By Ryan Hutchins
Sports, let’s face it, are a big part of our everyday lives. How many times have you started a conversation off with: “Hey, did you catch the game last night?”
You can watch them on TV and feel like you’re there, but there’s nothing like being at a game. Being part of the crowd that feeds the energy to the players. The classic songs play during the intermissions or right before a big play. It grabs our attention like few things can.
Luckily, Northeast Florida is home to some of the most interesting sporting experiences in the South. Whether it’s catching a football game poolside or drinking $1 beers on Thirsty Thursday, fans at Northeast Florida sports have some great action awaiting them.
So, ladies and gentlemen, here are the top 10 sporting events in Northeast Florida.
10) Brevard County Manatees
The Manatees are a classic minor league baseball team and play their home games at Space Coast Stadium in northern Brevard County. The foul poles give tribute to the two lost space shuttles during NASA’s space shuttle program, Challenger and Columbia. The ‘tees are part of the Florida State League, a minor league baseball organization at the Advanced-A level. They are the current affiliate for the Milwaukee Brewers. Many top prospects come through the Florida State League, so for the baseball nut, it’s a great chance to take in a cheap game while watching some of the future stars. Manatees tickets start as low as $7 and on Thursdays, the park sells beers for $2. Take your opportunity to help the Manatees “Fear the Sea Cow” and catch a game!
9) Jacksonville Giants
The Giants are part of the American Basketball Association, a minor league not affiliated with the National Basketball Association. The team plays its home games at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in downtown Jacksonville. The Giants have a raucous fan base and they score points in bunches. The team has set records for ABA attendance in one game while also claiming to have scored “the most points scored in basketball history” at 222 points in one game. That’s sporting excitement at its peak. The Giants were champions of the ABA for three straight seasons starting in 2011. Lots of points, lots of fun and a lot of “nothin’ but net.” Sounds like a recipe for basketball fans’ dreams.
8) Jacksonville Armada FC
The Armada are Jacksonville’s newest sports team. The “Boys in Blue” took to the pitch for the first time in 2015 at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and occasionally at Everbank Field. The Armada are a part of the North American Soccer League, which is a step below Major League Soccer here in North America. Feel free to step into Section 904, the name of the most passionate Armada supporters. Help them create the most intimidating crowd in all of the NASL!
7) Jacksonville Dixie Blues
Ever heard of the WFA? Well Jacksonville is home to the Jacksonville Dixie Blues, part of the Women’s Football Alliance. The Dixie Blues are Jacksonville’s women’s tackle football team. While many locals don’t know the WFA exists, it’s a league and sport that’s gaining in popularity. They’re dressed up in full pads and play under the same generic rules as the NFL and NCAA. The Dixie Blues play their home games at University Christian School and these women are no joke. The three-time champions and eight-time division champions are off to a flying start in 2016. Help give the Dixie Blues the best home field advantage in the WFA!
6) Jacksonville Sharks
Having football blues ever since the Super Bowl ended? Fear not football fans, arena football is here to save you! April is the month that arena football kicks off, and the reigning American Conference Champions are the Jacksonville Sharks! Since being established in 2010, the Sharks have been a successful franchise. In their second year of existence, they won Arena Bowl 24 defeating the Arizona Rattlers 73-70 in a game that came down to the last play. The Sharks also have multiple theme nights during the season at their home games, played at Sea Best Field at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. From Redneck night to Star Wars night, you’ll be sure to have a great game-night experience with the Sharks. And if they score more than 55 points at home, it’s free Firehouse Subs for all those in attendance.
5) UF Football
College football in the South is a storied tradition that dates back into the late 1800s. The Florida Gators have been playing at a high level in recent years. Two national championships have been won by the Gators in the last 10 years. Not to mention, they were the collegiate home to arguably one of the most famous athletes of the last five years: Tim Tebow. The Gators play in the SEC, arguably the best conference for football in the country. But the gameday experience in Gainesville is second to none. Fans can high five the players as they walk into the stadium during the player walk. Chomp along in “The Swamp” with the students as they watch their Gators play. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium has been ranked as one of the toughest places to play for opposing teams. See what makes “Gator Nation” such an intimidating force on Saturdays in the South.
4) Jacksonville Suns
The Suns are the city’s resident baseball team, the AA affiliate of the Miami Marlins, and many of the Marlin’s highly touted prospects will come through Jacksonville. That kind of a team roster makes the Suns a must-visit for baseball nuts. For the casual fan though, there are many upsides as well. New stadium renovations include a Tiki bar and many new food items at the concession stands. Check out the Chicken & Waffles in a cone, looks great. Thursdays are one of the most popular days at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville however with $5 admission for college students, $2 hot dogs and $1 beers. If you head there over the weekend, be sure to check out Jacksonville’s best fireworks show on Friday and Saturday nights. Baseball has truly never been hotter than the Jacksonville Suns.
3) Jacksonville Jaguars
You knew they’d be on the list at some point. Jacksonville’s only professional sports team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, offer one of the finest gameday experiences across the NFL. In 2013 the team made some extensive stadium renovations under new owner Shad Khan. Of those improvements were the largest video board at an NFL stadium in the country and two swimming pools where fans can soak while catching the game. You heard that right, swimming pools at an NFL game. The Jags’ on-the-field talent has been lacking for many seasons, but there’s reason to believe the upcoming season will be one of their best in many years. Here, you’ll have an opportunity to see one of the top young quarterbacks in the game in Blake Bortles. Combine that with Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson at the two wide receiver spots and the Jaguars are expected to offer some exciting play this season. As a fan you’ll have the chance to watch this team grow up before your eyes. You heard it here first, the Jaguars are on the prowl.
2) Orlando City FC
Sure it’s stretching the limits of Northeast Florida a little bit, but hear me out, Orlando City has it all. Orlando City has been known for many years as one of the best places in the South to catch a soccer match. Dating back to the North American Soccer League days, the team’s supporters have always given the opponent a tough environment. Just last year in 2015, Orlando City FC made the jump to the MLS, the highest soccer league in North America. The team has many current and former international stars on its roster. Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, commonly known as Kaká, once roamed the midfield for Brazil in multiple World Cups. Brek Shea is a staple on the U.S. National Team. Cyle Larin was the MLS rookie of the year in 2015 and plays a prominent role on Canada’s national team. The product on the field only adds to the experience in the bowl. Yes, you read that right, #FillTheBowl is the rallying cry in Orlando as fans call to the team’s proud supporters to fill the Citrus Bowl, which they call home. Orlando City broke the MLS record last season for highest attendance in an inaugural match. The fan atmosphere is absolutely electric in the bowl. And when Kaka scores the bowl explodes. If you’re a sports fan, check this team out.
1) Daytona Tortugas
The Daytona Tortugas offer fans the complete package for affordable friendly fun. The Tortugas came about after affiliates changed during the 2014 baseball offseason. What was then the Daytona Cubs and affiliated with the Chicago Cubs became the Daytona Tortugas, the Cincinnati Reds Advanced A affiliate. The Tortugas call historic 1914 Jackie Robinson Ballpark home. The name gives homage to Robinson because Daytona was the first city that allowed Robinson as an African-American to play in the South. “The Jack” is the place to be on many weekday nights. For just a $10 ticket on Monday nights, you can have all-you-can-eat hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza and popcorn. That alone is a STEAL. On Thursday nights, “The Jack” has Thirsty Thursdays with $1 beer. It doesn’t get more American than that. If there’s one place you want to catch a game this summer, make the drive to Daytona Beach and see the Tortugas. You won’t be disappointed.