In our city and region, sports teams are powerful influencers. While I am sure those sports fans from historic Title Towns like Green Bay, Chicago, New York, and Boston would claim that the energy here regarding sports pales in comparison to theirs, the fact remains that our city loves sports.
A Sports Loving City
It has been a tough run for our one major professional sports team. Our minor league teams (Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and Jacksonville Icemen) have fared well and have great fan-bases. However, with more games each year, smaller venues, and cheaper tickets it is not really fair to comparing the numbers for our minor league baseball and hockey teams to MLB and NHL cities is an apples to oranges comparison. Yet, to be clear, both of these minor league franchises have done exceptionally well in connecting with the city, advertisers, regional groups, and fans of all ages. The entertainment value is high.
Enter: The Jaguars
Twenty-five years ago Jacksonville made national and international news when the NFL awarded our city a new franchise. I have made this region my home since that time and like many others here have gone all in as a fan of the teal and black Jaguars. Initially, our team sold out the rebuilt Gator Bowl stadium (later named Alltel Stadium, Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, EverBank Field, and now TIAA Bank Field.) During the era of Coach Tom Coughlin and players such as Mark Brunell, Tony Boselli, Jimmy Smith, Keenan McCardell, and Fred Taylor, our team saw early success and narrowly missed an early visit to the Super Bowl. Those were great days and the fans throughout our city donned the teal and proudly declared their love for the Jaguars.
Yet, we're a small market. Other than Green Bay, Wisconsin, I believe Jacksonville may be the smallest in the NFL. When the team began its far-too-long journey through a valley punctuated with losing seasons, poor draft picks, tarps over seats, and less than stellar play on the field, the rumors began to circulate that the NFL would love for the team to relocate to a larger market.
There were rumors of the Los Angeles Jaguars, the Las Vegas Jaguars, the St. Louis Jaguars, and more recently, the London Jaguars. The rumors died down some once the team began to show signs of a turnaround. The 2017 Jaguars season was exciting and the team made it once more to the AFC Championship only to lose to the New England Patriots because someone could not acknowledge that "Myles Jack wasn't down." I'm not bitter. I'm just speaking truth here.
The fan base increased. Ticket sales were up. It was a great season. Things were looking up for 2018. The dreaded word in sports - "potential" was being used much.
Then, the wheels fell off. The Jags had another struggling season in 2018. The 2019 season was not much better. There were trades, firings, and statements from team management to the fans. Yet, even in our small market, there remained great passion for our team.
Another London Game?
Earlier this week the Jaguars announced that in addition to the annual home game played in London, they would be playing two back-to-back home games at Wembley Stadium. This leaves only six regular season home games for Jaguars fans in Jacksonville. While I understand the reasoning given regarding revenue for the team, it is clear that the fan-base with access to social media and call-in radio shows were quick to voice their displeasure.
Sure enough, rumors began once more related to a potential relocation of our team.
The team owner and management have repeatedly stated that is not the goal, but fans are wary. They fear that what occurred in Baltimore, St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland will one day happen here.
As a fan of the team, I certainly hope this is not the case. As a pastor with ministry partners in London, I have been able to see games there as well. London is definitely a huge money-maker for the team and a packed out Wembley Stadium is impressive. Still, I do not want to see the team leave. For selfish reasons, it is because I enjoy watching and cheering for the Jaguars. In addition to that, and definitely a higher priority is what I see the team does for our city and northeast Florida region.
Passion in the City
Jacksonville has always been a sports town. For decades it has been the strong college football fanbase that has driven the city. The number of Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Florida State Seminoles, and other college fans is clear throughout the year. When our own universities (University of North Florida and Jacksonville University) in the city excelled in basketball, the city and nation took notice.
The Jaguars have been able in the past to bring the city together at times. Yeah, I know there are many transplants from elsewhere who will never been all in with the Jaguars, but remembering the story of how this city gained a team, how the fans filled the old Gator Bowl years prior to entice the NFL to arrive, and how the teal and black covered the city during the moments of victory reveal the uniting power of a winning team.
Passion for the City
When the Jaguars made their most recent London announcement, a number of fan groups united to share their displeasure. One group, the Bold City Brigade, has released a statement and continues to push fans to share their desire for team ownership to reconsider the London option. While the two-games-in-London scenario is likely not going to change for 2020, the passion for our city has been clearly shared.
Just look at the statement from the Bold City Brigade here -
Whether you care about football or not, or even acknowledge the Jaguars as a team you would watch, this passionate statement reveals the love for a team and for a city by a large number of citizens.
My point is not about the Jaguars. It is not about Mr. Khan's desire to have his team play two games in London. It is not even about the NFL which tends to divide people about as much as a State of the Union address.
As a fan, I cheer for the team, but that is not the point.
As I have watched this scenario play out this week, I have thought about the makeup of our city. Our city is one of the most divided and regionalized around. While the land that makes up Jacksonville is large, the unique areas are still here. There are the west side, the south side, downtown, the beaches, the north side, San Marco, Avondale, and more. These do not even consider the non Duval County regions that are some of the fastest growing areas in the state that are also considered part of the "First Coast."
These names make sense to residents. If I meet a person in another part of the country I tell them I am from Jacksonville. If they say "Oh I used to live there," then I say "Well, I am actually from Orange Park." Why? Because one from here knows that there are many different communities that comprise our area and that each has a distinctive identity.
We Must Love Our City
When the Bold City Brigade made their statement, partnered with the many posts on blogs and social media, it was clear that a collective nerve had been hit. In the midst of the stated frustration, anger, confusion, and even worry was a uniting factor. These people (my people) love their football, but also their city.
It is home.
This is a reminder that our churches and we, as individual believers, must love our people and our city as well.
I pastor a church that is strategic and intentional when it comes to missions and church planting. We know that we must support and send pastors to the far reaches of the world. We understand and do not apologize for our work in cities as far away as Toronto and Portland. Yet, as we serve and go there, we understand that our church in Orange Park was placed there by God years ago for a reason. Our community needed a gospel witness. There was a need for a church like ours to be placed in a town that would grow and change tremendously over the decades. Throughout these changes, the gospel preached and taught in our church has remained constant.
Our neighborhood is older. The houses are decades old now. The income status of our community has changed. So, too has the racial and cultural diversity. And we love it!
We love our community.
We love our city.
We love our people. When I say "our people" I am not talking about members of our church only. I am talking about our neighbors, the children and teachers in our local schools, the first responders who serve, the ones who do not attend church, do not claim to be Christians, and perhaps have stated that they do not like us too much.
This is not compromising on the gospel. It is not the ignoring of sin. It is loving others as Christ loved us. It is loving people without affirming sin. It is agape. It is needed and we must remember that love is a choice. So we love.
We must love with the love God has given us. We must love enough to keep from hiding in our buildings. We must declare the gospel clearly. We must love enough to confront when needed, comfort when required, and clarify when asked.
The Bold City Brigade loves their city. They love their team.
Do we love our city this much? We must.
Apart from love, the message will not be shared. The message of the gospel is not a win or lose message. It is a live or die message.
By the way - I really don't want the Jaguars to relocate. Ever. DUUUVAL!!!!!