In 1991, an ownership group of Jacksonville businessmen and investors called “Touchdown Jacksonville!” submitted a formal application for one of the two franchises the NFL had announced were to be added. On December 6 the group held a public vote for local fans to select the name of their hopeful NFL expansion team, having just entered the bidding frenzy with other contending cities. Little evidence of the event exists, but known to be on the ballot were four animals: the stingray, shark, panther, and jaguar. The two aquatic selections made sense because of Jacksonville’s close proximity to the ocean as a port city. The panther (puma concolor coryi) made even more sense. It is Florida’s state animal, chosen in 1982 by a state-wide student vote. Nevertheless, Jacksonville residents defied logic and went with the jaguar (panthera onca)—an animal whose relationship with the Southeast is as mysterious as the 1991 public vote in which it was picked.
Civic Competition, Rivalries Forged
As the NFL worked to add its two expansion franchises, numerous city campaigns competed to gain one of the two spots. On March 18, 1992, NFL owners at a meeting in Phoenix, Arizona reduced the list of contending cities from eleven to seven. Two days later, they reduced the list from seven to five. Making the cut were Charlotte, Baltimore, Memphis, St. Louis, and Jacksonville, the smallest expansion candidate of the lot. The twenty-eight NFL owners unanimously voted to award Charlotte the first of two franchises on October 26, 1993, thereby creating the Carolina Panthers. They then announced that the selection of the second expansion city would be delayed a month. Most believed the delay was engineered in order to aid St. Louis and Baltimore, the two frontrunners that had established football legacies but whose bids were marred by internal, organizational issues.
To everyone’s shock, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced on November 30, 1993 that the NFL had awarded the unlikely candidate Jacksonville the second franchise by a vote of 26-2. A fifteen year municipal effort, initiated by Mayor Jake Godbold in 1978, had paid off. During his tenure, Godbold dealt with a community who held a dim view of their city. “We sometimes overlook the fact that self-image can be as important as jobs and economic development,” said a mayor bent on instilling civic pride through sports. In 1979, Godbold invited Baltimore Colts owner Bob Irsay to pay a visit to Jacksonville’s Gator Bowl stadium, where he flew in by helicopter to be greeted by a crowd of 50,000. This political move benefitted Irsay by planting the seed for his late-night move to Indianapolis in 1984, but it helped Jacksonville by demonstrating its viability as a professional football town. The ruse was successful as a lobbying kickstarter. Successive mayors kept the dream alive, culminating in the formation of “Touchdown Jacksonville!” in 1989 which saw the bid through to completion.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers founding was more a familial endeavor than a municipal one. On December 15, 1987, entrepreneur Jerry Richardson announced his bid for an NFL expansion franchise in the Carolinas. After learning of the NBA’s enfranchisement of the Charlotte Hornets, a process that culminated with their entry into the league in 1988, he thought, “Why not a football team, too?” Joe Menzer and Bob Condor, authors of The Carolina Panthers: The First Season of the Most Successful Expansion Team in NFL History, state that the original team name was to be the Carolina Cougars, favored for its alliteration. However, Richardson wanted the Panthers, which he and his son Mark thought represented what a team should be—“powerful, sleek and strong.” It seems they were unaware the two animals were one in the same. Mark chose the colors black, blue, and silver. Despite pushback from the NFL, Richardson stood by the Panthers, colored in black, going so far as to using the initials B.B. (Black and Blue) on his letters and changing his license plate to PNTHERS around 1989. These actions, however, either were not publicly known or were not significant enough to deter “Touchdown Jacksonville!” from including the panther as a choice on the public ballot in December 1991.
Expansion Frenzy in Florida
Apart from football, professional sports came to Florida in dramatic fashion in the late 1980s and 1990s. The NBA added the Miami Heat in 1988 and Orlando Magic in 1989. Tampa Bay acquired the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992 and the MLB’s (then Devil) Rays in 1998. The Southeast market was booming. Participation by Blockbuster Video magnate Wayne Huizenga further enshrouds the Jaguars name in mystery and speculation. An established businessman and entrepreneur, Huizenga brought both professional baseball and hockey to South Florida. As early as April 1991, when it was reported in South Florida’s Sun-Sentinel, Huizenga’s company South Florida Big League Baseball Inc. purchased the “Panthers” trademark from Frank Morsani, a Tampa Bay car dealer who had led an unsuccessful effort to bring an MLB franchise to Cigar City. Huizenga may have originally intended for the Panthers name to go to his baseball team, for which he won a franchise just a month later on June 10, 1991. After they became the Marlins, however, the feline’s name fell to that of his NHL franchise, awarded on December 10, 1992 alongside Disney’s Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. On April 20, 1993, Huizenga’s newly-anointed President Bill Torrey publicly announced the Florida Panthers namesake for the first time. A supposed public vote confirmed Huizenga’s earlier trademark purchase.
On June 15, 1993, the Sun-Sentinel reported that Huizenga announced the Panthers would “donate $50,000 to the Save the Panthers Foundation, and for every save made by a Panthers goalie on home ice, the Panthers [organization] will donate a still-to-be determined amount of money to help create awareness as to the danger facing the endangered feline.” The panther is endemic to South Florida’s Everglades region. Local South Floridians thus perhaps identify more closely with the mammal than their fellow residents to the North. Like Richardson’s insistence on the Panthers name in Charlotte, it is unclear how much of an impact, if any, the Huizenga trademark purchase had on Jacksonville voters when they selected the jaguar in December 1991. The panther, after all, was still on the ballot.
The end result of all this hoopla, perhaps coincidentally, was the entrance in 1995 of two big cats into the NFL. The league was quick to capitalize on the inherent symbolism. On May 26, 1994, NFL owners voted to pit the two expansion teams against one another in the 1995 Hall of Fame game—a “Battle of the Big Cats,” so to speak. This would be the first game in team history for both franchises. While both would go on to early success, the 1995 expansion precipitated tremendous fallout, leading to what Ken Rosenthal called in 1996 “the mother of all franchise shifts.” As a result of the Southeast expansion, and the consequent snubbing of Baltimore, St. Louis, and Memphis, a reactionary, ad hoc reorientation began almost immediately.
In 1996, Art Modell deactivated the Cleveland Browns and moved them to Baltimore, a city still seething not only from its snub in ’93 but the Colts’ departure to Indianapolis over a decade earlier. Los Angeles lost both its teams in 1995, the Rams moving to the snubbed St. Louis, and the Raiders returning to Oakland. In 1997, the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee (Nashville, not Memphis), soon to be renamed the Titans. In 1999, the NFL reinstated a renewed Cleveland Browns team, to compete against its former self, the Baltimore Ravens. Finally, as part of an official Realignment, the NFL enfranchised the Houston Texans, thereby satisfying all parties aggrieved in some way by the 1995 expansion. Over two decades later, the Rams returned to L.A. in 2016, precipitating a new cluster of franchise shifts that has entangled a number of fan bases, many all too familiar with this process.
Why the Jaguar Name in Jacksonville?
The Jaguars’ arrival in Jacksonville, then, had lasting ramifications not just for the city itself, which put it on the map, but for cities throughout the country. In 1979, the short-lived American Football Association included the Jacksonville Firebirds, whose original team name was the Jaguars. Might this fleeting name have influenced voters just over a decade later? Or, like the NFL’s suggestion of the Carolina Cougars, the name selection mystery may boil down to simple alliteration. Furthermore, historic confusion between big cats of the Americas may have reinforced the notion for voters that the jaguar was a panther of sorts, only with the added benefit of an alliterative title. Still, the simplicity of this conclusion feels insufficient. The December 1991 vote operated within the context of major shifts in professional sports in the Southeast. The panther, dubbed the Florida state animal only nine years prior, garnered interest as a symbol from North Carolina to South Florida.
Charlotte and Jacksonville entered the franchise bidding frenzy with their team names already solidified. It seems that the NFL and Commissioner Tagliabue had long-term plans to bring football to most of the major contending cities, including those snubbed but also those affected by subsequent shifts such as Cleveland and Houston. Is it possible that NFL owners, wishing to focus the 1995 expansion on a booming Southeast market, were aware of the inherent symbolism of two big cats entering together? Although it is unlikely that recognition of the symbolism would have influenced decision-making on any level, the coincidence is striking. Perhaps it suggests more about our collective memory of big cats than it does about the NFL.
The Historical Jaguar
The historical range of the jaguar bears no special relation to the Southeast. We know less than we would like of the jaguar’s historic range in North America. The jaguar likely existed in the Florida region prehistorically, but occurrences since then, as recent as the nineteenth century, have been exceptionally rare and unverified. Archaeological and paleontological fossils corroborate the belief that in the mid-Pleistocene era, the animal’s range extended as far north as Washington, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Over time, however, its range continually diminished, eventually leaving only a small portion of the American Southwest as habitable territory in the present-day U.S. It can hardly be said, therefore, that the jaguar’s historic range played any part whatsoever in its selection to represent the city of Jacksonville in the NFL. Perhaps people confused the jaguar with the panther, more prevalent in Florida.
The animal’s symbolic roots date back to the civilizations of the Chavín and Olmec, considered to be what Alan Rabinowitz calls the “mother culture” of later Mesoamerican societies, in which the jaguar was a central focus of religious belief and practice, embodying the spiritual liminality of both man and beast. Often depicted in zoomorphic form, the jaguar’s mystical essence set the apex predator apart, denoting a godlike status worshipped by most, if not all pre-Columbian cultures of Meso- and South America. These civilizations laid the foundation for what Rabinowitz calls the Jaguar Cultural Corridor, stringed together by different cultures through time that all placed special significance on the relation between jaguar and man.
The jaguar’s use as a modern symbol in the United States dates back to 1945 when England’s Swallow Sidecar Company changed its name to Jaguar Cars. In 1990, Ford Motor Company purchased Jaguar. Not all interest in the animal has been good for the species, however. From ritual use, to religious extirpation, to hunting trophy, to fashion statement, the jaguar’s coat had been sought after for as long as its existence alongside humans. This phenomenon reached a peak in the U.S. in 1962 when First Lady Jackie Kennedy appeared in public wearing a leopard-skin coat she had purchased in New York City. The number of jaguars and other big cats killed during the ensuing fur coat craze numbered in the tens of thousands. Demand poured in from across the world, leading to near extinction for the species. The 1970s witnessed major inroads in ecology conservation, however, chiefly with the Endangered Species Act in 1973. The animal’s recognition as an endangered species may have contributed to the ensuing popularity through sports teams.
The Jaguar Cultural Corridor Comes to Jacksonville
Jacksonville can hardly be indicted as the first culprit in perpetuating the Jaguar Cultural Corridor outside the scope of its range of habitat. While animals often become aware immediately of the loss of an apex predator in their natural environment, this is not so much the case with humans. Rabinowtiz contends, “Myths, stories, and folktales often [live] on after the animal that the tales were based on [is] gone. Research has shown consistently that human memory, the way we incorporate experiences into the human psyche, can be unpredictable, unreliable and, in some cases, chimerical. We are often convinced of something even when all the evidence points otherwise.” Could this be the case in Florida?
Anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, in the early 1900s, deliberated on various tribal groups such as the Mojave, Comanche, Yaquis, and Navajo, all of whom maintained traditional myths and storytelling about the jaguar despite rarely, if ever, seeing an extant animal in their territory. Rabinowitz concludes that, “When a cultural icon like the jaguar so deeply influences and is embedded in the lives and behavior of the people among whom it once lived, the knowledge and mythology of that animal can persist not only among the descendents of those people, but might also persist in the minds of people beyond the boundaries of the animal’s historical range.” Jacksonville’s acceptance of the jaguar as its chief cultural icon demonstrates forcibly the enduring, cultural spirit of the animal, despite there being scant historical logic whatsoever supporting the choice. Today, its inclusion alongside the panther as two emblems of Southeast sports franchises has likely perpetuated more confusion, mystery, and speculation than it has clarity. Nevertheless, these franchises, whether deliberately or not, have given big cats a considerable level of national awareness.
The Jacksonville Zoo, for example, inaugurated its two-time national award-winning Range of the Jaguar exhibit in 2005. While the zoo featured jaguars as early as 1958, it is likely the NFL team renewed local interest in the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere. The Jacksonville Jaguars franchise, even if representative of a cultural force not associated with the animal directly, has given American society an additional opportunity to extend the dialogue on the apex predator’s significance, its conservation, and ultimately its relationship to humanity. The jaguar has weaved its way into the cultural fabric of the Southeast, with its football namesake contributing to an urban revitalization for Jacksonville. In doing so, it has added a modern twist to the age-old linkage between humanity and the tenacious beast, or at least its cultural representation. In this way, even with no wild jaguars present, the Jaguar Cultural Corridor has arrived in Jacksonville, and barring another “mother of all franchise shifts,” it is here to stay.
Alan Rabinowitz, An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar, Washington, DC: Island Press, 2015.
James B. Crooks, Jacksonville: The Consolidation Story, from Civil Rights to the Jaguars (Florida History and Culture), Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2004.
Joe Menzer and Bob Condor, The Carolina Panthers: The First Season of the Most Successful Expansion Team in NFL History, Macmillan General Reference, October 1996.
R.D. Griffith, To the NFL: You Sure Started Somethin’: A Historical Guide of All 32 NFL Teams and the Cities They’ve Played In, Pittsburgh, PA: Dorrance Publishing, 2012.
Richard Mahler, The Jaguar’s Shadow: Searching for a Mythic Cat, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Ronald M. Nowak, “A Possible Occurrence of the Jaguar in Louisiana,” in The Southwestern Naturalist, vol. 17, no. 4 (January 1973): 430-432.