Party On: Why Georgia vs. Florida Should Stay in Jacksonville Forever

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Party On: Why Georgia vs. Florida Should Stay in Jacksonville Forever

Florida and Georgia will meet this weekend at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. in a game that typically carries SEC and national title ramifications.

Not this year. 

Both teams sit at 4-3 (3-2 SEC) and will limp into this matchup beat up and angry, after Florida fell to Missouri 37-26 and Georgia fell to Vanderbilt 31-26 on Oct. 19.

Despite that, it should be a tremendous atmosphere along the banks of the St. Johns River, in the annual event known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.

Why? Because it's Georgia vs. Florida in Jacksonville, which makes it much more than a football game.

Only twice since 1933 has the Florida vs. Georgia rivalry taken place somewhere other than Jacksonville. When the NFL awarded the city an expansion franchise, the old Gator Bowl was torn down and what's now EverBank Field was built in its place. The Gators and Bulldogs played a home-and-home series in 1994 and 1995 before the annual event returned to its rightful home in 1996.

"It's definitely an exciting event in Jacksonville each year," said Alan Verlander, sports and entertainment executive director for the city of Jacksonville. "It's kind of a celebration of college football in this city.

Fans tailgating before the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party

The current contract with the city of Jacksonville runs through the 2016 season, and there have been overtures by other cities to lure the rivalry away from Jacksonville.

Georgia head coach Mark Richt came out in favor of a rotation between neutral sites in Atlanta and Jacksonville in 2009, which, according to the Florida Times-Union, is something that the Atlanta Sports Council tried to accomplish in the past.

That should never happen. 

The event serves as a midseason college football celebration in the same way that bowl games do at the end of the season and kickoff games do on opening weekend. 

"More and more of these kickoff classics are popping up, which is great for those communities," Verlander said. "But, to some degree, we're getting away from traditional stuff. This game has been here for so long. You've got men and women that have been going to this game for 50-plus years, and it just means a lot to not only the fans, but the universities."

/Getty Images

In an era in which conference realignment has stripped college football of several major rivalries and tradition has taken a backseat to the almighty dollar, this neutral-site rivalry is the best of both worlds.

The event generates somewhere "in the neighborhood of a $22-24 million economic impact," routinely generates more revenue than a standard home-and-home series would over a two-year cycle according to a 2010 article in Jacksonville Business Journaland is constantly evolving to meet the demands of what fans expect for a big-time event.

"We are focused on upgrading the event and everything around the event ," Verlander said. "The football game will sell out, but [we are] focused on making the event surrounding it like the national championship and Super Bowl."

/Getty Images

It's not just an event, though; it's a vacation.

Georgia's fall break falls on Nov. 1 this season—a date that was changed from Oct. 25 on Georgia's 2013-2014 academic calendar. Coincidence? Probably not, as Georgia's fall break routinely falls on the week leading up to the game.

Fans of both schools use the game to fit in one last summer vacation before the winter hits. Whether it's on Jacksonville Beach, Amelia Island or across the border in St. Simons or Jekyll Island in Georgia, the game is an excuse for fans to hit the beach one last time.

And, in some cases destroy some property, as the late Larry Munson described "Dawg people" doing in 1980.

While property damage isn't condoned, the vacation aspect is part of what makes this rivalry great.

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"You're coming to the warm weather," Verlander said. "Here, typically the weather is perfect. Fans coming in, they can go out to the beach, and there's a lot to do in Jacksonville. We program a lot of in town, but there's a lot of stuff going on in the surrounding areas."

Georgia fans may not like the six-hour trek the Bulldogs face as opposed to the one-hour ride the Gators enjoy from Gainesville. But with the stadium split 50/50, there is no home-field advantage once toe meets leather. 

The Cocktail Party mixes old-school tradition in the new-school business model of big-time college football, shaken up into an eventful weekend along the First Coast. While traditions come and go, the Cocktail Party has staying power. 

It should stay in Jacksonville forever.

 

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

 

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