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Get ready for Florida-Georgia to be a moveable Cocktail Party

The writing is on the wall — in large fonts. Will Jacksonville bring large checks to blot it out?

Georgia v Florida Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

When a football game between Florida and Georgia has taken place, it has done so in Jacksonville — with two exceptions — since 1933, the first full year of Franklin Delano Roosevelt being president.

Many strong indications suggest that will change in the future. And it’s probably time to start getting ready for it.

The best indication yet that Florida and Georgia are considering making the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party (That We Refuse to Call a Cocktail Party Because We Are Pretending That Curbs the Alcohol Consumption and Idiocy) — WLOCPTWRTCACPBWAPTCTACAI for short — was Monday’s joint statement from both schools saying, in essence, that all options are on the table.

Or, well, the statement doesn’t say that — but its existence does.

If Florida and Georgia were fully committed to a long-term contract for Florida-Georgia to remain in Jacksonville, it stands to reason that such a contract would exist as a signed and sealed deal; there’s nothing preventing the schools from doing that, and while their television partners and the SEC would surely have input, I think they would also go along with Florida and Georgia pounding the stakes of the high-stakes game firmly into the Duval soil.

And while TV networks are increasingly the powers that be in college football, they still probably can’t totally overcome a united front of two or a few schools. No one, for example, is suggesting that Oklahoma and Texas are liable or supposed to uproot themselves from playing the Red River Rivalry That Isn’t Called a Shootout Because We Are Trying Not to Condone Gun Violence In Two States Where “Constitutional Carry” Is A Thing — RRRTICASBWATNTCGVITSWCCIAT, of course — in Dallas.

But Florida and Georgia presenting a united front has seemed to amount to stuff like that joint statement in recent years. And most other circumstances are less auspicious for the River City: Kirby Smart’s complaining about not being able to host recruits in Jacksonville, with the implication that there would be less red tape in Athens and Gainesville, was a significant offseason storyline, and Billy Napier has sounded sympathetic to that idea; Atlanta’s rise as a location for major college football events, aided largely by the gleaming new Fauxrgia Dome, has produced some sentiment for it hosting a midseason showdown in addition to its usual season opener; the SEC designing schedule rotations that have deprived players (and fans) of chances to trek around the conference following their team in a logical, orderly manner has inadvertently given the idea of putting Florida and Georgia on their home fields at least on occasion some traction.

And in this week’s best example of “If _____ wanted to, _____ would”: If Florida and Georgia had wanted to hammer out a long-term deal with Jacksonville, one imagines that announcement could easily have taken the place of Monday’s statement.

The most popular alterrnative, for those who are now advocating for — or resigned to — Florida-Georgia no longer being a Jacksonville-only affair, seems to be a four-year rotation in which all of Atlanta, Athens, Gainesville, and Jacksonville get the game in some order. And there’s appeal to that: It suddenly creates a new marquee home game for each team once in four years, probably offsets some of the lost revenue from the City of Jacksonville by getting a new stream from Atlanta, adds some fresh angles for a rivalry that remains nationally relevant, and provides players with a chance to play true road games in cathedrals of college football rather than an NFL stadium that is ... well, it’s an NFL stadium, and there are pool cabanas, I guess.

The TV network that will be airing most of the Florida-Georgia games in the coming decade would probably be okay with that, too. ESPN has not aired a Florida-Georgia game in so long that most millennial and Gen Z fans probably don’t recall it happening, with CBS annually selecting the matchup for its 3:30 p.m. slot on the Saturday nearest Halloween, and has little reason to be sentimental about that standard time and place. (For the record: That last ESPN broadcast was in 2002 — David Greene and D.J. Shockley both played terribly for Georgia, which went 13-1 that year and beat all of Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, and Florida State but could not solve Ron Zook’s fightin’ Gators at what was then Alltel Stadium, to give you sense of how long ago that really was — and that’s the only time Florida-Georgia has not aired on CBS since 1995.)

The most important sticking point, then, is what the City of Jacksonville wants — which is, as should probably be no secret, to keep the game in Jacksonville for as long as possible.

It wanted this game badly enough in 2019 to spend millions on both teams, quadrupling its previous payouts. It wants the game badly enough that the teams split the gate, taking another $3+ million for their sides, and Jacksonville foots the travel for both programs. It wants this game so badly that Jacksonville mayor Lenny Curry may as well have put the city’s price tag on it — the $30 million he said it generates in economic impact — in comments years ago.

Does Jacksonville want it badly enough to put an offer that Florida and Georgia would be foolish to refuse on the table, though? That’s the open question begged by a statement — one that doesn’t mention the City of Jacksonville, you’ll note — from both schools that prominently mentions “finances” (because saying “money” or “cold, hard, direct deposits from the City of Jacksonville’s tourism budget” would have been gauche) as a consideration.

Florida and Georgia, aided by ESPN — which is, especially when compared to CBS, deeply invested in staging college football games everywhere it can — could probably find a way to get more money out of their annual matchup than Jacksonville currently provides. Atlanta would surely love to have an annual guarantee of a big game with Georgia fans in town — especially after having hosted them for the SEC Championship Game a fair bit of late, and with Georgia’s games with Georgia Tech rarely rating as “big” in recent history — and Athens and Gainesville would certainly welcome another boom weekend each fall; one has to think those cities would find a way to sweeten the pot for a rotational schedule, and that ESPN might well help out if its ultimate desire is a rotation or a permanent return to a true home-and-road setup.

The programs could also extract more revenue from the rest of their schedules thanks to the flexibility granted by an occasional slate with one more home game than either team has had for generations. That scheduling certainty could allow for more season-opening or early-season clashes at neutral sites — which, hey, would ESPN incentivize those games? I wonder! — or marquee home-and-home series that fit into those favorable schedules. Florida hypothetically having the ability to sell season tickets that would be anchored by either Georgia or Florida State every year would be a boon for the Gators; Georgia getting Florida as a home opponent theoretically substantially upgrades its home scheduling, which has been essentially been structured around hosting both Auburn and Tennessee in the same years and importing a prominent team in years it plays the Tigers and Volunteers on the road.

All of this is not to say that Florida and Georgia want to move out of Jacksonville. But all of it wiill be part of the discussion about whether they should — and even if Jacksonville is raking in tens of millions per year from the game, a dubious claim that ought to be viewed with some skepticism, how badly Jacksonville wants Florida-Georgia probably only matters if Jacksonville will stroke checks that are worth as much or more as this game is to all of its other stakeholders.

Put simply: The money matters most.

And so I’m prepared for the Cocktail Party to be a moveable feast — less excited about it than grudgingly accepting of the likelihood of that outcome.

Would that be a popular decision? I doubt it. I’m not a tailgater by nature, have no meaningful fealty to Jacksonville, and don’t have great “I was there” WLOCP memories — my only in-person experience was in 2012, so ... yeah — but I do think some of the bullish thinking on moving it has a lot more to do with people who don’t go to the game thinking few others do, and underrating the deep loyalty people have to experiences anchored by decades of memories is a bad idea, especially when some of those people are the hardcore consumers of college football who individually drop thousands of the millions of dollars of “economic impact” that makes the industry churn.

I also think that any misgivings about a rotation from fans aren’t going to stop the institutions making these decisions from making the calls that make most dollars — and thus sense. And those misgivings would be drowned out when the first great Florida-Georgia game in a new locale — especially if it’s on campus — comes to pass, and is used as vindication of the Dawgs and Gators and not Duval being the secret sauce of the rivalry.

There is probably a future for Florida-Georgia in Jacksonville — on an annual basis, even, if the city ponies up for it. There is also probably a future in which Florida-Georgia happens at whatever sites make Florida, Georgia, and ESPN the most money possible — and if those three entities are more or less agnostic about where those sites are, Jacksonville bringing jaw-dropping money to negotiations might be the only way those two roads meet.

Florida and Georgia issuing their joint statement is a sign that Florida-Georgia leaving Jacksonville is still at least facially a matter of crossing that bridge when all parties come to it.

If Jacksonville wants to make sure Florida, Georgia, and Gators and Dawgs fans continue to cross the bridges to their city for the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, though, it has to make the money make sense.