More than a year ago when Jacksonville Jaguar owner Shahid Khan announced that the team would play four home games four years in a row, in Wembley Stadium I immediately called my former boss, Simon Keymer to discuss. Simon is from Leeds and spent a lot of formative years in London and has a complex network of friends, journalists, associates and clients in the United Kingdom. Simon’s firm, Keymer (a corporate and public affairs firm), while robust and international, has only a handful of clients in Jacksonville. Despite this the Keymer family absolutely loves our city and when the opportunity to bring his two worlds together arose we immediately began thinking about what might be the best way to bridge the Atlantic.
Simon began reaching out to his wide network in the United Kingdom working many of his contemporary associates and contacts from his time in the English Army and Sandhurst. Through many a Skype and early morning call, the idea of an economic round table started to gel. We began to schedule quarterly calls of the Florida United Kingdom Economic Round Table. Having some connections to the team, (I’m a partner in Burrito Gallery which is a Jaguars sponsor and we have a restaurant in EverBank Field), I was able to answer some questions about the team and the trip. My day job at JAX Chamber afforded me some insight on the business delegation that was headed their way as well. The quarterly calls highlighted that we had a group of members who had quite a lot to do with the business of sport.
The conference calls were very regimental and orderly. I felt the need to be disciplined in my comments as everyone was focused and no one was talking over one another as it seems to always happen in other calls I’m on. Plus as the token American accent, I didn’t want to screw anything up or sound foolish (more foolish). I remember a conference call just after Mr. Khan had finalized his purchase of Fulham Football Club, a historic and popular London soccer team. I was in Charleston with a Chamber delegation at the time and remember thinking, in my historic hotel room, how amazing perhaps surreal this transcontinental call regarding the business of professional sports at the highest levels. You know, just me and handful of high powered London businessmen tying Jacksonville to the Barclays Premiere League and London itself to the NFL. No big deal.
What Simon and the team came up with for this years event, was a reception at the KIA Oval, one of the world’s most storied and popular cricket grounds. Richard Gould, President of the Surrey Cricket Club, offered very generously to host the delegation at their club. For perspective the Oval was built in 1845 and was host to soccer games before soccer specific stadiums were built, these grounds even hosted The Gymnastic Society, arguably the world’s oldest soccer club.
As our guest list started to form, JAX USA Partnership sent an envoy to the Oval to scope out the logistics of the event at the very private club. By this time yours truly was resigned to the fact that this trip wasn’t in the cards for me as my family had a big move date on the horizon and lots of work related to my job as Director of Downtown Engagement. Then the call came.
My friend Steve Livingstone, President of our new NASL Soccer Team, and who also is Scottish (stay with me), called and asked if I was going to London. I told him I couldn’t swing it this year but I discussed with him the Round Table and how the sports business on each continent was heating up. Steve mentioned that it was funny that I mention that, that he was going to ask if I were going to London, could I also meet him in Glasgow for the Celtic vs. Ajax Champions League match. The plan was to meet with Celtic to discuss the team coming to Jacksonville to train and play a friendly.
Hold. The. Phone.
Any one that knows me knows that I am very passionate about soccer. I immediately started plotting my adventure, I mean business trip. I knew that I couldn’t spare much time with Community First Saturdays around the corner and the cost of traveling last minute to the UK can be hight. I booked, for the first time ever, an Air BNB in Glasgow in a neighborhood close to everything. Air BNB is basically where you rent out someone’s spare bedroom. In my case it was Johnny’s spare bedroom and for 100 US Dollars for two nights it was near perfect. In less than a week I was flying to London overnight, to awake at Heathrow.
Because I’m brilliant and have clearly never taken the Underground before, I rolled my baggage and myself onto the “tube” and took what had to be a 2 hour subway right to Euston Station. I still can’t believe that many people can cram on to one car. These commuters all shoved in made the New York subway seem like Disney on an off day. It was fun to watch the prepschool jackets and ties and London business folk get on and off while I made my ill advised underground crossing of London.
From Euston station I took a very fast Virgin Train to Glasgow. I was immediately in love with the city and its block after block of amazing architecture from each of the last several centuries. Even modern architecture found its way on Glasgow streets.
I stopped in at a pub (Bannisters) before checking in to my Air BNB. I was sort of nervous having never spent the night in a total stranger’s spare room. After a couple Tennents and a discussion with the locals I figured out two things quickly. 1. Everyone in Scotland knows where Jacksonville, Florida is. I thought this is odd, since I don’t think everyone in Tallahassee knows where Jacksonville is. and 2. Everyone is really really friendly.
At Bannisters I met a man name James who was watching the Fulham (Mr. Khan’s new team) match with me. If you follow soccer it was the game with Kasami’s incredible volley. It was said that I brought Fulham good luck. James was super cool. He had been to the US one time as a youngster and was from London but has been a Glaswegian since attending the University of Glasgow. After the game he invited me to a traditional Scottish breakfast the next day. I took him up on it.
When I trotted down the stairs of Johnny’s flat I was surprised to see James unfurling a Brompton bike for me. James brought me a bike as he decided it was the best way to get to the cafe and if I had time he’d show me a good deal of Glasgow. Since I didn’t have to be at the Celtic game until late afternoon, this was perfect.
After our adventure James packed up my bike and rode off. What an awesome dude! I had just a moment or two to get ready and go meet Steve at the Counting House before heading off to see Celtic.
Arriving at “Parkhead” and walking into the stands was something I’ll never forget. The Celtic brass was extremely accommodating and very interested in coming to a warm weather destination in America. They were also very interested in how US sports teams market themselves. I always find this interesting. Many if not all of the executives of clubs outside of the US that I have talked to are interested in how we market our sports. I find this fascinating because most of these clubs don’t strike me as needing much in the way of American marketing. Celtic for example has one million US fans and 140 international supporters groups. I guess that is the point. Grow your American fans the American way.
My luck stayed with me as Celtic upset visiting Ajax 2-1 in a very loud and exciting game. One thing I can tell you, we should see this team in Jacksonville. Remember, Jacksonville hosted the best attended Scottish soccer match ever held on our continent. Celtic is a historic club with a huge following, a connection to Jacksonville and an interest in visiting our city. We are becoming known as a soccer city. A relationship with Celtic will certainly add to that reputation.
A quick rest at Johnny’s Air BNB and a rainy walk to Glasgow Central Station and it was back to London to meet my old friends from Jacksonville and my new friends from my conference calls.
Virgin Trains were very efficient and not too expensive. Had I had time to book earlier the train could have cost as little as 70 US Dollars. For a four hour semi luxurious trip through the countryside, that is a straight deal. Tea is brought to your little private table every 10 minutes or so. You can order sausage stuff rolls with brown sauce if you like. I mostly ate all the Wi-Fi as my phone service was shoddy.
Upon arriving in Euston Station, I immediately jumped on the tube to meet Simon and Justin Doherty of Hemington Consulting (UK) at a great pub called the Grape. It was a newer pub for London, founded in 1882.
I made a couple last minute texts and calls as we prepared some final details for the Oval and a cab ride to Vauxhall across the Thames it was hard not to see similarities to our own river city.
Arriving at the security gate of the KIA Oval I immediately got the feeling this was going to be special. We were ushered up to the clubs pavilion quarters which was an all dark wood salon with decks overlooking the cricket grounds.
It was really great to meet all of the British accents in real life and make some new friends. The food was outstanding, very small bites, expertly prepared beef and salmon and intensely flavorful. There was more in common than one might think and conversations thrived. The economies of Jacksonville and London are both in a cautious rebound it seems.
I invited a friend I made at the Placemaking Leadership Council meeting in Detroit. His name is Vincent and he “does what I do” in Croydon, South London. Vincent mentioned to the Surrey Cricket Club manager that they have an unused cricket net in their neighborhood and that began a conversation of a possible CSR outreach for the club in Vincent’s neighborhood. As I write this it looks promising that our meeting of Jacksonville and London executives might have brought on sport outreach in an underserved neighborhood!
Once everyone was settled in we were all welcomed by Simon and Richard Gould and the emcee of the afternoon, Sir Trevor McDonald. Sir Trevor I’ve been told is the UK version of Walter Cronkite. Again, I was amazed at how much these folks new about Jacksonville. Sir Trevor presented Mayor Brown with a scarf of the Surrey Cricket Club and congratulated him and the Jacksonville delegation on our city’s proactive moves to build a business bridge to the UK.
Sir Trevor then presented Mr. Khan a players cap of the club. It is said that it is very rare for a non player/member of the club to be presented the brown cap. I could tell that Mr. Khan was touched by the gesture.
Not to be outdone, Mr. Khan presented Sir Trevor an official Jacksonville Jaguar helmet which he immediately put on to everyone’s delight. Business cards were passed. Phone calls were scheduled and just like that we were off to our prescheduled dinners. I stuck with the UK contingent and had some outstanding curry on the way back to Heathrow where I would catch a plane back to the states in the morning, missing getting to see my beloved Jaguars in Wembley. No matter, it was a good long flight to catch up on sleep, bad movies and emails. Plus I like watching the Jags with my little buddy.
I have heard of quite a few possible business wins from this trip. As we are in the early stages of building this bridge and as we have at least three more years of London in our future with the Jaguars, I am ever optimistic that great things will come from this trip and these connections.
In the mean time, enjoy some photos from my 3 days in the UK.