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Jacksonville pro football before the Jaguars came to town

Many pro football clubs have called this coastal city home 

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Tennessee Titans Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Jacksonville, Fla. is the fourth-smallest market in the National Football League, just ahead of Buffalo, New Orleans, and Green Bay. There are quite a few cities that have rather large markets yet are devoid of an NFL team such as St. Louis (21), San Diego (29), Milwaukee (36), Orlando (18), Sacramento (20), San Antonio (31) and Portland (22).

So, how did Jacksonville get an NFL club?

NFL: AFC Championship-Jacksonville Jaguars at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The city of Jacksonville is based on two strategic aspects: an Atlantic Ocean beach town plus a huge Navy presence with NAS Mayport. The city also has had a long history with professional football. And every situation and team that called this coastal city home had very exceptional attendance, great media coverage, and community support. Jacksonville is also the largest city in the United States land-wise.

The first recorded connection to pro football occurred in 1926. The Chicago Bears, which featured the legendary Red Grange, went on a barnstorming tour in order to raise money. The tour went through Florida with Jacksonville one of the stops. The Bears played the Jacksonville All-Stars, a team of local players, in front of over 6,700 fans.

The NFL, as well as the 1960s version of the American Football League, had both played pre-season games in Jacksonville over the years. For example, the Houston Oilers vs. Miami Dolphins preseason game in 1989 was a complete sell-out within 48 hours of tickets being offered. In addition, the Senior Bowl began in Jacksonville.

Jacksonville Sharks (1974)

The first pro football team to settle in Jacksonville was the Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League (WFL) in 1974. As it would turn out, the WFL would become one of the worst professional sports leagues in the history of sporting events. Inadequately funded and poorly organized from the beginning, the concept was a league that would eventually place franchises in multiple countries such as Mexico, Canada, and Europe, and compete directly against the NFL. Their actual financial model was to overpay players who were currently employed by the NFL, deplete the established league of its key talent, and build an entity of gifted stars.

The Sharks were considered one of the WFL’s new markets for professional football. Owner Fran Monaco paid $450,000 for the franchise and was granted WFL territorial rights for the entire state of Florida. The allure of this was that if the WFL gained notoriety and grew, all other cities, especially Tampa and Miami, would have to pony up royalties to Monaco. With the Miami Dolphins already entrenched in South Beach, Monaco looked at either Tampa or Jacksonville as his franchise’s home. Tampa was rumored as recipients of one of the two new NFL expansion clubs, so Monaco selected Jacksonville.

Right away, 18,000 season tickets were sold. Former NFL great Dick Butkus was rumored as a future minority owner as his local restaurant was located nearby.

Their first game saw 59,112 cram the Gator Bowl to watch their new club defeat the New York Stars 14-7 in a nationally televised contest. For their second homestand, the Sharks lost to the Southern California Sun 21-19 in front of an announced crowd of 46,780. This placed the Sharks well above all the other WFL teams in attendance.

However, in the Aug. 6, 1974, edition of The New York Times, Sharks’ executive vice president Danny Bridges admitted that 44,000 tickets total for both games had been given away. So, out of 105,892 patrons registered, almost 42 percent were complementary tickets.

The Sharks overpaid for marginal former NFL talent and struggled on the field. Part of the issues with the WFL was that games were played mainly on Wednesday nights, occasionally on Thursday nights and rarely on Sundays when everyone was off work or not on a school night. After a 2-4-0 start, the head coach was fired. After the team went 2-6-0 in their next games despite crowds that averaged 33,000 a game and escalating expenses, the team quit paying its players for a month.

Monaco made efforts to sell the franchise to investors in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Washington for an asking price of $4.5 million, but could not find any serious takers. One New York investor, stockbroker William Pease, surfaced and agreed to invest as a partial owner; however, Pease would soon be indicted on 20 charges by the FBI. Butkus made an offer of $350,000 but was turned down by the league as valuing the franchise too low.

The WFL took over control of the club in late September as Monaco had losses of more than $2.7 million. With six games remaining, the franchise folded. Monaco would later file for bankruptcy.

Jacksonville Express (1975)

While the bitter taste of the Sharks was still evident, the WFL could not ignore the high attendance figures that the former team had garnered despite a horrible roster and a poor win-loss record. The league’s answer was a new team to call Jacksonville and the Gator Bowl home for the 1975 season.

The WFL as a whole in its inaugural season was complete chaos. Numerous teams relocated or folded and every team lost huge amounts of capital. The only positive news was the onslaught of NFL stars who had signed with the new league for the 1975 season for huge contracts such as QB Daryle Lamonica, RB Calvin Hill, QB Ken Stabler, LB Bill Bergey, QB Craig Morton, DE L.C. Greenwood, DT Jethro Pugh, WR John Gilliam, plus the combination of RB’s Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and WR Paul Warfield from the Dolphins.

With a new owner in local timber businessman Earl Knabb along with several prominent local minority partners, the Express retained Sharks’ head coach Charlie Tate and nabbed the 1974 league leading rusher Tommy Reamon along with QB George Mira from the current WFL champs Birmingham Americans.

The home opener for the Express drew a mere 16,133 and only 77,906 for six home games. After Week 13, the league called it quits with seven games left on every team’s schedule. It was reported the WFL needed as much as $40 million to become viable for the next two seasons. In the Oct. 23, 1975, edition of The New York Times, the announcement of the end of the WFL was made official as the article stated, “Unable to sustain itself without television or season ticket support, the World Football League went out of business yesterday.” Collectively, member clubs lost over $30 million in less than two seasons.

Jacksonville Firebirds/Sunbirds (1979-1982)

Shortly after the WFL closed shop, a Southeastern league sprouted up that did not have any intentions of being a rival to the NFL yet sported quite a few former NFL and WFL players. The American Football Association (AFA) began in 1978 as a developmental league and placed a team in Jacksonville called the Firebirds. Former Washington Redskins star QB Billy Kilmer was named commissioner of the league. Just like with the two former WFL clubs, the Firebirds played their home games at the Gator Bowl.

The Firebirds drew more than 153,000 fans for 13 games with respectable competition on the field. In their first stanza, they won the AFA title and went 26-12 for their three seasons. As with many leagues, the AFA was in a constant state of instability mainly because of the feature of football playing in the summer heat plus a low financial environment.

In 1982, the club was sold and renamed the Sunbirds. When the United States Football League formed in 1983, it marked the end of the league.

Cleveland Browns v San Diego Chargers
Brian Sipe with the NFL Cleveland Browns.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Jacksonville Bulls (1984-1985)

The United States Football League (USFL) was another NFL rival league, however, they used the spring format for their games so that their association would not go head-to-head for NFL fans and sponsors; and also because of problems renting the same stadiums during the NFL season. The 1983 maiden season was comprised of 12 teams.

For the 1984 season, the USFL expanded into six new markets including Jacksonville. The Bulls were an instant success at the gate although a horrible squad on the field. The City of Jacksonville saw the USFL as a viable, major pro football entity that would propel their city into the sport’s limelight. The city was abuzz with not only the team but the league in general as a major pro football league. Again, the Gator Bowl was the home field.

The team’s owner was another local businessman named Bubba Bullard, hence the name “Bulls.” In their first season, the Bulls were the top team in attendance despite the club’s 6-12-0 record and last place finish in the Southern Division. The Bulls averaged 46,730 per game while franchises in Washington, San Antonio, Los Angeles and Chicago garnered less than 16,000 per home game. Jacksonville’s March 4 game against the New Jersey Generals drew a league record 73,227 with the return of Georgia star Herschel Walker playing for the visiting Generals.

In 1985, the 18-team USFL dropped to 14 teams as two teams folded while two other clubs merged to form one franchise. Three other teams relocated. The Bulls once again were one of the top franchises in league attendance with an average of 44,325 fans second only to the Tampa Bay Bandits. The squad improved to 9-9-0 and barely missed the playoffs. Bulls’ QB Brian Sipe was fourth in the league in passing stats behind the likes of Jim Kelly but ahead of future NFL stars such as Doug Williams, Doug Flutie, Bobby Hebert and Steve Young. Bulls’ RB Mike Rozier finished second in the league behind Walker. Kicker Brian Franco would make the 1985 USFL All-League Team.

In 1986, the league owners voted to move the USFL to a fall format and compete directly against the NFL. One of the main issues with this was that cities who had an NFL club were contractually bound not to lease their stadiums to competing organizations. Therefore, franchises such as the New Jersey Generals or Denver Gold would now have to rent either baseball stadiums, smaller venues, relocate entirely (even though they had success in their current city), or even fold.

At the same time, the league filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL for monopoly infractions in the hopes that the older league would settle the suit and absorb the most significant and financially sound clubs. In the end, the USFL won $3 and the NFL did not offer to merge any of the USFL franchises into the fold. A fall season was planned for 1986 with only eight teams including the Bulls, however, one team folded and another attempted to join the Canadian Football League (but was rejected). Instead of fielding seven teams, the USFL simply closed its doors. The Bulls were a success on the field as well as at the gate.

The 1986 USFL Championship Game was set to be played in Jacksonville on Feb. 1, 1987, before the league’s demise.

Los Angeles Chargers v Jacksonville Jaguars
Tom Coughlin is Jaguars executive vice president.
Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

Jacksonville Jaguars (1995-present)

When the NFL made an announcement in 1991 that two more expansion clubs were in the mix to begin to play in 1995, there wasn’t a soul who predicted that Jacksonville, Florida would get one of those teams. Nobody except Wayne Weaver, that is.

The expansion front runners were Baltimore and Charlotte, with Memphis, St. Louis and Jacksonville on the short list. Baltimore was the most obvious choice with the 22nd TV market while Charlotte came in at number 29. Although Memphis and Jacksonville had several successful pro football clubs in other leagues, both cities were in the 50s in market share and devoid of any other professional franchises in any other sports league. Although St. Louis was listed as the 18th largest market without a current NFL team, the fact that the city had two NFL clubs relocate from there did not bode well for them and were only considered a dark horse.

What may have swayed the expansion committee was the fact that the South was such a hotbed for the game of football as evidenced by college’s Southeastern Conference. What hurt Memphis was the fact that its stadium was extremely old without any plans to replace the aging facility. The league had soured on St. Louis after the Rams and the Cardinals both left town for other cities, plus there were three separate ownership clusters wanting the Baltimore entry.

The Jacksonville ownership group headed by Weaver actually dropped their expansion attempt for two months because of problems with lease contracts regarding the Gator Bowl and what it would take to refurbish the stadium. Once the stadium issues were resolved and the Gator Bowl agreed to extensive renovations, the group re-entered the process. In 10 days, over 10,000 seats were sold if the area did indeed get the new NFL franchise.

In the end, the owners voted 26-2 in favor of Jacksonville with a franchise price of $140 million. Since inception, the team has won two division crowns, qualified for the playoffs six times, won five playoff games and lost in the AFC Championship Game in 1996 and also 1999, just one victory away each time from a Super Bowl appearance.

Since 2013, the Jaguars have played one home game in London every season as part of the NFL’s “International Series” with plans to continue through 2020. The franchise has an office in London manned by two employees. A local restaurant now has a “Jaguar Burger” added to its menu. The Jaguars heavily promote the “Union Jax Fan Club” with over 50,000 members and on their website, call London their “second home.”

In 2011, Weaver sold the Jaguars to automotive parts businessman Shahid Khan for $770 million. Today, the team is worth $2.075 billion. Jacksonville hosted Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005. Last season after years of futility, the Jaguars played the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game and were one quarter from going to their first Super Bowl, only to lose 24-20.

Jacksonville Tomcats (2000-2002)

When the parent entity Arena Football League decided to expand, their thoughts were not on the larger markets but more so on the medium cities. So, the Arena Football League2, or af2, was created.

The Tomcats were named after the Navy’s F-14 Tomcat fighter jets and paid homage to the area’s strong Navy presence. They played their home games at the aging Jacksonville Coliseum, but the floor space was smallish which necessitated the playing field for arena games shorter than at other league indoor venues.

The club sold out their inaugural season with an average gate of 8,264 fans as the team finished 9-7-0. After a second 9-7-0 season, the team finished 8-8-0 in 2002 and attendance dipped to just over 6,000 per contest. Team expenditures exceeded their revenue especially with the dip of attendance. A new $130 million arena was in the works in order to tear down the antiquated Coliseum to which the Tomcats had to suspend operations for a season. In the absence, the Umbergers attempted to sell the club but to no avail. Before the new arena opened, the team simply folded.

Jacksonville Sharks (2010-present)

The Arena Football League suspended operations for one season and reorganized. When the league resumed in 2010, they took the league’s most profitable clubs and elevated several successful af2 teams into their new system. One of these af2 teams was Jacksonville, now renamed the Sharks.

The Sharks went 12-4-0 in their inaugural season and drew 11,179 for their opening game against Orlando. They won the South Division but lost in the opening round of the playoffs.

In 2011, Jacksonville compiled a 14-4-0 record and captured another division crown. They defeated Orlando and Georgia in the playoffs which set up a meeting with the league-leading Arizona Rattlers in ArenaBowl XXIV in Phoenix, Arizona. With a sellout crowd, the Rattlers led 42-38 going into the fourth quarter, but the Sharks scored with two seconds left to win 73-70 and take the championship.

In successive seasons they would go 46-42-0 with two more division titles and a 68-47 loss in ArenaBowl XXVIII in 2015 to the San Jose SaberCats.

For the 2017 season, the Sharks left the Arena League and joined the National Arena League. They would go on to win 11 of 12 games and take the league title, thus netting two indoor championships. In 2018, the Sharks once again made the playoffs, but were defeated in the playoff semifinal to the Carolina Cobras 73-48.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association