The Spring Football League is currently celebrating its 20th season; heading into the 21st season, the league will be at heights that it’s never reached. The Spring Football League has given the green light to a final round of expansion that will bring the league to its final number at 32 franchises.
Those franchises will be the #31 Sacramento Bandits under owner Dallas Hartwell and the final team, #32 Jacksonville Stingrays. The team announced that it chose the name for a love of the native Manta rays, but not exclusively for that reason. Jacksonville is a Naval town and the USS Stingray was a very valuable part of winning World War I and World War II. Plus, it was used in one of the ownership groups favorite movies, starring Kelsey Grammar as Commander Tom Dodge in the mid-90’s classic “Down Periscope.” The colors are described as “Deep Atlantic Blue” and “Naval Battleship Grey” and they are an exclusive combo that’s not worn by any other teams in the league.
“I’m very pleased to be able to announce that the SFL is back in Jacksonville.” said franchise founder and owner Ryan Clark; “The SFL was forced into Jacksonville back in 2007 by a commissioner that was hell bent on challenging the NFL. Despite the team’s owner selling his controlling interest to the league and purchasing another franchise, despite the product on the field being dreadful, and the power play failing to take root, the city of Jacksonville, Duval County, and all of North Florida supported that team, and it’s not something that went unnoticed, at least not by me.
I’ve been waiting for fifteen years to run a franchise in my home state of Florida again and I believe that I’m getting the chance to operate one in one of the finest cities this state has to offer.”
Indeed, the SFL did operate a franchise in Jacksonville in 2007. The former SFL commissioner demanded a last second relocation of the popular Carolina Generals to North Florida. The move, like the relocation of the original Los Angeles Stars to Indianapolis, didn’t go over well with other owners around the league. When new commissioner Dallas Hartwell came in, the first thing he did was cut league ran franchises.
While attendance numbers are scarce from 2007 and 2008, the Jacksonville Generals averaged over 42,000 fans per game, this despite having an unpopular head coach in Dom Capers, a roster that yielded little talent, and an absent owner.
“The city of Jacksonville was always at the top of our list; however, we did do our due diligence on my hometown of Tampa, FL, Memphis, TN, Charlotte, NC, Austin, TX, and Little Rock, AR. At the end of the day, Jacksonville topped them all in every category. We met with former Governor and current Senator Rick Scott, current Governor and former Congressman Ron DeSantis, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, as well as the city council to discuss the benefits of placing a franchise in Jacksonville, as well as the pros and cons.
The main things we looked at was first and foremost the competition during the Spring and Summer, and Jacksonville really has none. Secondly, the average income of the city’s residents. The residents of Jacksonville bring home a slightly larger salary than those of the other cities we looked at, which means more disposable income. We wanted low taxes for our players, we wanted safe neighborhoods, we wanted an area that offered our players things to do when they were away from football, and we really liked that in Jacksonville, you’re in Florida, you’re on one of the best coastlines in the country, you have an “old south” feel with southern charm, friendly people, and conservative politics, but you’re also less than two hours from Orlando with a bit of an international flair, theme parks for the family, and so on.
While living in the Tampa Bay Area as well as the Orlando area, we would frequently visit Jacksonville for work as well as for play, and it really is a great city, the people in Jacksonville have always been friendly and always supported their football teams.”
Jacksonville has indeed supported their football teams.
The AFL held their all-star game annually in Jacksonville’s historic Gator Bowl Stadium before sell out crowds in the 1960’s. The 1968 game was particularly noteworthy because it featured easily the largest crowd to attend the AFL All-star game, with around 38,500 people in attendance. After hosting the 1969 game, city officials began to make the necessary steps to get an expansion franchise for the city. However, the merger agreement between the NFL and AFL would ultimately prevent the city from getting a team.
When the WFL was founded in 1974, the Jacksonville Sharks began play and averaged 33,280 fans per game, which placed them 2nd in the league behind only Birmingham, Alabama. The success of the WFL’s Sharks led to Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay negotiating with city leaders to relocate the NFL’s Colts to Jacksonville. When Irsay demanded a new stadium to replace a Gator Bowl stadium that had just completed massive renovations five years prior, city leaders told him to walk, and he went to Phoenix, which also fell apart, before Irsay left Baltimore in the middle of the night for Indianapolis.
1984 would bring the USFL and the Jacksonville Bulls. In 1984, the Bulls were once again at the top of attendance with an average that exceeded 46,000 fans. In 1985, those figured dropped to 44,000, though remaining solidly in first place within the league, despite rumors about a pending switch to the fall and a competition with the NFL.
The success of the WFL’s Sharks and the USFL’s Bulls when it came to fan support would make Jacksonville a popular relocation threat in their home markets. In 1986, Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams threatened to relocate to the Oilers to Jacksonville unless Harris County voters approved a renovation to Houston’s Astrodome.
The NFL couldn’t keep avoiding Jacksonville however, finally offering the city and then owner Wayne Weaver and expansion team in 1993, which began play in 1995. Despite some down years and some years with a collapsed economy, the Jaguars have had steady fan support.
The annual Florida vs. Georgia game dubbed “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” has been played in Jacksonville every year since 1933, with exception to 1994 and 1995, (which saw the game played in Athens, GA and Gainesville, FL respectively) due to construction on the Gator Bowl Stadium to make it ready for the NFL. It has always sold out. “We were a bit hesitant to put a team in a monstrous NFL stadium.” said Clark; “We know that we’re probably not going to be selling out every game in a sixty-seven thousand seat stadium, however, we’re working with several organizations as we speak to give out tickets to local family shelters, the United Way of Jacksonville, and we’re setting out deep discounts to everyone that can produce a military or college I.D. card.
All soldiers and sailors stationed at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Naval Station Mayport, and Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, as well as the Army National Guard, Florida Air National Guard, all members of the Coast Guard, as well as those stationed at Patrick Air Base in Melbourne, as well as those stationed at MacDill Air Base in Tampa if they’re in the area and want to catch a game at a discount, will receive an 80% discount on tickets.
All college students in the Jacksonville area, including but not limited to: Jacksonville University, Edward Waters College, Florida State College Jacksonville, as well as our territorial schools’ students, Florida State University, Florida Atlantic University, as well as Florida A&M University will receive 75% off tickets.
We will also have a variety of promotions as the season comes to make the games more affordable for families to attend, which is something the NFL has priced people out of.”
To purchase the expansion franchise for Jacksonville, Clark was forced to enter into an agreement to sell all controlling shares of his current team, the Houston Wranglers to Oklahoma Roughnecks owner Alberto Garcia. The sale and acquisition won’t be effective until the end of the season. On the flip side, Clark was able to use the funds received from Garcia to buy controlling interest in the Dallas Six-Shooters from long-time owner Dallas Hartwell, whom will also be opening an expansion franchise of his own in Sacramento, but also already owns the Omaha Express.
“There are a lot of moving parts happening this off-season.” said Clark; “I’ve been around this league for a long time, this is the healthiest I’ve ever seen this league. It has good leadership from the top down, it has a solid group of owners, and I believe the few moves, expansions, and franchise sales will be the end of league movement for a long time. I think we’ll finally have set divisions with real rivalries, and that’s something the league has lacked for really most of its existence.”
The Stingrays also announced that they’d secured a Vice President of Football Operations as well as the franchise’s first Head Coach.
“Be sure to look for the announcement in the inaugural installment of our new publication, the “Jacksonville Journal.” said Clark.