, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA;  Georgia Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart celebrates after defeating the Florida Gators at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart celebrates after defeating Florida at TIAA Bank Field in 2021. Sounds like he'd rather celebrate this game in Athens every other year. (Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports)

“I’m competing all across the SEC, who host recruits at their biggest game,” Smart told "SEC Now” earlier this summer during SEC media days. “When Auburn plays Alabama, guess where the recruits are? When LSU and Alabama play, that’s where the biggest recruits want to go. It’s an opportunity for us to bring these kids, who fly in from all over the country — what game do they want to come see Georgia play? They’d like to see Georgia play Florida, but they can’t do that. It’s very important. Recruiting is very important. I just can’t get a Florida coach to agree with me."

He won’t get the city of Jacksonville to agree with him. “I want to see this history and culture and tradition continue,” Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry told Yahoo Sports. “This is a special thing in college football. The fans know how special it is, and they love it every year.”

Georgia-Florida (the home team is named first, and Georgia is the home team this year) is one of the most significant games of the city’s social calendar.

“As soon as this game ends, people start making plans for next year,” says Michael Corrigan, president and CEO of Visit Jacksonville. “Here, the big holidays are Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Florida-Georgia game.”

Florida head coach Billy Napier has deftly sidestepped the question. “I want to experience the game first, right?” he said shortly after Smart lobbed his grenades at Jacksonville. “I’d like to see that game in Jacksonville, experience that game before I have an opinion on that.”

Napier conceded that Smart had some points. “The home-and-home obviously would be fantastic,” he said. “But there’s also some tradition there. There’s a rivalry there.”

There’s also a whole lot of money at stake there.

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 02: Florida Gators fans celebrate a touchdown during the game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Florida Gators on November 2, 2019 at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Fl. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Gators fans have the proximity advantage in the annual matchup against Georgia in Jacksonville. (Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Rivalry has lengthy history and arguments over records

Nobody is sure of the exact origins of this rivalry. The schools began playing one another in either 1904 or 1915, depending on who’s doing the telling. With the exception of an understandable wartime hiatus in 1943, the schools have played every year since 1926. Jacksonville has hosted the game every year since 1933 with the exception of two years in the 1990s, when the Gator Bowl was demolished and the current stadium was built for the then-expansion Jacksonville Jaguars.

In the history of the series, the games have been played at either Athens or Gainesville only seven times. Georgia leads the matchup with either 53 or 54 wins, depending on who’s counting the totals, against Florida’s 44 victories and two ties. It’s one of the most important games of the year for both schools, not just because of records or standings, but because of that ineffable college currency of pride.

“Thousands of young men that grow up in Northeast Florida or Southeast Georgia see that game and experience the excitement. They say, ‘I want to play on that field one day,’” Corrigan says, then gently redirects Smart’s complaint. “It’s a huge unmeasurable recruiting tool.”

The teams exchange home-field designation every year, and the stadium is divided into quarters, with red and blue alternating around the stadium. Every game is a sellout. Given that the stadium is 344 miles from Sanford Stadium and only 74 miles from The Swamp, the area outside the stadium tends to be much more pro-Florida.

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

Financial benefits for Jacksonville, Gators and Bulldogs

Hardcore fans begin descending on Jacksonville early in the week before the game, creating an entire society from scratch in what’s known as “RV City.”

“That’s pretty special,” Curry says. “That’s an experience everyone ought to try. Fans from both teams set up, sit around, have cocktails, smoke cigars and pick on one another.”

On game day, logistical challenges abound. The city of Jacksonville spreads over 840 square miles. The Georgia-Florida game and all immediate related activities take place in exactly 1 square mile. Combine that with the fact that Jacksonville has seven different bridges — including a drawbridge — servicing the game, and you’ve got a recipe for chaos.

Corrigan estimates that only about 50 percent of people in any given year know where they’re going to find their seats or parking, and that’s assuming they have all their faculties about them, never a safe assumption when you’re talking about TGFKATWLOCP. (That now-unused “cocktail party” designation came about when Florida Times-Union sportswriter Bill Kastelz observed a drunken fan offering a policeman a drink. This was in the 1950s. Your grandparents knew how to party.)

Smart has groused about the Jacksonville location for years, and before him, Mark Richt did the same. Certainly it’s partly because the game is out of their complete control — and if there’s one thing coaches can’t stand, it’s not being in control — but the continuing veiled threats to leave always make Jacksonville take notice.

“Any time there are concerns by the head coach, or anyone else at these schools, it’s important that we stay in communication,” Curry says. “We want to let them know how important they are to this city.”

Curry has made it one of his guiding missions to keep Georgia and Florida happy; he had to repair some severely frayed relationships when he entered the office in 2015.

The result has been a highly lucrative partnership between the three entities, one that will run through the 2023 game, with options for 2024 and 2025. According to the most recent contract between the city and the schools, obtained by Yahoo Sports, the schools will each receive $1.25 million from the city in 2022 and 2023 for playing the game, and $1.5 million in 2024 and 2025 if the option is exercised, in addition to all ticket revenues. The city will reimburse each team $60,000 for travel, lodging and game day expenses, along with an extra $350,000 to Georgia for air travel costs.

This is why the idea of moving the game out of Jacksonville — or, more to the point, returning it to campuses — would encounter fierce opposition from within the athletic departments themselves. Unlike a home-and-home series, where a team draws a check just for playing only every other year, the Georgia-Florida game is a profitable endeavor in each season for both schools. Plus, when Jacksonville is covering the logistical expenses of running a game, from parking to concessions to cleanup, the universities don’t have to write that check, either.

The city of Jacksonville has its own financial motivations for wanting to keep the game. Visit Jacksonville’s figures indicate that in 2021, Georgia-Florida had a direct economic impact of $21.6 million and a total benefit of $37.6 million when accounting for all spending in and around the weekend. Fans bought up nearly 33,000 hotel rooms and supported nearly 18,000 jobs. That’s a fine little return on investment for a single college football game.

Down the line, change will come to the game, one way or another. The Jaguars’ lease with TIAA Bank Stadium expires in 2030, and there’s work underway already on planned improvements.

“At some point, we’re going to have to redo our stadium, and sooner rather than later,” Curry says. “That will completely change the experience for this football game.”

If Smart continues to push the point, he’ll likely stand to extract even more concessions from the city after the current contract expires in 2026. But Jacksonville has made it clear: this is tradition, and it will do all it can to keep tradition in-house.

“From Southeast Georgia to Gainesville to Florida State University territory, this game has a huge impact on the entire region,” Corrigan says. “We want to see it continue here for another 30 to 40 years, at least.”