Earlier this month, the Double-A Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp unveiled an initiative that, if successful, would be a first in Florida and a rarity throughout Minor League Baseball. The long-running Sunshine State franchise, in partnership with local environmental non-profit St. Johns Riverkeeper, is offering specialty license plates featuring the Jumbo Shrimp
Earlier this month, the Double-A Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp unveiled an initiative that, if successful, would be a first in Florida and a rarity throughout Minor League Baseball. The long-running Sunshine State franchise, in partnership with local environmental non-profit St. Johns Riverkeeper, is offering specialty license plates featuring the Jumbo Shrimp logo.
The "if successful" caveat is because 3,000 customers have to commit to purchasing a Jumbo Shrimp specialty plate in order for them to go into production. The Jumbo Shrimp have until October 2022 to reach this goal. Pre-sale purchase vouchers (costing $33.75) are available online and from the Duval County Tax Collector Office. (In the State of Florida, licenses and motor vehicle services are offered through county tax collector offices.) Proceeds from the Jumbo Shrimp specialty plates -- estimated to be approximately $8 per tag -- will benefit St. Johns Riverkeeper, whose mission statement is to advocate for the protection of the St. Johns River. The organization is a natural fit for the Jumbo Shrimp because, per the team, the St. Johns River "flows through the heart of our city [and] also the heart of our logo."
The late 2022 deadline for achieving the sales goal and sending the specialty plates into production is indicative of a process that already has been a long and winding road. David Ratz, Jumbo Shrimp director of promotions, first had the idea to produce team-logo tags in November 2017. Ratz had just completed his first season with the club, which was also the team's first as the Jumbo Shrimp (prior to that, they had been known as the Jacksonville Suns).
Ratz summed up the specialty license plate experience thus far as a "three-year civics class."
"I kept seeing [Jacksonville] Jaguar tags around town and thought, ‘Cool, how can we do that with the Jumbo Shrimp?’" he recalled. "I did a little research and learned that specialty tags have to go through the Florida State Legislature in order to be approved and passed into law. Then you can sign people up. So I reached out to our local state representative [Democrat Tracie Davis], who we had a good relationship with, and had a meeting at her office with her and her aides. She explained the process. Then it was, ‘OK, the next legislative session is coming up in January of 2018.' So I did some research, mocked up a drawing and reached out to St. Johns Riverkeeper to see if they would get behind this. Like, ‘we’d love to get you involved.’"
St. Johns Riverkeeper was receptive to the idea. The Jumbo Shrimp looked at the organization as a natural fit, and felt that having it on board would increase the chances of the specialty tag bill making it through the Florida Legislature. Without this specific philanthropic tie-in, proceeds from specialty tag sales would have gone to what Ratz called "a generic sports tourism marketing fund."
"And to make it as apolitical as possible, we crafted it in the bill that the money would go strictly to the beautification and cleaning of the river," said Ratz. "Nothing to do with dredging, nothing about port widening, just cleaning it up. Because no matter your background, you can’t be against trash cleanup in the river. Or at least one would hope."
The bill passed the Florida House of Representatives in 2018, but failed to make it through the Senate. The state already offered a vast array of specialty tags, well over 100, and the Senate was simply reticent to add more. The same split result happened in 2019, with success in the House and rejection in the Senate. By this time, Ratz and the Jumbo Shrimp were working with Republican State Senator Aaron Bean, in hopes he and his staff could help them overcome the obstacles they'd faced in what had proven to be Florida's more obstinate legislative chamber.
"[Bean's] legislative aides were very helpful throughout the whole process," said Ratz. "I reached out to them once a month for updates and they were always very kind and compassionate. They’d respond to every email, not just say ‘It’s the same old story, nothing new.’"
It wasn't the same old story in 2020, regarding the state of Florida's license plate-related legislative accomplishments and, well, just about everything else. HB 1135, allowing for the issuance of new specialty tags, passed the Florida House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis on Sept. 29. The good news, of course, was that the bill finally passed. The bad news was it was not a stand-alone Jumbo Shrimp-related directive, instead including the team among more than 30 other proposed specialty tags. These tags truly run the gamut, ranging from "Florida Stands with Israel" to "Don't Tread on Me" to a series of plates commemorating out-of-state universities such as Auburn, the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama.
"In this bill, we were lumped in with so many others and that upped the registration tally," said Ratz. "Originally we had to get 1,000 people to preorder, but now that number has been raised to 3,000. So the bill passed and that’s awesome and we’re super excited to get people signed up. But now it’s three times as many as we thought. We have until October 2022 to get 3,000 people to sign up. If that happens, the plates will get manufactured and St. Johns Riverkeeper gets the proceeds. They’re super excited, and they came out for our press conference to give it a push as well."
The press conference, part of a larger celebration of the fourth anniversary of the Jumbo Shrimp team name, took place at the team's home of 121 Financial Ballpark on Nov. 6. Ratz was delighted by a small initial rush of buyers -- he and his wife among them -- but expects the real work will take place throughout the 2021 and 2022 baseball seasons.
"Once we have baseball again next year, we’ll have a table set up on the concourse right where people walk in," he said. "So that’s built-in marketing to a captive audience, two full seasons of getting people to sign up for this plate."
The Jumbo Shrimp have put a lot of work into this initiative, despite the fact it will not result in any revenue for the club. Ratz feels it has been -- and will continue to be -- worth the effort expended, as it will result in increased exposure for the Jumbo Shrimp on America's roads while providing financial assistance to a worthwhile non-profit organization.
"It’s been a lesson in government, patience and perseverance, to see this grow from an initial meeting to now having it out there and physical samples in hand," he said. "It’s a cool thing to do for the community and the river that runs through your town. I’m confident we’ll get there, all you need is 3,000 people. That’s 1 percent of our annual attendance. So if we can get that 1 percent, then we'll be doing pretty good."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.