Tagliabue tries to put bright, sunny spin on Jacksonville

Super Bowl

February 05, 2005|By David Steele

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - When reporters left commissioner Paul Tagliabue's annual State of the NFL news conference early yesterday afternoon, the sun was shining through the windows of the downtown convention center serving as the media center.

Good break for Tagliabue, who had spent much of his hour on stage adding his voice to the effort to depict the Super Bowl host city as Florida's answer to the Riviera. The day before, Wayne Weaver, owner of the Jaguars and head honcho of the host committee, had offered his plug, jokingly saying that among other amenities, "The sun came out two minutes ago." Of course, it went right back in before he'd finished talking.

It rained the rest of the day and night, soaking the cars parked on I-95 and I-10 leading into a downtown area that had been closed to auto traffic, but which sported sites for several parties and receptions filled with people cramped in too-small places, who were housed up to 100 miles away, often in private homes rented out in the $2,000-a-night range.

To Tagliabue, Weaver and the growing number of apologists trying to put a more positive public face on a charming but flawed venue, this was paradise. Those who thought otherwise were, in Tagliabue's words yesterday, "a little too highfaluting."

Oh well, what can you do? By "you," we mean media and fans - and even locals who liked their town before the world was invited in. The fate of future Super Bowls in Jacksonville does not reside in those hands. It's up to the owners and the commissioner, who have said all the right things and more.

Too small? Tagliabue said he likes small, Weaver said small is exactly what's great about it, and between the two, they envision the game and everything surrounding it returning within a decade.

It's a wonderful notion, the whole idea of the second-smallest NFL city (after Green Bay) being part of the fabric of football history and deserving of a bond with its flagship event.

It's just that the nostalgic coloring of a football-mad Florida burg obscures the true reason for Jacksonville's selection for this game: it had a brand-spankin' new stadium that helped seal the deal when it was awarded the expansion team over Baltimore and St. Louis in 1993, and later this Super Bowl.

Actually, it's nothing anyone's trying to hide. Weaver promotes the idea of cold-weather sites with plush new stadiums getting the game, and Tagliabue noted that cities willing to pony up would "get a return" for their gouging of the public - er, commitment to their civic treasures.

Here, the two Super bigwigs went off message. Weaver worked his small-market theme by comparing his city now to San Diego before its first Super Bowl in January 1988. Problem is, the last time the game was there, in 2003, Tagliabue hinted that it wouldn't see another until ... it built a new stadium.

No wonder next year's game is in Detroit, which at least is a major metropolis. No one, not even Weaver, can call this anything larger than "mid-sized." Sitcom episodes have revolved around less zany plots. What would happen if they shot a big-budget movie in Mayberry?

It would be easier to swallow if the Jaguars weren't having problems selling tickets for their own games. The commissioner and owner smoothly talked their way around the fact that the Jaguars are forced to cover nearly 10,000 upper-deck seats at Alltel Stadium next season to reduce capacity and get home games back on television. The site of tomorrow's game wouldn't seat 79,000 - nearly the size of Giants Stadium - if it were not for the prospect of hosting a Super Bowl.

The cost was two years of mostly blackouts for the local fans (13 out of their past 17 home games). This shouldn't happen in a city that counted on the franchise to make it major league.

By the way, Ravens fans have had every home game televised since the team came to town. But that's nit-picking, not to mention "highfaluting."

Overall, the consensus of those not being paid to tout Jacksonville this week, is that it's very pleasant and livable, with pretty views, accessible beaches, world-class golf courses seemingly on every corner, and charming, polite people - but that it's too small for an event like this, and way below what winter travelers to Florida tend to demand for weather.

They're right on all counts. This is a nice place to visit, as long as you don't bring a few hundred thousand of your friends with you at one time. And you don't come in February.

And, even they'll admit, as long as you can ignore the smell. The legacy of the paper mills has yet to dissipate. Plus, as it turns out, the rapid growth it had sought so much has brought air pollution with it.

Other than that, though, what better place to hold a Super Bowl?

Besides Detroit, that is.

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