Courtesy of The Gainesville Sun
The Jacksonville Jaguars Caravan drove deep into the heart of Gator country on Wednesday, hoping to 'spread our footprint' in the area, new team president Mark Lamping said.
But with so many orange and blue Gator tracks covering the landscape, this might be tough terrain to try and plant some of those teal Jaguars' paw prints.
In an attempt to expand their support base in Gainesville and the surrounding area, the Jaguars put their best Gator-friendly foot forward Wednesday night at the Tioga Town Center, where they were greeted by about 200 fans, many of them wearing UF attire.
Among the NFL team's entourage were former Gator and Jaguar great Fred Taylor, former Gator and current Jacksonville defensive end Jeremy Mincey and new head coach Mike Mularkey, another Florida alum.
The question is: did the fans show up to get autographs from the former Gators, or did they come because either they're Jags' fans or interested in jumping on board with the NFL team?
There seemed to be a mix.
David Hanson, a 38-year-old financial adviser from Gainesville, said he and his son Christian came to the caravan to get autographs from Taylor and Mincey.
'My son and I went to a Jaguars game this past season. But we're Saints fans, and the Saints played the Jaguars,' said Hanson, who was wearing a Gator visor. 'We're here for the Gators all the way. We support the Gator Nation.'
Bungo Shiotani, a 26-year-old UF student, was dressed in Gator attire, but said he attended the caravan as a Gator and Jags' fan.
'A little of both. I support our Jaguars also,' he said. 'Too bad there's not a Gainesville team (in the NFL).
'I do believe there are more Jags fans (in Gainesville) than a few years ago. It's a lot closer (than the next nearest NFL team, Tampa Bay). Every Sunday I try to go up to Jacksonville to watch the games.'
Shiotani was asked what he would do if he had to make a choice between a UF game or a Jags' game.
'I'm going to say Gators first,' he said. 'They don't play on Sunday. That's the good thing.'
The Jaguars have been a tough sell in the heart of Gator country in the past. The team has failed to grow a significant fan base (season ticket holders) in the area, where college football (especially UF football) is king.
The Jaguars are hoping their caravan will generate interest and draw fans.
'I think (the Jaguars can get a foothold in Gainesville),' Taylor said. 'The fan base is tremendous. Everywhere I go, the Gator fans say ‘I love you as a Gator and I love you just as much as a Jag.' There is a lot of room down here (to grow the fan base).'
'As the organization continues to grow and establish the tradition we're looking for, a lot of it is going to come from right here in this region, this area. We need the support, definitely.'
The timing of the Jaguars Caravan turns out to be less than ideal. Earlier in the day, Mularkey and first-round draft pick Justin Blackmon attended a press conference back in Jacksonville dealing with Blackmon's DUI arrest this past weekend.
Blackmon's second arrest for DUI is the latest setback for a franchise that has made questionable high draft picks and been mired in mediocrity in recent years.
So, this exciting new start with a new owner (Shahid Khan), new president and new head coach, suddenly has a little bit of an old, familiar feel to it in the wake of Blackmon's blunder.
But the fans Wednesday night were obviously excited about their Jags. Taylor and Mularkey received loud ovations when they were introduced.
Gainesville was the fourth stop of a seven-stop tour for the Jaguars Caravan, which is expected to travel about 1,200 miles through north Florida and south Georgia.
In hopes of growing their market, the Gainesville area is critical for the Jags, Lamping said.
'It's very important,' he said. 'It's one of our largest markets outside of Jacksonville that is within reasonable distance.'
'This community is filled with very knowledgeable football fans, and there is a history with some great Jags that played for the Gators. They love their football here, and we could become an even bigger part of it.'
'I never felt that you had to choose between college and pro football. There's no reason why somebody can't be a huge Gator fan and also be a Jaguar fan.'
Lamping has experience expanding the market of a professional sports team. During his 14 seasons as the president of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, Lamping helped grow the fan base with caravan tours similar to the one he's come up with for the Jags.
'St. Louis is not one of the large markets in major league baseball,' Lamping said. 'We focused on building the Cardinal brand throughout the Midwest. As a result, about 40 percent of their fans travel from regional markets.'
'Jacksonville is a similar situation. To succeed, we need to focus on Jacksonville, but at the same time, expand our footprint, grow our brand outside our home market.'
Mularkey, a former standout tight end for the Gators (1979-82), knows from experience how big a Gator town this is. Still, he said he thinks the Jaguars have a chance to establish a large fan presence in Gainesville and the surrounding area.
'I don't see why not,' Mularkey said. 'If you love football, you've got the best of both worlds right here in your backyard — Gator football and the Jaguars just down the street. There are not a lot of cities in the country with that kind of combination. We think we can make that work.'
'I know Gator fans know the stadium (EverBank Field) well. It's not that tough of a drive to come over and have another team to follow in person.'
Former Jags' Pro Bowl offensive tackle Tony Boselli, the team's Teal Commissioner (a liaison between the fans and the Jags) said there is no reason the Jaguars can't establish a footprint in Gainesville.
'Not with the popularity of the NFL and football in this region — great college town, great university,' he said. 'But there are a lot of NFL fans here, too. They should all be Jaguar fans.'
'That's the focus of this caravan, to make sure we reach out and get in communities like Gainesville and make sure they're Jaguar fans.'
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu's blog at Gatorsports.com.
1:55 pm, June 13, 2012