by Bradley Parsons
The City has hoop dreams for the Gator Bowl.
The Jacksonville Economic Development Commission wants to add a pair of basketball games to the City’s annual weeklong celebration surrounding the Jan. 1 bowl game. Like the Toyota Gator Bowl, the basketball games would feature teams from the Big East and Atlantic Coast conferences.
The JEDC’s Sports and Entertainment Board unanimously voted to pursue the basketball double-header during its Tuesday morning meeting.
City planners envision the out-of-town teams facing off against the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University in a pair of games scheduled for the days preceding the Gator Bowl.
The JEDC currently spends $50,000 to pay for the annual Gator Bowl Association luncheon. The City is now in talks with GBA President Rick Catlett to direct that money instead toward the basketball games.
Catlett has agreed to talk to the ACC and Big East, the conferences with current Gator Bowl tie-ins, about providing teams for the basketball games, said Mike Sullivan, director of the JEDC’s Sports and Entertainment Division.
If the money is redirected, the City would look for other ways to pay for the banquet, said Sullivan. He said the basketball games would bring more visiting fans to Jacksonville, ramp up the game-week atmosphere and provide exposure for local schools and athletes. Sullivan’s division looks for ways to use sports to generate economic activity.
“This would help boost the game’s financial impact,” said Sullivan. “It’s another way to get visitors into our hotels and restaurants and create movement of dollars throughout Jacksonville.”
The $50,000 likely wouldn’t cover the appearance fees for teams from the heavyweight basketball conferences. Sullivan said the total cost for the games wouldn’t be clear until those fees had been negotiated. He’s hoping Catlett can negotiate lower appearance guarantees.
The more the City spends, the more attractive the game is likely to be. Sullivan said the conferences’ top programs generally cost more.
“I can tell you there’s a heck of a lot of difference between what North Carolina and Duke get and what Virginia and Clemson get,” said Sullivan.
Board chairman Ron Salem said he remembered the decades-old glory days of the old Gator Bowl basketball tournament when an appearance from once-powerful JU was a staple. The tournament followed JU basketball’s declining fortunes, said Salem.
“As JU fell off, the tournament seemed to fall off as well,” said Salem. “Maybe by bringing it back, we can help the local schools.”
The Sports and Entertainment Board also:
• Hoped for a full house when the Los Angeles Dodgers play the Jacksonville Suns Feb. 28 in an exhibition game at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. Putting fans in the seats is the best way to bring future spring training games to Jacksonville, said Salem. Attendance is free for kids under 14, but school remains a major obstacle to attracting them because the exhibition game will be played during the day on a school day. “Parents will have to make their own decision,” said Salem. “Kids don’t get the chance very often to see Major League Baseball.”
• Approved $10,000 for a planned X-Cup wakeboard tournament. The money will help build a ramp, which can be used for future events. Tournament director Stuart Lackey said the tournament could eventually, “lay the groundwork for the X-Games to come to Jacksonville.” Sullivan said he liked the project’s unique appeal. “It’s a market we’ve never reached out to before,” he said. The X-Games are every summer and winter on ESPN and feature everything from surfing to snowboarding to concerts from alternative rock bands. The 10th Winter X-Games get underway next week.