ATHENS, Ga. — The city of Jacksonville sweetened the pot yet again, so Georgia and Florida will continue to play their football games there.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced Friday morning that the city struck a deal with the two schools that will keep the SEC rivals playing at TIAA Bank Field through the 2023 season.
The new contract will net the UGA and Florida athletic departments an additional $3.5 million in guarantees, according to a memo of understanding obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
The agreement also includes a two-year option to extend the deal through 2025 and increase the guarantees to $1.5 million, if the schools so choose. That option would have to be exercised by May 15, 2022.
“It boils down to finances and the long-standing tradition of a game that’s been going on since 1933,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said of the decision to keep the game in Jacksonville. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s the best thing for the total sports program.”
The new contract supersedes the previous agreement, which was signed only two years ago. In the 2017 deal, the two universities received a $250,000 guarantee from the city in addition to controlling ticket sales and having all travel arrangements paid for. UGA, which flies out of Athens, gets a $350,000 travel stipend. The Gators receive $60,000 to bus 75 miles from Gainesville, Fla., to Jacksonville.
The new guarantee increases to $1 million for each school in 2020-21 and $1.25 million in 2022-23. That’s an increase of $750,000 a year for each school the first two years and $1 million each the next two years.
Including the split ticket allotments, which bring each school about $3.5 million, that's $4.5 million annually for over the next four years.
“That’s a truly significant revenue gain,” McGarity said. “This is not only about football. We have 20 other sports to support.”
Keeping the game in Jacksonville was not the preference of Georgia’s Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs’ fourth-year head coach has said often that he would rather play Florida in a traditional home-and-home arrangement because the schools lose an on-campus recruiting opportunity every other year. SEC rules do not allow teams to host recruits at neutral-site games.
McGarity said UGA plans to propose legislation to allow recruiting at annual neutral-site games such as Georgia-Florida, Arkansas-Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, and Oklahoma-Texas in Dallas.
Smart did not revisit that preference this past week as the Bulldogs began preparations for this year’s Nov. 2 game, which will feature No. 10-ranked Georgia (6-1, 3-1 SEC) against the seventh-ranked Gators (7-1, 4-1). He did acknowledge that negotiations were “ongoing.”
“I’ll be dead honest with you, I am focused on our team, making sure our team is trying to improve and get better in every facet and that’s my single-minded focus,” said Smart, who is 2-1 after winning the last two games against the Gators. “It’s not single-minded focus on Florida, and it’s not single-minded focus on Jacksonville. It’s single-minded focus on us.”
Like it usually does, this year’s game is expected to go a long way toward determining what team represents the East in the SEC Championship game. Georgia played in the title game after beating Florida the past two years, including last season, when the No. 7 Bulldogs defeated No. 9 Florida 36-17. “SEC Nation” was on hand for that game, which was nationally televised by CBS, as it is always is. Jacksonville estimates that the annual economic impact for the area, which brings tens of thousands of fans to the coastal areas of Georgia and northern Florida, is $35 million a year.
That's why the city wanted to make it financially beneficial for Georgia and Florida as well.
The schools already split the ticket allotment, which is $42,000 apiece. Tickets are sold to qualifying donors and students for $80 each, with the exception of a limited amount of club seats that sale for $120 apiece. That amounts to another $3.5 million or so in revenue.
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