First Person: How Jacksonville Got the Soccer Team

Three representatives from Jacksonville attended the pitch to the NASL last week: Mark Frisch, the CEO of Sunshine Soccer Group, Alan Verlander, the Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment for the city of Jacksonville, and Tony Allegretti, who, among other duties, serves as the Director of Downtown Engagement for the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. The following is Tony’s first person account of how Jacksonville became a professional soccer town (again).

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Magic Moments

by Tony Allegretti

July 30, 2013

Sometimes I wonder if I’m in a dream. I’ve been playing and watching soccer all of my life. I coach my son’s team. I’m committed to the sport.

A little more than a week ago I was literally talking to Fulham Manager Martin Jol about the prospects of Fulham Football Club regaining its moniker of “Fulhamerica”.  He was candid and funny and made me feel really comfortable even though I was talking to someone of the stature of say a Sean Payton or a Tony Dungy. This conversation took place at a quickly organized presser Shad Khan set up to show Jol, his captain and Fulham director EverBank field and the investments the team has made therein. It was also an opportunity for local media to meet real Premier League soccer brass. I was impressed that ALL of the Jacksonville sports media was in attendance and earnestly covering the event.

Less than a week later I was on a flight to Dallas to meet with North American Soccer League officials and owners at their annual meeting to help make the case that Jacksonville is ready and willing to support professional soccer once again.

The flight gave me an opportunity to touch base and catch up with Mark Frisch, who, with Dario Sala, have formed Sunshine Soccer Group, the ownership entity of said team should Jacksonville be successful in its bid. Mark is at once a nice guy, somewhat reserved, and a strategic thinker. To the last point I learned that he had also been at the NASL annual meeting the year before in Indianapolis. He has been building for this moment a long time.

The NASL owners were very cordial. Many of them seemed very young. I think as soccer becomes increasingly main stream in America we’ll see much of the investment from younger generations who aren’t burdened by the tired line that soccer has been “the next big thing” in America for 30 years. And I’ll not embarrass anyone (hopefully) when I say that Mark will be the youngest pro sports owner in Jacksonville.

I was able to spend some time with the league folks at the semifinal matches of the Gold Cup. USA scored early and outclassed Honduras and Panama successfully shocked Mexico for the second time in a month. Business lie ahead for the NASL the next day, the day two owners representing their city’s presented their case to join the league. We actually left the Mexico-Panama match early and were the only folks to do so in the 81,000 plus crowd. This gave me time to fully prepare my remarks which were but a few minutes of a 30 minute proposal.

The Jacksonville pitch included our Sports and Entertainment Director Alan Verlander and myself but was mostly Mark. We had seen the pitch well in advance of our trip and I think it was probably a forgone conclusion but Mark was smart to take nothing for granted and I think Alan really helped an already brilliant case for Jacksonville. I spoke a bit about the business climate in Jacksonville and how invested it is into our sports culture. Alan drove home our impressive support of events and soccer specifically. When you couple our latest television ratings (#1 in the country for Gold Cup USA/Cuba) our now legendary turnouts for both US National team’s fairly meaningless friendlies against Scotland and our expansive youth clubs and largest adult league in the state, the case was strong.

We waited sort of restlessly for the Oklahoma City folks to finish their presentation which ended with us hearing a round of applause outside the door. For some reason that made me feel a little more nervous. But alas, it was our turn. Mark delivered a great case for our Bold City. We provided support and stats. We also got a nice round of applause. Once finished we repaired to the lobby of the hotel and waited. There are moments you don’t forget.  I was able to snap the photo above of league commissioner, Bill Peterson breaking the news to Mark. I immediately thought of my kids sporting the to-be-named jerseys and the scarves we’ll all hold high. And it all started at that moment.

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