Jacksonville’s Northbank is home to great neighborhoods, restaurants and idyllic views of downtown and the water front. It is also home to Jacksonville’s Sports Complex, comprised of three distinct venues located within a mile of each other: the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, Veterans Memorial Arena and Everbank Field. They combine to host one major and four minor league franchises that offer year-round sports entertainment for local fans.
The love affair between the citizens of Jacksonville and professional team sports dates back to the late 19th century when the city hosted Major League Baseball’s first-ever spring training in 1888. In 1904, the city welcomed its first pro team, the minor league baseball Jacksonville Jays, who played in the South Atlantic League until 1910. Since then the city has called eight other minor league baseball teams theirs, teams with names like “The Roses,” and “The Tars” (twice) and one major league team, the Jacksonville “Red Caps” which played in the Negro leagues from 1938 to 1942.
Just like the Tars, there have been two teams named the Suns that have played in Jacksonville since 1962: a class Triple-A International League team from 1962–1968, and the current Double-A team from 1970 to the present, and are currently affiliated with the Miami Marlins. The team has played in the Southern league longer than any other and has one International league championship (1968) and six Southern League championships, with the most recent coming last year (2014). The Suns played at Wolfson Park from 1962 until it was demolished in 2002.
Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville
In 2003, the city opened the $34 million Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, as part of Mayor John Delany’s $2.2 billion Better Jacksonville Plan. The Stadium, nicknamed “Little Camden Yards,” and is now named Bragen Field in honor of the family owners’ passion for baseball. With its classic brick exterior, and grass berm seating the park maintains the old school atmosphere of days gone by while still providing many modern amenities. There are nearly 6,000 stadium-style chairs and room for more than 11,000 fans, the highest capacity in all of Double-A baseball. The park also features 12 luxury skyboxes, four sky decks, a large scoreboard and video board. With so many upsides it is of little wonder why the park was chosen as home to Jacksonville’s most recent professional team, the North American Soccer League’s Division 2, Armada.
Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena
Just across the street from The Baseball Grounds on A. Phillip Randolph Blvd, lies the second piece of the JSC, the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena, a 15,000 seat multi-purpose arena which opened in 2003 and is home to both Jacksonville Sharks of the Arena Football League (AFL) and the Jacksonville Giants of the American Basketball Association (ABA). The Arena was another piece of the Better Jacksonville Plan, costing over $130 million. The city spared no expense in making the Arena a first-class venue for sports franchises as well as major touring musical acts. Its predecessor, the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Coliseum which opened in 1960, was home to several minor league franchises including four minor league hockey teams, beginning with the Jacksonville Rockets (1962-1972) and ending with the Jacksonville Lizard Kings, who began in 1995 and folded in 2000. The Jacksonville Tea Men of the North American Soccer League (NASL) called the Coliseum home in the early 1980’s as did the Sharks predecessor’s, The Jacksonville Tomcats of the af2, the Arena Football League’s developmental league, from 1999- 2002.
In 2002, the Tomcats mediocre performance, problems with the aging Coliseum, combined to force the team to fold, but the AFL never took their sights off of Jacksonville market. Once the Vetrans Memorial Arena was built in 2003 the League began working on a plan to bring Arena football back and in 2010, with the expansion of the AFL, following the cancellation of 2009 season, the Sharks were awarded to the Jacksonville market as an expansion team playing out of the South Division. The Sharks and the city hit the ground running as the inaugural team set the league record for most regular season wins by an expansion team, winning twelve of their sixteen games, and ranked third in the league in ticket sales and average attendance. They advanced to the 2010 AFL playoffs, claiming the South Division title. In their second year in the league, they advanced to the ArenaBowl XXIV, defeating the Arizona Rattlers 73-70, for the first AFL Championship in franchise history.
The Jacksonville Giants of the American Basketball Association (ABA) were awarded to the area that same year once again as an expansion team and once again a quick league champion winning three consecutive regional titles in 2011, 2012, & 2013, and consecutive national titles in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, the team was recognized for their off the court achievements with the ABA National Charity Award for their work in the Jacksonville community.
The final member of the JSC is its oldest and largest. EverBank Field (originally Jacksonville Municipal Stadium and formerly Alltel Stadium) is the home stadium facility of the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League (NFL). The stadium was built on the former grounds of the old Gator Bowl Stadium, which had been erected in 1949. The stadium had been notable for hosting the Gator Bowl, a post-season college football bowl game now known as the Taxslayer Bowl. It also hosted the Florida–Georgia game, an annual college football rivalry game between the University of Florida and the University of Georgia, both of which are now played annually at Everbank. The Gator Bowl Stadium was also home to several professional sports teams, including the original Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League (WFL), from January of 1975 to that October and the Jacksonville Bulls of the United States Football League from 1984 to 1985.
In 1995, the former Gator Bowl was nearly completely demolished with the exception of the concrete west upper deck and ramps which were integrated into EverBank Field. The Jaguars have played three playoff games there, including the AFC Championship game (1999). EverBank Field has also played host Super Bowl XXXIX in 2005 as well as the ACC Championship Games from 2005–2007 as well as the River City Showdown games of 2007 and 2008, all under its previous title as Alltell Stadium. EverBank Field received a substantial upgrade in 2014 with the addition of new scoreboards, pools, cabana seating and premium seating that includes 180 field-level seats. The new scoreboards are now the world’s largest video boards, which measure 60 feet high by 362 feet long and have more than 21,700 square feet of digital canvas.
Without a doubt the Northbank JSC is the prime locale for every level of sports fan and is representative of this city’s commitment to providing its people with a variety of high level sports entertainment, all located within walking distance of one another. So come on down to the new ballpark with the old school feel, or the state of the art Arena where championship banners are still crisp and rapidly multiplying or bring your swimsuit over to the only NFL stadium with swimming pools!