This is the third in a series of profiles of the 2013 inductees into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Southland Park Gaming and Racing, formerly known as Southland Greyhound Park, has been part of the Arkansas sports scene since 1956 when it became Arkansas’ only greyhound racetrack.
Originally owned by the Upton family and others, Southland has been owned for decades by the Delaware North Companies. The chairman and chief executive officer of Delaware North, Jeremy M. Jacobs, is best known nationally for his role as chairman of the board of governors of the National Hockey League. Jacobs, though, long has been an important part of the Arkansas sports scene.
The Jacobs family was the original concession operator when Southland opened. West Memphis had a tradition of greyhound racing. The Riverside Kennel Club once had been at the Arkansas end of the Mississippi River bridge.
On the evening of Friday, March 8, Jacobs will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.
Jacobs was born in January 1940 at Buffalo, N.Y. When he was just 16, Southland expanded its business hundreds of miles to the southwest in Arkansas. The dog track at West Memphis was the only legal gambling operation in the Mid-South and drew patrons from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Missouri.
When Delaware North bought the track outright in the early 1970s, it was one of the top dog racing operations in the country.
“Through the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, a typical Saturday night at Southland might see the parking lots full with 20,000 people in attendance,” Nancy Hendricks writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Annual wagers on the greyhound races at the time generally exceeded $200 million, and more than 600 people were employed at Southalnd.
“All that changed in 1992. To spur their local economy, residents of nearby Tunica County in Mississippi approved ‘riverboat’ gambling. They welcomed gaming establishments in the early 1990s as long as the casinos could show that they were at least in part physically housed on the Mississippi River. Large, nationally known resort casinos mushroomed around Tunica until it became the third-largest gambling venue in the country after Las Vegas and Atlantic City, drawing gamblers away from Southland.
“Southland fell on hard times with daily attendance ebbing to about 500. Its annual revenues dropped from more than $200 million in the 1980s to less than $35 million in the 1990s. More than half of its employees lost their jobs.”
In 2005, the Arkansas Legislature approved a bill allowing Southland and Oaklawn Park at Hot Springs to install video games known as “games of skill” as long as local voters approved. Local approval was granted in both Crittenden County and Garland County.
Under Jacobs’ leadership, Delaware North began a huge renovation effort at Southland costing more than $40 million. A gaming room, an events center, a lounge with live music, a buffet and other restaurants were added. Since then there have been additional expansions.
Delaware North’s reach extends around the globe. The company is a global leader in the hospitality and food service industries with more than 55,000 employees serving more than 500 million customers each year. Annual revenues exceed $2 billion. The company owns Boston’s TD Garden, which is recognized as one of the country’s finest entertainment venues.
Delaware North traces its beginning to 1915 in Buffalo, where its headquarters remain. That was the year that brothers Marvin, Charles and Louis Jacobs established a popcorn and peanut vending business. They worked in theaters during the fall, winter and spring and then turned their attention to ballparks during the hot summer months.
Jeremy Jacobs is the son of Louis Jacobs.
Jeremy Jacobs’ three sons — Jerry Jr., Lou and Charlie — now hold executive positions with the company.
By 1926, the family-owned company had contracts with minor league ballparks in Buffalo and Syracuse. Four years later, it moved into the major leagues when an agreement was signed to handle the food service for the Detroit Tigers.
In 1939, the Jacobs brothers expanded into the racing business with the purchase of a thoroughbred track. By 1941, Delaware North also had moved into the transportation arena following a contract to provide food service at Washington National Airport.
Following his father’s death in 1968, Jacobs took over the company at age 28. Major developments under his leadership include:
– The 1975 acquisition of the Boston Garden along with Jacobs’ purchase of the Boston Bruins, one of the six original NHL franchises
– The 1987 acquisition of Sky Chefs to increase Delaware North’s airport business
– The 1993 awarding of a contract to provide visitor services at Yosemite National Park, moving the company into the parks and resorts business
– A 1995 contract to run the visitors’ complex at the Kennedy Space Center
– A move into the hotel business in early 2002 with the purchase of resorts at the entrance to Yosemite and in British Columbia
– The 2006 entry into the European market with a contract at Wembley Stadium in London
Jacobs’ company now has:
– Contracts at more than 50 professional sports venues for teams such as the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Bears
– More than 10,000 video gaming machines at tracks across the country
– Contracts at tourist attractions ranging from the Grand Canyon to Niagara Falls
– Contracts with airports from Los Angeles to Detroit to Buffalo
Jacobs ranks 151st on the Forbes 400 with an estimated net worth of $2.7 billion. His Bruins won the Stanley Cup in 2011 following a 39-year drought.
Jacobs also was a pioneer in the regional television sports industry, transforming NESN into a model for regional sports networks nationwide.
Southland has donated millions of dollars to charity in Arkansas through the years. Recent donations include $1 million to Mid-South Community College at West Memphis for the Southland Greyhound Science Center, $1 million to Mid-South for its hospitality program and kitchen incubator project and $250,000 to Mid-South to start an athletic program.
Jacobs also has been a tireless advocate for tourism in the United States. He served four consecutive terms on the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Travel and Tourism Advisory Board. The board, appointed by the U.S. commerce secretary, created a national tourism strategy that has been championed by President Obama.
Jacobs received widespread national publicity during this season’s NHL lockout. At a news conference held when the lockout ended, he said: “I’m coming off winning a Stanley Cup. I’ve got a sold-out building. I have a financially sound business — no debt. I’ve owned the team for 37 years. I’m the last guy who wants to shut this down. … Unfortunately, I play in a league with 30 teams, and when I step back and look at what’s going on with the broadest sense of the league, I’ve got to play a role that is constructive.”
Jacobs has been playing constructive roles for decades now, including on the Arkansas sports scene. He’s a natural for induction into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame.