by Cole Pepper
Is Jacksonville a soccer town? It’s an interesting question. If you asked if Miami was a soccer town, you would immediately say, “yes, of course.” And in a way you would be right. There are a lot of soccer fans in Miami. But the MLS has tried to place a team in Miami and it hasn’t been sustained.
The working theory is that there are a lot of passionate soccer fans in south Florida who already have chosen their team of choice. They are dedicated to a specific team. Other than the fanatical Manchester United fan you run across (or the European transplant who has their home town team), that doesn’t seem to be the case in Jacksonville.
The numbers indicate that there are plenty of soccer fans willing to purchase tickets for big events like the US National teams playing in Jacksonville. Does that mean that soccer is an automatic sell on the First Coast?
That brings us to tonight, when two Mexican League teams, Cruz Azul and Tigres, play at EverBank Field at 7:30pm. Organizers are hoping for up to 10,000 people to attend. More importantly, its the next step in a process for the city of Jacksonville to add another professional sports franchise.
“I think we’ve established ourselves as a soccer community,” said Alan Verlander, the Executive Director of Sports and Entertainment for the City of Jacksonville. “The last three major soccer events here have set (attendance) records. I’d like to see a great crowd.”
Verlander says that the goal is to have a professional soccer team in Jacksonville, calling it “only a matter of time” and a “slam dunk” although admitting that it won’t start with the MLS.
Let’s take a step back here to dissect the different ways that sport can grow in Jacksonville.
1. One-off events-The city has hosted events like the NCAA Basketball Tournament and NBA exhibition games that may recur many years apart (March Madness returns to Jacksonville in 2015 and the Orlando Magic and New Orleans Pelicans open the 2013-14 preseason here), and the city has hosted one-time events like the Team USA soccer match or the Florida-Georgetown game on the Navy ship (we’ll see if those are one time event or if they recur). in June, Jacksonville hosted ESPN’s Friday Night Fights boxing program. These events can provide a small economic shot in the arm for hotels and restaurants, but the larger impact is part of a branding strategy that Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown has made a big part of his platform: he wants the sports world to know that Jacksonville is ready and able to host sporting events.
2. Recurring annual events-Events like the Florida-Georgia game and the Players Championship are the best and biggest examples of recurring annual events, but the city would like to add more of these. Whether it’s a Monster Truck Show or the MLS team playing an exhibition game in town every year, these things engage the local machine for putting on events as well as further Jacksonville’s brand as a city that can put on great sporting events.
3. Franchises calling Jacksonville home-As of now, the professional teams in Jacksonville include the Jaguars (NFL), Sharks (AFL), Suns (Double-A baseball) and others like the Axemen (rugby). Soccer could potentially fit in that mix. A big part of getting a franchise here (likely NASL or USL to begin with, basically Triple-A level soccer compared to the MLS), is proving that there is a large enough (and dedicated enough) soccer community for the team to average 4,000-5,000 per game. That would put the franchise in the middle of the existing teams (see NASL and USL attendance notes here.
The next step would be pushing attendance to the top of the league, then making a pitch to the MLS. Of course, before you get there, you would need a plan for a new stadium, but that’s an entirely different conversation.
So what does tonight’s game mean? If tonight’s game draws around 5,000, it shows that there are probably enough folks to support an NASL or USL team. If the number is closer to 10,000, those leagues would be crazy to ignore Jacksonville. The scoreboard will be important tonight for the teams, but not as important as the box office, at least for soccer’s future in Jacksonville.