The Entertainment Jungle

With an impressive new amphitheater, the Jacksonville Jaguars are showing the sports industry and the city itself what's possible when team executives stray from the playbook

Photo: Jacksonville Jaguars

Ten years ago, Nik Sobic divided his time between Harvard’s lecture hall and its athletic fields.

He spent about 40 hours a week studying economics and another 40 hours watching game film and playing left offensive tackle on the gridiron. In 2004, Harvard’s football team went undefeated and won an Ivy League Championship. Sobic credits his years at the iconic Ivy League school with setting the foundation for his second calling.

After a devastating ankle injury ended his playing career (Sobic signed a free agent deal with the NFL’s New Orleans Saints), he transitioned to the corporate world, where he now leads multimillion-dollar construction campaigns for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars. To this day, he’s responsible for designing key projects aimed at improving the fan experience and contributing to a downtown revival. Before joining the Jaguars, though, and with his playing days in the rear-view mirror, Sobic took on the role of sales manager with Wells Fargo and quickly worked his way up to an assistant vice president at Wells Fargo Home Mortgage. He oversaw a multibillion-dollar portfolio of delinquent loans in an industry that sprang up out of nowhere in response to the mortgage crisis. Sobic credits his experience at Wells Fargo as a crash course on high-stakes business, management, and leadership.

In his free time, the rising executive and aspiring entrepreneur rehabbed homes, invested in executive rental properties, and amassed his own real estate portfolio.

Then in 2015, Sobic’s two worlds of sports and business collided when he discovered an open position with the Jacksonville Jaguars’ operations team. Sobic demonstrated a unique combination of skills in business, housing, construction, and football, and the organization offered him the position. By July, he moved to Jacksonville to help manage property development projects and major aspects of game-day retail operations.

Sobic’s first project was the US Assure Club renovation, his team’s unique (and league-first) party decks located at the 50-yard line. “League insiders were watching closely when we decided to give up prime real estate by creating patios at midfield,” Sobic recalls. “But we took a calculated risk because we knew fan behavior was changing.”

Many fans, the Jaguars realized, prefer to socialize and mingle while watching the game. The unique seating concept, opened in preseason 2016, allows just that. Club ticket holders have access to the special zone, which sometimes hosts mascot stunts and media broadcasts, as well as one of the best views in professional sports and indoor/outdoor built-in bars. The project also included a high-end renovation of club interior spaces and seat upgrades. These bold moves paid off, as the club section sold through the majority of its inventory prior to the first preseason game in 2016.

Those projects, valued at roughly $27 million, were the first in a series of improvements authorized by visionary owner Shad Khan and team president Mark Lamping in partnership with the city of Jacksonville. Under the agreement, the Jaguars and the city co-founded current and future projects with a budget of about $90 million.

In 2015, Khan, Lamping, Sobic, and others started working on their next major project—the Daily’s Place amphitheater and adjacent flex field, which as of press time, were scheduled to open in May 2017.

“These projects help us improve the fan experience while helping make downtown Jacksonville a major destination,” Sobic says, adding that numerous studies have linked a team’s local revenue to a team’s winning percentage. “What’s good for the city of Jacksonville is good for the Jaguars.”

That motivates Sobic and his colleagues to find creative ways to drive local revenue, while at the same time giving fans more opportunities to connect with the team. But they didn’t want to rush and build a standard structure. They wanted to give the city and fans something special. “We studied the world’s best amphitheaters because we believe we should be able to compete with the iconic structures and looks of world-class facilities,” Sobic says.

Khan has a background in engineering and a passion for world-class design. Thus, Daily’s Place pays homage to its surroundings with a steel roof façade that mirrors the bridges of St. Johns River. The steel structure sits atop a PTFE membrane roof over the amphitheater and flex field, while the entire space connects to the Jaguars’ main playing turf at its south end zone.

The modern complex can seat about 5,500 spectators and is located next to a new flex field practice field. Designers built expansive airplane hangar-style garage doors into that structure so it can open and accommodate up to 10,000 additional fans for music festivals or other large events. Sobic envisions more than 35 events per year. And because the amphitheater and flex field are connected to the team’s stadium, he hopes the two facilities will find synergies. The team draws about 60,000 fans to regular season home games, while concerts will draw new crowds to the area. When happening back to back, the events have the potential to create special weekend-long celebrations for residents and fans throughout Jacksonville.

In early 2017, the Jaguars responded to an RFP from the city to serve as master developers of a 70-acre riverfront property directly across from the team’s EverBank Field and Daily’s Place. If successful, Sobic and his colleagues will work to bring hotels, mixed-used developments, retailers, restaurants, parks, water taxi stops, and open spaces to the district.

The series of unending projects shouldn’t surprise anyone who has attended a Jacksonville Jaguars home game where fans can sit in an in-stadium swimming pool and watch replays on the world’s largest video boards.

“We’ve always been dedicated to giving the fans something special,” Sobic says.