Could Raymond James Stadium host Gators, Georgia rivalry game?

“The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” will need a new home for a couple years due to expected renovations to EverBank Stadium.
Florida tight end Hayden Hansen (89) makes a reception for a touchdown against Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks (24) during the second half Saturday in Jacksonville.
Florida tight end Hayden Hansen (89) makes a reception for a touchdown against Georgia defensive back Malaki Starks (24) during the second half Saturday in Jacksonville. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published Oct. 29|Updated Oct. 29

JACKSONVILLE — Don’t expect Georgia and Florida to play their annual rivalry game on campus sites anytime soon, if ever again.

The SEC heavyweights are exploring options to hold “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” at other neutral-site venues during the two years that Jacksonville is expecting a $2 billion renovation to EverBank Stadium and the surrounding area.

Although they haven’t completely ruled out playing a home-and-home series in 2026 and 2027, administrators are focused on letting cities with NFL-ready stadiums bid on the game, according to two people familiar with the planning. The people spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the process hasn’t been formalized or finalized.

The next move is contingent on Jacksonville’s city council approving plans for a stadium overhaul that also would force the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars to play home games in front of a reduced capacity (roughly 40,000) in 2026 and elsewhere in 2027. Georgia and Florida, meanwhile, would play outside Jacksonville for the first time in more than three decades.

In 2026, with Georgia scheduled to be the home team, the game likely would land at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, with a 50-50 ticket split as usual. The following year, with Florida as the home team, it could end up at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa or Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

The reason is simple: The schools can make more money playing the game at neutral-site venues like EverBank. The schools have played annually in Jacksonville since 1933, with a two-year hiatus while the Gator Bowl was being renovated before the Jaguars’ inaugural season. The “Cocktail Party” moved to Gainesville in 1994 and Athens, Georgia, the following year.

Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has been outspoken about wanting to move the game back to campuses for recruiting purposes; NCAA rules prohibit coaches from having contact with recruits at neutral sites, although the home team can leave tickets for them.

But Smart would prefer face-to-face contact, something he could get if the game was played in Athens.

“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,” Smart said last season.

Smart backed off his comments last week.

“I don’t really think about it anymore,” he said. “We are where we are. That really has not crossed my mind besides the offseason when I get asked about it. A lot more concerned with how we play than where we play.”

Florida coach Billy Napier has been quick to point out that “the underlying issue here is the economics.”

The payout from Jacksonville is roughly $3 million for each school in 2023, a figure that includes $1.25 million guaranteed plus a split of ticket revenue and concession sales. The guaranteed payout for each school increases to $1.5 million in 2024 and 2025, the final two years of the current contract.

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Georgia also receives $350,000 annually to cover its charter flights, buses and lodging while Florida receives $60,000 because no flights are required.

A Florida home game, by comparison, generates between $2 million and $5 million depending on the opponent. So a home-and-home series would bring in less revenue over a two-year span than a neutral-site game.

By MARK LONG, Associated Press