Wednesday, February 2, 2005
Updated: May 31, 2:29 PM ET
Escape from Jacksonville
By Bill Simmons
Editor's Note: Page 2's Bill Simmons is filing round-the-clock reports from Jacksonville, Fla., in Super Blog II. Check back throughout the day for updates. Here are all his entries from Day 3:
DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6 | DAY 7
Did you miss Media Day? What's wrong with you?
Posted, Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2005 -- 1:21 p.m.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Here's a quick breakdown of Super Bowl Week in Jacksonville.
The positives: The locals have been extremely nice.
The negatives: Everything else.
I'm not saying that Jacksonville is a bad place. The city seems fine. As far as middle-sized cities go, I like it less than Pittsburgh or Milwaukee, but more than Hartford or Sacramento. Still, you can't change certain realities in life. If Tommy Maddox is starting for you in an AFC Championship Game, you're probably not headed to a Super Bowl. If one of the Wayans brothers is starring in your movie, you're probably not winning an Oscar. If you're having drinks with a female and they casually mention, "Yeah, I've done some exotic dancing," you're probably not introducing her to mom. And if you're having the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, it's probably going to be a bigger disaster than "Alexander" and the Chyna/X-Pac sex video combined.
Again, I'm not blaming Jacksonville. Why wouldn't they want the Super Bowl? Why not roll the dice and hope you can pull it off? From what I've found out over the past two days, the city has a complex about its place in the Florida pecking order -- it's not as sexy as Miami, doesn't have Disney like Orlando, isn't considered a major city like Tampa, doesn't even have a defining event like Daytona, so what's left? They were tired of being a place about which people said, "Jacksonville? Yeah, I've driven through there." So they wanted to change everything. Hosting the Super Bowl was their equivalent of Brittany Murphy starring in "Don't Say a Word" -- "Look, I'm not the chunky girl from 'Clueless' anymore! I'm different! I'm even dating that goofy guy from 'That 70's Show!'"
Unfortunately, the Super Bowl is in a different league. It's like driving a Formula One race car -- you only want the best possible driver behind the wheel. When you think about it, for many people, the Super Bowl is the defining week of the year. It's the marquee event of the most popular sport in the country. It's the most memorable week of their careers for just about everyone on both teams. For their fans, it's the sports equivalent of the Holy Grail -- getting tickets, getting flights, milking connections, doing everything you can to get down there -- an experience you will remember forever, especially if you moved heaven and earth for the chance to support your boys. For media members, it's the reward for a year of hard work, the chance to cover something interesting in a fun location, maybe even let off a little steam. And for people in the sports industry, it's unquestionably the biggest week of the year, a chance to do some networking, reward staff members, cut some deals and everything else. It's a place to see and be seen.
Call me crazy, but I don't think we should screw around with Super Bowl Week. For instance, every time I eat dinner with my mother, she has to order a bottle of wine she's never tried before. Since she doesn't care about spending the money -- in fact, if there was a salary cap for wine purchases, she'd be paying the luxury tax every year -- she's dropping a pretty big chunk of change to find out things like, "Who made a better pinot noir this year, Peter Michael or Marcassin?" And this drives my stepdad bonkers. In his mind, he just wants to have a nice dinner with a nice bottle of wine. He doesn't mind drinking the same bottle 10 or 12 times, as long as it's good. But my mom is like the Lewis and Clark of wine drinkers -- she would rather roll the dice and take the 30 percent chance of ruining the whole dinner with the wrong bottle.
Here's my point: I'm with my stepdad. Just bring me something that's good. Don't roll the dice. But in the big scheme of things, it doesn't really matter. Why? Because they probably go out to dinner something like 250 times a year. My mom refuses to cook. She retired 15 years ago and, just like Johnny Carson, never looked back. So even if she chooses the wrong bottle once in awhile, there's always another dinner.
With the Super Bowl, you only get one chance per year to pick the "right bottle of wine" -- in this case, the right venue for the game. You CANNOT screw it up. And that's what makes me angry and somewhat homicidal about this whole Jacksonville thing. I have talked to as many locals as possible over the past few days -- cab drivers, concierges, bartenders, waitresses, volunteers, locals, readers, you name it -- and asked all of them the same two questions:
1. "Were you surprised when Jacksonville got the Super Bowl?"
2. "Are you worried that this week will go smoothly?"
The consensus answer for Question No. 1: "Absolutely, I was stunned, I couldn't believe it."
The consensus answer for Question No. 2: "I'm terrified, I'm not sure we're ready for this."
There are some major logistical problems here. Jacksonville is more spread out than any other American city -- 884 square miles, even bigger than Houston -- only they don't have nearly enough cabs, and there isn't a reliable form of public transportation that covers the entire territory. (Note: You almost need to rent a citizen from Jacksonville and make them your personal house boy for the week, like when Ian McKellan had Kiko in "And the Band Played On.") They tried to solve this problem by using buses to haul everyone around ... but what happens on Saturday night, when you have hundreds of thousands of people descending on the city, then they all have to find their way back home? And what about the people forced to stay in Daytona (70 miles away), Orlando (140 miles away) and even Georgia (one state away).
(Even if you're 20 minutes from downtown, you're screwed. One of my cab drivers told me last night that, starting Thursday, his company will be charging $100 an hour for every cab ride, even if you're only going 10 minutes. Does that sound like a fun wrinkle for Super Bowl Week?)
By all accounts, the traffic heading into the city is going to be an uber-nightmare -- even on Tuesday at rush hour, cars were moving along at a snail's pace. And nobody's here yet. If you planned on renting a car, don't -- most of the streets downtown are shut off, and they're not letting anyone park anywhere. I have friends at hotels that are as far as 45 minutes away from me, and we're all within the city limits. There's no central location for people to meet -- I keep hearing about The Landing, but we went down there last night and the place was deader than dead.
If anything, the past two days made me appreciate Houston's performance last year, a city that faced the same logistical problems and conquered many of them. I don't think Houston should have hosted a Super Bowl either, and those last two days were a certifiable train wreck. But at least they had enough hotels. At least there were a decent number of cabs. At least there was a recognizable downtown area. At least they had the Light Rail, with the bonus that you might get to see some drunken pedestrian bouncing off it. Houston was 10 times more prepared than Jacksonville is right now.
Before you play the "Why are you complaining, you get to cover the Super Bowl for free?" card, consider three things.
1. Only 12 cities have ever hosted a Super Bowl. Twelve. This isn't like hosting the AVN Awards. It's a privilege. An honor. A responsibility. If you crack that list of 12, it's almost like making the original Dream Team. And under that scenario, New Orleans is Bird, Miami is Magic, San Diego is MJ, and Jacksonville is Christian Laettner.
2. When a city agrees to host a Super Bowl, it opens itself up to praise and criticism beyond the normal boundaries, almost like a new restaurant opening its doors. Like it or not, this was a business decision by the city -- I sincerely doubt they're making money this week. They're hoping that the attention leads to bigger and better things, that people will want to come back again, that they won't be considered a second-rate city in Florida anymore. If they can't handle the burden of Super Bowl Week, and they basically failed at their task to deliver an entertaining week for everyone who spends the money to come down here, to think that nobody would mention this seems pretty Pollyanna-ish..
3. It's MY JOB to tell you these things. I'm here and you're not. If the roles were reversed, I would want you to tell me one thing: "Is it fun there?" And the answer, honestly, is no. The weather stinks and it's impossible to get around. That's the bottom line. Everyone here is shaking their heads and saying, "Can you believe this?" These are the things you need to know. That's why ESPN sent me.
Here's what bothers me: This should be a can't-miss week. Nobody should ever complain. People should be happy. People should be saying to themselves, "I will never forget coming here." For instance, my first Super Bowl was the Pats-Rams in New Orleans, one of the greatest weeks of my life. Sure, I was almost lynched. But the food was unbelievable. It was easy to get around. Every vice was taken care of -- gambling, strippers, boozing, you name it -- and you could go all night if you wanted. Bourbon Street may have been disgusting, but it was one of the liveliest places I can ever remember. For that entire week, there was an energy in that city that was almost indescribable. I will never forget being there. And neither will anyone else.
Well ... shouldn't that be the case EVERY year? Why are we messing around with the Super Bowl? I remember thinking (and even writing) that this was a cute idea, that giving such a giant event to such an unassuming city had some "Hickory High winning the Indiana state title" parallels. But there's too much money at stake. Too many people care about this week, and too many people have spent an inordinate amount of time and money to get down here. This isn't the time to be saying, "Hey, let's give the Super Bowl in Jacksonville and hope it works out."
One more scenario for you, and then I'm done ...
Imagine that Paul Tagliabue announced in March, "We decided to give the Super Bowl to Las Vegas. We're building a 70,000-seat domed stadium next to the Thomas Mack Center. Every other year, we're having the Super Bowl there. That alternate year will be rotated between New Orleans, Miami and San Diego, and only those three cities, because we learned the hard way that those are the only cities that can host the Super Bowl. And we're doing this for two reasons. First, we want to make sure that everyone has a good time. And second, we're going to make a ridiculous amount of money. I mean, have you seen the amount of people that descend on Vegas for March Madness? We're going to triple it. People will be fighting each other for tickets. It's going to be insane. And we're going to split the profits with Vegas and everyone will live happily ever after."
Ask yourself one question: Would that be the best possible business decision for the NFL?
So why hasn't it happened yet?
(You got me.)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday.