Georgia football: It’s time to close the lights on Jacksonville’s cocktail party

Georgia's mascot Hairy Dawg celebrates in the stands with fans [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union]
Georgia's mascot Hairy Dawg celebrates in the stands with fans [Bob Self/Florida Times-Union] /

Georgia football fans have debated for years where the rivalry game with Florida should be played, and now the decision might be at last forced. 

The debate has raged for decades. Should Georgia and Florida play their annual rivalry affectionately still known as the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party at a *ahem* neutral site, or return to the game alternating between Athens and Gainesville like every other conference game?

Jacksonville, Florida — the so-called “neutral” venue — has hosted the Georgia-Florida rivalry game on a near-exclusive basis since 1933, with the exception of 1994 and 1995 when the old Gator Bowl was being renovated into the current NFL stadium.

That stadium, currently named TIAA Bank Field, is about to undergo another facelift, meaning the Cocktail Party will need a temporary (read, permanent) new home or homes during the 2025 and 2026 seasons.

Starting with those two seasons, there are a few obvious options.

Alternate between Athens and Gainesville.

Alternate between Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and Camping World Stadium in Orlando.

Play both in either Atlanta or Orlando.

Playing in Atlanta? Kind of a second home for the Bulldogs in recent years, and it is a venue well-suited for hosting big events. It has a slightly larger capacity than the Jacksonville venue, and more seats are always a good thing for events like this. The entire atmosphere of drunken debauchery, red and blue Solo cups, and massive tailgates would have to be set aside, however.

How about Orlando? A nice destination for a weekend getaway, but Camping World Stadium is even smaller than TIAA Bank Field, only holding 60,000 for football. Cutting down on capacity and lengthening the bus ride by another two hours each way for the Bulldogs doesn’t sound very appealing.

ALSO READ: 3 Cocktail Party Losses That Broke Georgia’s Heart

It’s safe to say most fans would love to see those two games played at Sanford Stadium and Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (The Swamp). By the time the 2025 season gets here, it will have been 30 years since the Gators and Dawgs set foot on each other’s turf. Even if it only lasts two years it would be an explosive pair of games from a fan perspective.

The Swamp holds over 88,000 for football, and Sanford Stadium boasts a capacity of nearly 93,000 (possibly more after the current renovations are completed). That alone seems reason enough to have the games on campus.

But what about moving forward after 2025? Should the game return to Jacksonville?

Should Georgia football fans want the Florida game to leave Jacksonville permanently?

The game has a contract with the TIAA Bank Field for 2023 with an option to go through 2025. Each school will be paid $1.25 million this season and $1.5 million the next two seasons if the option is picked up.

The money isn’t the issue for Georgia or Florida. Neither school is concerned about the money, as they’d probably make just as much or more by hosting the games on campus. The City of Jacksonville, however, would stand to lose a lot of money if the game permanently leaves town.

With all due respect to Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the city, it’s time to end Jacksonville’s hold on the Cocktail Party.

The smart move would be to decline the option, and play this game the way all SEC games are meant to be played. While the spectacle of a stadium split 50/50 with Georgia fans on one side and Florida fans on the other is nice, that’s not what SEC football is about.

In the SEC, defending your home turf is everything, especially against your rivals. Making the trek into enemy territory and proudly wearing your colors is a rite of passage for every true SEC football fan and something that two generations of Bulldog and Gator fans have never experienced.

Kirby Smart even openly discussed wanting to return the games to the two schools in a press conference last season.

“When it comes down to it, there’s a very, very basic element of everything comes back to — number one, money, and number two, recruiting and getting good players. I firmly believe that we’ll be able to sign better players by having it as a home-and-home because we’ll have more opportunities to get them to campus.”

Yes, the pilgrimage to Jacksonville is something some fans would miss. But change is inevitable, and the entire landscape of college sports has been swept up in many big changes. Moving the Georgia-Florida rivalry game from a not-so-neutral site to the two campuses would be an enhancement rather than a diminishment of the game.

But it’s time. It’s time to close the lights in Jacksonville when it comes to the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. It’s been a good, long run, but this rivalry, these two programs, and the needs of fans have outgrown what Jacksonville can do.

Besides, the Bulldogs have scores to settle from the last time the games were played in Gainesville and Athens, and payback is long, long overdue.