Jacksonville's long shot comes in

December 01, 1993|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Staff Writer

ROSEMONT, ILL — ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The Jacksonville Jaguars won't play an NFL game until 1995, but they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in league history yesterday.

Long shot Jacksonville, Fla., received the NFL's 30th team, joining Charlotte, N.C., as the second expansion site selected this year.

The Charlotte Panthers were unanimously accepted at the owners meetings here on Oct. 26. Yesterday, Jacksonville received approval from 26 of the 28 owners. Baltimore, St. Louis and Memphis, Tenn., were the three other cities under consideration.

"It's the beginning of a new era, both in economic and social

development," said Jaguars owner J. Wayne Weaver, a Connecticut shoe executive who headed the Touchdown Jacksonville! Ltd. group.

"It takes a great middle-market city to a new level, building self-esteem and bringing Jacksonville the recognition it deserves. I was optimistic from the beginning."

The end almost came on July 21, when Jacksonville pulled out of the expansion race. Weaver and local government officials could not come to terms on a lease agreement for the renovated Gator Bowl.

Weaver, 58, took his ball and went home to Connecticut. Jacksonville fans became enraged, and called him a carpetbagger.

But during the weeks that followed, the two sides began to meet secretly. They made a deal on Aug. 21, when the city council agreed to pay $121 million to refurbish the Gator Bowl, $9 million more than the original deal.

But there was another problem. Weaver wanted at least 9,000 of the 10,000 club seats sold before he would climb back into the expansion race. NFL Now!, another Jacksonville group, said it sold the 10,000 seats in 10 days.

Weaver was back.

"It was a period that I was not very happy about, but the community rallied behind the effort and it became win-win for the city and Touchdown! Jacksonville," Weaver said.

Jacksonville also lagged behind apparent front-runners St. Louis and Baltimore in other areas.

The city's TV market ranks 56th, lowest among the bidding cities. Jacksonville has a metro population of 943,000, compared with 2.47 million for St. Louis and 2.43 million for Baltimore. St. Louis already is building a new stadium; Baltimore has financing in place for a new stadium.

But those factors didn't seem to play a role on the final day.

"There was a very strong feeling that Jacksonville was a hotbed of football interest," said NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "It is in the part of the country that has tremendous interest in football and the NFL.

"There was this feeling the Southeast is the fastest growing part of the country, and even with a team in Charlotte, is misrepresented," he said.

Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt said: "The big positive for Jacksonville was that it's a new frontier."

Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said: "I think it's a mistake to say Jacksonville over St. Louis is a big upset. We're talking about football fans here, not just bodies."

Weaver said an NFL team in Jacksonville would succeed because there are no other pro teams in the city, even though Florida State and Florida -- two top 10 college football teams -- are within a two-hour driving distance.

Jacksonville also has Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush, and former Kansas City safety Deron Cherry -- who is black -- in its ownership group. Tagliabue has expressed concern about getting minorities involved in ownership.

The franchise in Jacksonville will end years of courting to bring in the NFL. Jacksonville had franchises in the World Football League in the 1970s and the U.S. Football League in the 1980s. The Jacksonville Bulls led the USFL in attendance.

In 1979, Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay landed a helicopter on the 50-yard line of the Gator Bowl before a crowd of more than 50,000and said he was considering moving the Colts to Jacksonville.

The city was used as a bargaining chip for a number of other NFL clubs, including the New Orleans Saints, Houston Oilers, Atlanta Falcons and the St. Louis Cardinals, before they moved to Phoenix.

But now Jacksonville has its own team and own colors -- teal, silver, black and gold with an open-mouthed jaguar on the helmet.

"Jacksonville has been the underdog through this whole process," said Weaver. "They have the smallest market, but people forgot to put in the equation football passion, city partnership and selling 10,000 seats in 10 days."

JACKSONVILLE AT A GLANCE

Stadium: 82,000-seat Gator Bowl will undergo $121 million renovation. Renovated stadium will have a seating capacity of 73,000, including 10,000 club seats and 68 luxury boxes.

Ownership group: Touchdown Jacksonville! Ltd., headed by Connecticut shoe executive J. Wayne Weaver. Group also includes his brother, Ronald; Jeb Bush, son of former President George Bush; Jacksonville businessman Thomas J. Petway III; and Deron Cherry, a former All-Pro safety for the Kansas City Chiefs.

TV market: No. 56, lowest among bidders.

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