“To us, it’s a big deal,” says Michael Corrigan, the chief executive of Visit Jacksonville, when asked about the significance of a family from their city buying into English football.

The Piataks have owned Carlisle United since November and, while things on the pitch are difficult right now, the future looks bright - and varied. Among the plans are new links between Jacksonville and Carlisle, something those involved believe can have great benefits both on a football footing, and beyond.

Discussions have already been held between the Piataks and Jacksonville tourism officials, with one key idea being to take the Blues to Florida to train and play. There is talk of a sister-city partnership, and mutual visits.

From the point of view of United’s new owners, it is all part of the vision of expanding the Blues’ brand and making the most of their potential reach. From Jacksonville’s side, there is interesting new ground to be made over here, in Cumbria, too.

“We would love to look at opportunities for Carlisle United to come over and do some training, and also an opportunity to have a friendly match at some point in the not too distant future...that would really be exciting for Jacksonville,” says Corrigan.

Early talks

Tom Piatak snr, on his most recent visit to Carlisle, confirmed that talks had already been opened about this kind of link. Corrigan is happy to elaborate when invited by the News & Star.

“There have been a couple of pretty good conversations,” he says.

“We talked about something I would say as simple as a sister city relationship between Carlisle and Jacksonville, Florida.

News and Star: Michael Corrigan, CEO of Visit JacksonvilleMichael Corrigan, CEO of Visit Jacksonville (Image: Visit Jacksonville)

“We have some sister city relationships already. But through talking to the Piatak family it’s become aware to me that, while one of Jacksonville's big calling cards is that we're the largest city by landmass in the continental United States, my understanding is that Carlisle might be the largest city by landmass in England too.

“So that's an automatic connection that kind of jump-started a conversation. While it wouldn’t be classified as significant to a lot of people, it’s something that we have in common before we even started to know more about the connection of the football club, between Jacksonville and Carlisle.”

Jacksonville are already connected to England through their NFL team, the Jaguars, and their annual trips to play a game in London. Those visits are accompanied by officials representing JAXUSA, a regional economic development partnership.

“We’re often, at those times, asking how can Jacksonville companies do business in England and how can England companies do business in Jacksonville?” says Corrigan.

“So we believe that with the Piataks, all-in with the new ownership of the football club, there's an opportunity for us to go to a part of England we haven't been to before. So we're optimistic that we'll be able to coordinate an economic development visit [to Carlisle] as part of our annual trip to England.

“That's exciting for us. And then obviously, there is the football club in itself. I mean, what a history that that organisation has! Jacksonville is a huge sports town, and we love, obviously, the traditional American sports, but we also are pretty good followers of football over in the UK.”

Corrigan says an initial exploration of how Carlisle and Jacksonville could connect may involve putting the cities’ respective mayors in touch, “and obviously, when that happens, utopia is when the mayor of one gets to visit the other sister city. That's always the goal,” he says.

News and Star: Jacksonville and Carlisle could become sister cities if talks progressJacksonville and Carlisle could become sister cities if talks progress (Image: Visit Jacksonville)

“That’s a great opportunity to introduce Jacksonville to a whole other market that we don't know. It really just starts with building that relationship that doesn't exist today.

“I would anticipate, because of the ownership of the Piatak family and their residency here in Jacksonville, we could have a pretty active sister city relationship. I'd love to see some Jacksonville football fans in Carlisle for a game and obviously, if we had a friendly match over here, I'd love to have some Carlisle fans come and visit Jacksonville, because that's ultimately what we hope to do.”

How the Piataks are seen back home

The Piataks are embedded in the Jacksonville community and so their venture into English football is an intriguing one which has piqued local interest.

“English football worldwide is the number one sport in the world,” says Corrigan. “Sure, in the United States we talk about the NFL and other major sports on a regular basis, but they’re centric to the United States in the main. The opportunity for a Jacksonville resident to have ownership in a football club…that’s a big deal here.

“I'm sure you know that Shahid Khan, who owns the Jacksonville Jaguars, also owns Fulham, but he’s not a full time resident of Jacksonville – the Piatak family is. It’s multiple generations, they run a company that's headquartered here in Jacksonville.

News and Star: The Piatak family's ownership of the Blues has created excitement back home in JacksonvilleThe Piatak family's ownership of the Blues has created excitement back home in Jacksonville (Image: Ben Holmes)

“I've also learned, through talking to the Piataks and doing some more research, a lot about how things have been going there in Carlisle. To have the fan base and ownership base saying, ‘We approve of you, we welcome you’…that’s a strong message. Much different than just getting out a chequebook and writing a cheque.

“That’s the community buying into a buyer's plan. And we're pretty impressed with that.”

The Piataks are already household names in Carlisle. What about back home?

“To me this is one of the more interesting parts of it,” says Corrigan. “Although they’re better-known now than they were, they’re not in the media constantly here in Jacksonville. Their focus is on the success and growth of the Magellan [Transport Logistics] Corporation here.

“But what’s happening is impressing people here in Jacksonville, because we're all saying, ‘Wow, this family is doing something really incredible’. And the first time I sat down with them, I said, ‘Who do you know? And who do you need to know?’

“Because I want to sing from the mountaintops what they are doing. In my opinion, they've taken the right approach to success. They've quietly, I’ll say, built an incredible company here in town. And now they’re taking that impact across the pond.”

Next steps

Corrigan says the next step on the road to connecting Carlisle and Jacksonville is to impress on Jacksonville mayor Donna Deegan the possibilities, before taking steps along the sister city road. “Then we will start in earnest the planning for this coming fall's economic trip to England,” he says.

“The focus of that week is primarily in London, but I’m deep in conversations with JAXUSA to say, ‘How much time can we spend in Carlisle. And who will go there?’

“I'm beginning working with the Piatak family to find out what the schedule's going to be for football matches, during the period that we're going to be over there. If we’re shaking hands in the fall in Carlisle, you’ll know that things are proceeding at the rate that I want them to, because that's important to me.”

What about a Blues visit?

The most tantalising part from a football perspective in all this is the idea of Carlisle hopping over the pond to play in Jacksonville. This may not be an imminent possibility but the intention is real.

“I think the Piatak family and I share the energy that we want to make it happen next month,” laughs Corrigan, “but the reality is that we'll have to figure the logistics out.

News and Star: The Everbank Stadium, home of Jacksonville JaguarsThe Everbank Stadium, home of Jacksonville Jaguars (Image: Visit Jacksonville)

“Literally finding the location to hold training or a match is going to be important. I know that we're making progress, because I'm getting contacts from the local football organisations who are saying, ‘I hear you're working on this. How can we be involved? What's the process?’”

Clubs in Jacksonville, at different levels, are growing, says Corrigan. For instance, Jacksonville Armada, the professional club who formerly competed in the now-folded North American Soccer League, are set to resume playing in 2025 and, says Corrigan, want to build a new all-seater stadium.

“We’re very close to the NFL stadium here too,” he says. “What my team at Visit Jacksonville is doing is asking whether we should bring [Carlisle] over to somewhere that’s not tailor-made for English football, or should we wait until some new facilities, or upgraded existing facilities, are ready to provide the experience we want.

News and Star: Fans at the Jaguars stadiumFans at the Jaguars stadium (Image: Visit Jacksonville)

“Because while it’ll make news, obviously, in Carlisle, it will make news in more places than that and we want to make sure that when we do it, we do it right, so that it can be repeated. I've watched over the decade when the Jacksonville Jaguars have gone to London, and what they have built there. We want to build a similar type thing where it happens almost regularly.

“We want it to be something that all fans can look forward to, and then also the fan base in the States can grow. My son is 28, and he's watching six hours of English football every Sunday morning. Sure, we want fans from Carlisle to come over, but we also want American fans to come to Jacksonville when they come too, so it's beyond just getting over here and playing the game.

“It's getting over here and creating an experience that then others want to come and witness.”

Jacksonville explained

It may be a little too soon right now for the Blues and their fans to be booking flights. But should that day indeed come, somewhere down the line, what will they find in Jacksonville?

This is an easy invitation for the head of the city’s tourism arm, and Corrigan is ready for it.

“Our current ad campaign says we’re the flip side of Florida,” he says. “The number one thing that we can sell as a community in Jacksonville is that we're in Florida, and the world wants to come to Florida. But Jacksonville, much is not what you readily expect.

News and Star: Jacksonville is a southern charm of a city, says Michael CorriganJacksonville is a southern charm of a city, says Michael Corrigan (Image: Visit Jacksonville)

“If you asked the same question to Carlisle's tourism organisation, they would similarly say,  'We're not like the rest – we're not like London'. Here, when you think of Florida, you think of Orlando, and you think of Disney World and Universal Studios and all that.

“Jacksonville is much different. It's much more of a southern charm of a city. I told someone yesterday in a meeting, ‘If I could build a mountain we'd have everything you could want in the world’. Because we have the largest urban park system in the country, we have major sports, we have major shopping, we've got 22 miles of wide white, sandy beaches with plenty of room to relax. We've got a majestic river that flows through the middle of our downtown.

“We've got a downtown with tall buildings and big hotels and we also have hundreds of smaller hotels that are located throughout the city that that make an experience when a visitor comes in.

“As we survey people that come to visit Jacksonville, almost every one of them says, ‘I never knew.’ ‘I never knew you had this, I never knew you had that…’ When you land here, Jacksonville is one of the best airports in the country. It's what I would call a small to midsize airport. But it's so easy to get here. It's so easy to get transportation.

“It's not like what you visualise when you think of the States in an airport with 100,000 people milling around at one time – that's not what it is. It's much more like I feel good here. You really start relaxing the moment you touch the ground.

“And then, with the exception of rush hour for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon, you can get around Jacksonville without sitting in traffic, and you can go to a restaurant without having to have a reservation, and you're going to have a whole diverse choice of properties to stay in.

“We really look forward to seeing people from Carlisle here, and enjoying what we have to offer.”