Winning the Jaguars: NFL hopes survive City Council fight

Touchdown Jacksonville, city battle over contract to rebuild Gator Bowl


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The NFL's decision to award Jacksonville a franchise in 1993 stunned the sports world.

The Jacksonville power brokers who made it happen said getting to that moment was a bruising battle.

To stay in the running for an expansion team, the NFL required the city to rebuild the old Gator Bowl, which at the time had a capacity just over 80,000 and was over six decades old.

IMAGES: How Jacksonville got the Jaguars

In the spring of 1993, Touchdown Jacksonville, the group working to bring the team to town, began negotiating with Mayor Ed Austin to fix the stadium.

“It was completely unpleasant -- cursing and yelling back and forth,” said former Mayor John Delaney, who was Austin's chief of staff at the time. “I’ve been negotiating my entire life as a prosecutor, and you’re dealing with criminal defense lawyers who are dealing with people’s lives, and I've never had anything like this.”

Delaney explained that the issue was that the original $50 million the mayor and Touchdown Jacksonville had been discussing for stadium renovations kept climbing until it reached over $120 million.

“The government got frustrated with the changes and felt that we were being bamboozled,” Delaney said. “That what we had agreed to last week wasn't any good.”

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Weaver said he wouldn't be involved if the city couldn't be competitive in its NFL bid and have a worthy facility.

Eventually they worked out that the Jaguars would pay rent and with a ticket surcharge and parking revenue, the extra costs of the stadium could be covered.

By July, the group and the mayor had hammered out a contract for a new stadium, but it still needed to be approved by the City Council.

It wasn't.

“The first deal that came to City Council, when it got to council, it didn’t make it,” former City Councilman Eric Smith said. “It crashed and burned.”

The City Council deferred on the vote, so Wayne Weaver, the head of Touchdown Jacksonville, called off the effort to bring an NFL team to Jacksonville, because he said he felt like the city didn't want it.

“I said, 'If the city gives us a no vote, we’re out of here.' A deferral is a no vote,” Wayne Weaver said.

He announced that the group would notify the NFL it was dropping out of the expansion race, premium seat sales would be refunded and the partnership would be dissolved.

“I don’t know if I was mad. I was disappointed,” Weaver said. “We had all gotten so close and worked so hard on this. We had a great partnership group, people that loved and believed in Jacksonville, so it was a disappointing decision they made. I felt they made the decision because they really didn’t want the team.”

But after a lot of discussions among many parties, including Austin, another $121 million agreement for a new stadium was settled on. But the City Council still had to pass it.

And one of Weaver's stipulations was that it had to pass with no amendments.

“The bottom line is we needed those 13 votes to get the contract and bring the Jaguars to Jacksonville,” Smith said.

So Austin and then-City Council President Don Davis pleaded with the council on the day of the vote not to add amendments to the deal.

When the vote opened, Smith quickly raised his hand and asked to “move the previous question,” a parliamentary procedure that would avoid amendments and allow a direct vote on the contract. A majority of City Council members agreed to Smith's motion, leading the way to the stadium vote.

Smith said he and Davis did not plan the parliamentary move to push the deal through.

The deal received 14 votes, one more than the 13 it needed to pass.

With a contract for a new 73,000-seat stadium in place, Touchdown Jacksonville then had to fulfill another NFL requirement: sell thousands of expensive club seats before the city even had a team.