The Atlantic City Blackjacks play their home games in Boardwalk Hall
It doesn’t usually take much to get Ron Jaworski excited.
He starts the day on “enthused,” and his levels can ratchet up to elated, ecstatic and exhilarated as time moves forward.
That’s why it’s no surprise that he expects big things from the Atlantic City Blackjacks, a first-year offering in the revamped Arena Football League, which is in the process of growing from a stepped-down roster of four teams last year to this year’s six-franchise configuration to 12 next year and more in the future. It’s going to take some time, but Jaworski and his partners—who also own the Philadelphia Soul and Albany Empire—are quite optimistic about indoor football in AC and the Arena League’s prospects.
A few years back, when he and Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Valor, discussed the Arena League’s future, both thought Atlantic City would be a natural location.
“When Ted and I started talking about how gambling would eventually be legalized in New Jersey, we thought that if that happened, Atlantic City would be a great market,” Jaworski says. “When it happened, Atlantic City came to the forefront as a future AFL market.”
The Blackjacks are just one of several sporting options folks can experience up and down the Jersey shore. Fans of baseball, soccer, auto racing, horse racing, and of course, football have the opportunity to catch some action in between trips to the boardwalk and waits for the perfect wave.
Here’s a look at some of the offerings:
“This isn’t New York; this isn’t Philadelphia,” he says. “We have to make this part of the fabric of Atlantic City.”
The Blackjacks play in Boardwalk Hall, a good venue for the sport. But anyone who has attended an Arena League game knows that the action on the field is just part of the experience. The franchise has worked to create an entertainment experience that appeals to families, right down to the Junior Dance Team, but is also part of league-wide promotions like the one with Chalkline Sports, a live-odds platform that provides in-game opportunities for fans to make predictions and earn prizes for being correct. Also, the AFL’s new TV contract with ESPN networks and its streaming service will provide an outlet to build fans.
At one point, the AFL was a nationwide concern that drew big crowds in arenas all over. Jaworski and other owners are counting on a more targeted approach, and careful expansion—the league is in the midst of raising capital resources to do so—will bring arena football back to the forefront.
That said, Jaworski understands that the Blackjacks must be an Atlantic City team that is capable of connecting with the people in the area. Thanks to his experience with his annual Celebrity Golf Challenge (at his Blue Heron Pines course) and the Maxwell Club Football Awards, which is held at The Tropicana, he understands what people want.
“Having Blue Heron Pines allows me to understand the business climate,” Jaworski says. “When people just focus on the casinos, they aren’t doing the region justice. You have to focus on golf, shopping and amusements. We have to change people’s mindsets. This is one way to do it.”
Play Ball: It doesn’t matter whether the Lakewood BlueClaws are winning or losing. There is always something to get excited about during one of their games. The Phillies Class A affiliate plays 70 home games from April through the end of August at FirstEnergy Park, which holds, 6,588 fans—not including two outfield berms that can accommodate hundreds more.
And though former and current Phils like Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, Rhys Hoskins and Scott Kingery all played for the BlueClaws, and future big-leaguers no doubt dot the roster, the Lakewood experience is about much more than baseball.
“We’re all about affordable family fun,” says Greg Giombarrese, the team’s radio broadcaster and director of communications. “We consider ourselves one of the top destinations for that.”
There is plenty to do there. In 2018, the team added the Home Run Pavilion, which features boardwalk-style games. There is also a miniature golf course at the stadium, as well as a beer garden, picnic area and group hospitality decks. The BlueClaws stage a fireworks show after every Thursday, Friday and Saturday game from June, hold a “Thirsty Thursday” promotion that features $1 beers and wing specials and feature live music in the beer garden during Saturday games.
“The game is the backdrop of a whole day of fun,” Giombarrese says.
The Nor’easters play in the United Soccer League II, which is the fourth level of competition in American soccer, and were founded in 1996 as the South Jersey Barons. In 2012, they became the Nor’easters and play their home games at “The Beach House,” which is close to the city’s boardwalk action.
In just its second year of existence, Atlantic City FC is part of the National Professional Soccer League, which boasts more than 90 teams in 40 states. Co-owners Andrew Weilgus and Nick Bilotta met while freshmen at Syracuse University and own a successful business that provides Quizzo platforms to game hosts and bars/restaurants. (In the late ‘90s, they started a business that produced CDs of concert performances for people who attended the shows, a pursuit that led them to drive countless thousands of dollars following the Allman Brothers Band.)
Weilgus and Bilotta have several goals for the team, beyond building a successful side that attracts fans from throughout Atlantic County. Games are being played through August this year at Egg Harbor Township HS, with Surf Stadium the preferred home in 2020. They would like to help promote and build youth soccer programs throughout the area, an effort that is sorely needed. “We are putting boots on the ground to provide resources for kids,” Weilgus says. The owners also want to create an environment in which visiting European clubs will want to play AC FC in the future.
“Surf Stadium’s capacity is about 5,500, but we could easily expand it to 10,000,” Weilgus says. “We may not get Manchester United to play us, but we could get Man U’s under-23 team to come.”
The team’s roster is comprised largely of college players from throughout New Jersey, several of whom aspire to be selected later this year in Major League Soccer’s Super Draft, with hopes of playing soccer at the top level in the U.S. They receive room and board—they stay at the Trop—but no salaries, and are involved in community initiatives to promote the team and build soccer throughout the area.
The U.S. Majors Tour makes a July stop at the Park and features the nation’s best amateur drivers in a variety of classes aiming for the checkered flag. Other summer events include motorcycle racing, historic car events, Formula 1 car competitions, and of course, monster truck jams. Those interested in doing more than just watching top drivers can also hop into go-carts or bring their own rods to the track to test them out.
Those looking for action of the four-legged sort can head to Monmouth Park Racetrack, which hosts 61 thoroughbred dates from May through September, including the $1 million Haskell Invitational in July. As an added attraction, Monmouth also boasts the William Hill Sports Book, which allows patrons to take advantage of New Jersey’s legalization of sports gambling to get some action on the ponies or whatever other sporting pursuit happens to be taking place that day—and beyond.