Is Jacksonville a Soccer Town?

soccerGame-feature-640x296

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.

Why?

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.

 

 

Florida Sports Hall of Fame Ceremony Set

bos_a_fred-taylor_mb_600

by Cole Pepper

Chipper Jones had his #10 retired by the Braves on Friday. Then, on Saturday, it was time for the Suns to give away his bobble-head, complete with his Bolles uniform. Now, Jones and the rest of the Class of 2013 will be inducted into the Florida Sports Hall of Fame on August 10 at the Times-Union Center in Jacksonville.

The ceremony was originally scheduled for April, but there was difficulty in getting all of the inductees schedules lined up.

Chipper Bolles
Chipper Jones (pictured in high school at Bolles) will be among the Florida Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2013.

Among the class to be inducted: Jones, former Florida Gators and Jaguars running back Fred Taylor, The PLAYERS champion Mark McCumber, football coaching legend Corky Rogers, tennis star Brian Gottfried, Olympic gold medal swimmer Brooke Bennett, NBA star Tim Hardaway, NASCAR legend Leeroy Yarbrough, and rodeo star Pete Clemons.

Taylor was inducted into the Pride of the Jaguars, the team’s ring of honor, last year. Rogers is in the Florida Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame, the Florida High school Athletic Association Hall of Fame and the Gator Bowl Hall of Fame.

The class has a strong Jacksonville flavor. Jones played high school baseball at Bolles, Taylor is one of the greatest players in Jaguars history, Gottfried lives in Ponte Vedra Beach and Rogers coaches at Bolles.

Individual tickets to the ceremony start at $20 and VIP packages that include a reception with the inductees can be purchased for $100. For more information on sponsorships and VIP packages, contact the City of Jacksonville Sports & Entertainment office at (904) 630-3697. Tickets can be purchased online at the Florida Sports Hall of Fame website.

Eye Candy: Tour de France Crash

photo: NBCSports.com
photo: NBCSports.com

by Cole Pepper

I didn’t get to this during the news last night on Channel 4, but Stage 1 of the Tour de France had some craziness. In the wake of the Lance Armstrong flap and without a big name American to follow, it will be interesting to see what kind of interest there is in the race this year. That being said, when a bus gets stuck under the finish line and about a quarter of the peloton is involved in a crash, it’s something to see. Check out the video:
http://youtu.be/No8Zj9qojaw

 

Aaron Garcia Returns to Face Sharks

photo: Sunshinefootball.com
photo: Sunshinefootball.com

by Cole Pepper

The Sharks have experienced about every time of game and streak you can imagine in 2013. They started the season 6-0 and were the last team in the Arena Football League to lose a game.

But as in the outdoor game, as the quarterback goes, so goes an Arena team. First, Bernard Morris began to struggle–especially against some of the top teams. Head coach Les Moss made the move to sit Morris down and start R.J. Archer. That didn’t work. Back to Morris. Then he was injured. The Sharks then signed Kyle Rowley who started two up-and-down games before being replaced with Archer late in last week’s victory over Cleveland.

So where does that leave the Sharks now? Archer will start Saturday night against Orlando. And of all the irony, the man who led the Sharks to the Arena Bowl championships two years ago will be under center for the Predators.

Aaron Garcia retired, then un-retired and returned to the game and has played with three teams since. He started this year for San Jose and then was traded to Orlando in April. Since joining the Predators, Garcia has been sharp, leading the league in passing yards per game, averaging over 300 yards per game in his 8 starts with Orlando.

RJ Archer 1
R.J. Archer will start at quarterback Saturday for the Sharks as they host the Orlando Predators. (photo: Joshua Phillips/Jacksonville Sharks)

Slowing down Garcia is one challenge for the Sharks. The other, is getting to Garcia. Orlando has allowed only 11 sacks this year, third fewest in the AFL. Jacksonville got the pass rush going again last week, and the Sharks lead the league with 34 sacks this season. They’ll need to get to Garcia, who is known to wait until the last moment to deliver the ball.

Another obstacle for Jacksonville this week is the retirement of Jeff Hughley. Hughley had a shot in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers camp earlier this year, but was not signed to the team. He returned, injured his hamstring and had not been as much of a factor since. Expect London Crawford and Josh Philpart to get more playing time at wide receiver to compliment Jeron Harvey and Markee White.

Kickoff is 7:00pm Saturday. The game will be televised by CBS Sports Network.

Providence Guard Christian Terrell Dunks BIG!

Christian Terrell dunk
by Cole Pepper

Providence Guard Christian Terrell is 6’2″…of 6’3″ or 6’5″ depending on which website or roster you believe. He’s a rising senior being recruited by JU, Florida Gulf Coast and Appalachian State. And he just dunked. A lot! Somewhere, Wesley Snipes is rethinking his entire world view.

Check out the video here: 

Can Jacksonville Support Another Professional Team?

photo: downtownjacksonville.org
photo: downtownjacksonville.org

by Cole Pepper

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown has made hosting sporting events a major part of his administration’s outreach and business development program.

The NBA is returning to Jacksonville for a preseason game, the Suns continue to draw well (3rd in the Southern League this year), back-to-back soccer matches drew major crowds at EverBank Field. Does this mean that Jacksonville can support another professional team? Here’s my view on each sport, how likely and how soon (or not so soon) Jacksonville could be home to a second major sports franchise.

NBA

Average attendance in the league: 17,348. Home dates per season: 41. Avg. Ticket Price: $50.99

The Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena holds just over 14,000 for basketball. Clearly, the Arena would need a renovation. I’ve been told that it does have the bones to expand, but it would cost money. Almost certainly, any NBA team that would move to Jacksonville would want an NBA-ready arena waiting for them.

NBA following in Jacksonville is spread among a number of teams, mainly, whoever is doing well. Currently, teams like the Heat, Lakers, Bulls and Nets have small followings in Jacksonville, but there is not a clamoring for NBA basketball in the city outside of city hall, where the Mayor has stated that he would love to see an NBA team in town.

Basketball does not draw particularly well in Jacksonville, with the exception being the NCAA Basketball Tournament, which has sold out each of the two years Jacksonville has hosted. Jacksonville will again host in 2015.

Chances of Jacksonville getting an NBA Team: 1 in 50  |  Earliest it could happen: 2020

NHL

Average attendance in the league: 18,013. Home dates per season: 41 (24 this year due to strike) Avg. Ticket Price: $61.01 (increased to to strike)

Let’s be honest, there’s no way that the NHL is going to look at Jacksonville. There are maybe 150 die-hard hockey fans who routinely turned out to support teams like the Lizard Kings and Barracudas. Beyond that, there are some transplants that have their own team to root for, but it’s few and far between. When is the last time that you overheard a hockey conversation between two Jacksonville natives other than, perhaps, during the Stanley Cup Finals or the Olympics?

Chances of Jacksonville getting an NHL Team: 1 in 5,000  |  Earliest it could happen: 2080

MLB

Average attendance in the league: 29,767. Home dates per season: 81. Avg. Ticket Price: $46.49

Every five or six years, there is a team in Major League Baseball who is unhappy with their stadium deal and they need a city to hold up to the local politicians as “the place that wants to build us a new stadium.” Tampa used to be this place. Then they got a team. There isn’t that trendy city anymore. Sometimes Oklahoma City or Indianapolis comes up in conversation.  Why not Jacksonville? Until the new team (with a new stadium) came into the league in Pensacola, the Suns led the league in attendance every year since the Baseball Grounds was built (they’re 3rd in attendance this year, but there are still four more Thirsty Thursday’s to go). Major League Baseball would likely be hesitant to put another team in Florida without good reason, but a retractable roof stadium would make an attractive pitch. Then again, where is the money coming from for that? And where would you put it. There isn’t enough room for a stadium of that size on the current plot of the Baseball Grounds.

Chances of Jacksonville getting an MLBS Team: 1 in 99  |  Earliest it could happen: 2021

MLS

Average attendance in the league: 17,441. Home dates per season: 17. Avg. Ticket Price: $26.15

These attendance numbers are thrown out of whack a bit by Seattle, where they routinely draw over 40,000. Most teams fall into one of two categories, those drawing around 20,000 per game, and those drawing around 14,000 per game.

In order to become an MLS city, Jacksonville would have to build a stadium that could hold around 15,000-18,000. Its possible that the stadium could be a multi-use facility, but it would have to have soccer in mind when being built. This could happen. There are some influential folks around town are big soccer backers, and the city showed well (see photo above) when team USA played Scotland, drawing over 45,000 to the match, then shortly thereafter, over 18,000 tickets were sold for the US Women’s national team facing Scotland. There is a following of sorts.

Two Mexican pro teams will play on July 3 at EverBank Field and in February, the Philadelphia Union of the MLS will play a pre-season game in Jacksonville. Attendance for those games will likely  go a long way to determining whether Jacksonville will be on the long list for an MLS team.

Chances of Jacksonville getting an MLS Team: 1 in 15  |  Earliest it could happen: 2016

What’s your opinion? Vote in the poll:

[poll id=”2″]

 

Can the Sharks Bounce Back?

Jeron Harvey is on a record setting pace for the Sharks this season.
Jeron Harvey is on a record setting pace for the Sharks this season. (Getty)

by Cole Pepper

After a 10-day West Coast road trip that left the team bruised and twice beaten, the Jacksonville Sharks still have several reasons to be thankful.

For starters, despite back-to-back loses at Spokane and Utah, the Sharks (8-5) still hold a one game lead in the division and have the inside track for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

They also will only have to go on the road one more time this regulars season.

Saturday, they host the 2-10 Cleveland Gladiators at Sea Best Field at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena (7pm kickoff on WJXT Channel 4).

Here are five story lines to follow during the game:

Quarterback play: With Bernard Morris injured, the Sharks will give Kyle Rowley a second straight start. Rowley struggled early last week, but found a rhythm and led a comeback to within a touchdown before losing in Utah. He says he knows the offense and is comfortable with his receivers. Its worth noting that he has played in the past with Sharks receivers Markee White and Jeron Harvey, and has played for head coach Les Moss, so many of the concepts are familiar to him.

Pass Rush: The Sharks pass rush was a major force early in the season, but over the last month, the sack pace has tailed off. Jacksonville still leads the league with 31 sacks (11 from the league record), but over the past five games, the Sharks have only totaled six sacks, and in no game in that stretch did they record more than two sacks. Some of the drop off can be written off to opposing teams going with a short passing game, but the Sharks need to get pressure on Cleveland. In the week three win over the Gladiators, Jacksonville tallied four sacks.

Running Game: With regular fullback Rendrick Taylor injured and Morris on the shelf, the teams two top running threats won’t be on the field. While the indoor game is more about passing, the Sharks lead the league in rushing for a reason. Who will carry the load when Les Moss wants to go to the ground?

What’s My Motivation? Cleveland’s season is over. The question is, do they know it? Will they play like a team with nothing to lose or will they roll over? For some of the Gladiators, the rest of the season is about an audition for the future, or maybe for an NFL team

Record Watch for Harvey-Jackson High grad Jeron Harvey is the all-time leading receiver in Sharks history. He has at least one touchdown catch in nine straight games. He’s had a 16 catch game (against Arizona on May 4) and a 172 yard game (at Utah last week) as well as a five touchdown game (at Philadelphia), all team highs this year. With is 109 receptions, Harvey is second in the AFL in catches and 5th in touchdowns. He has a shot at Jomo Wilson’s team records set in 2011 with 131 catches, 1,737 yards and 44 touchdown catches.

 

NBA Game Coming Back to Jacksonville

NBA Jax scoreboard

by Cole Pepper

It took four years, but the NBA is coming back to Jacksonville.

The Orlando Magic will play the New Orleans Pelicans on October 9, 2013 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. it’s the third time the Magic have played in Jacksonville and first in five years.

In 2008, the Magic and Miami Heat played an exhibition game. The following year, the Heat faced the Atlanta Hawks. Those games had some star power, even in the pre-Lebron James era for Miami. Dwayne Wade and Dwight Howard were the featured players n 2008, and in 2009, there was some local flavor with former Gator Al Horford on the Hawks and Udonis Haslem on the Heat.

This game will feature substantially less star power considering that Eric Gordon and Tobias Harris were the leading scorers for the two teams (if you don’t know who was on which team, don’t feel bad).

IMG_0718
Will the next Magic star get this as a signing bonus?

However, the Magic hold the #2 pick in the NBA draft and could select a more recognizable name (albeit in a weaker draft). Kansas freshman Ben McLemore and Michigan’s Trey Burke have both been mentioned as possible selections for the Magic.

Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, as he reminded us today, dreams big and he “can see an NBA team in Jacksonville’s future.”

That remains to be seen. This game is also not much of a draw for visitors. What it does, it continue to show the nation that Jacksonville is a sporting event friendly city.

“It’s going to showcase that Jacksonville is a destination for sports and entertainment,” Mayor Brown said. “This also allows us to diversify our portfolio.”Mayor NBA quote

By portfolio, the Mayor means the variety of sporting events that have come to Jacksonville in his administration. That would include everything from the college basketball game on the Navy ship to International soccer matches to much smaller events.

Tickets for the NBA preseason game, which will be the pre-season opener for both teams, are on sale at the Arena ticket office, online at JaxEvents.com or on Ticketmaster. Prices range from $15-$250 for courtside seats. VIP opportunities are also available via the City of Jacksonville Sports & Entertainment office at (904) 630-3697.