Major League Soccer in Jacksonville

December 12, 2012

One of the surprise highlights of the year in Jacksonville sporting events was a “friendly” soccer match between the mens national teams of the United States and Scotland.  Played on a lovely Saturday evening in May, the match drew 44,438 fans, the most ever to attend an international friendly match in the state of Florida.  This figure appeared even more impressive two weeks later when a World Cup qualifying match in Tampa attracted a mere 23,971 attendees *.

As one would expect, the success of the event immediately stirred activity to bring more soccer to Jacksonville. Your correspondent was hopeful that perhaps the Gold Medal winning women’s national team could be persuaded pay a visit to the River City for an international friendly.  Last week though, Jacksonville mayor Alvin Brown (who had “more major sports in Jacksonville” as part of his campaign platform) hinted that the soccer to come would be of the domestic variety.  This was confirmed yesterday when his office announced that the Philadelphia Union of Major League Soccer would play exhibition matches  in Jacksonville in February for the next three years. The 2013 edition will serve as part of the Union’s visit to Florida to participate in the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic,  an exhibition tournament featuring five other MLS teams as well as ones from Orlando and Tampa.

This is nice. Give us more

This is nice. Give us more.

I attended and enjoyed the US-Scotland match. I am afraid there are a few reason why these matches to come will not be as successful:

  • The teams      Philadelphia of course is one and the other will be an MLS team as well (presumably one of the others playing in Orlando).  Neither will have the allure of the national team or an international professional team.  Given that the nearest MLS team is DC United, it is understandable that the teams are not from the region. Still, the average person will find it to be a random selection of teams and will be unlikely to have a cheering interest in either of them.
  • The weather   Those who were in Jacksonville during the week leading up to the Super Bowl will be quick to tell you that Jacksonville is not south Florida; warm pleasant weather is not a given. A night game will likely start with temperatures in the 50’s; cool weather by Florida standards, certainly cooler conditions than those for the match in May with the possibility existing that it could be cooler yet.  Pleasant weather is not out of the question, however. Game day conditions for the aforementioned Super Bowl were fan-friendly.
  • The sports calendar     Outside of The Player’s Championship golf tournament, May is a somewhat quiet time for sports in Jacksonville.  Minor league baseball and arena football are in season, but neither provide an annual “classic” civic event.  The area has a bit more going on in February. The forthcoming exhibition match will fall between the Grand-Am Endurance race in Daytona and the Daytona 500 (and is one day before the Daytona Shootout exhibition race).  It comes two weeks after a first round Davis Cup tennis match between U.S. and Brazil.  Most crushing to me, it falls on the same evening as the second basketball leg of the River City Rumble, the season long athletic competition between Jacksonville and the University of North Florida (I attended the game this year and intend to do so again in 2013).  Granted, none of these events are of both large scale and in immediate proximity to the soccer match.  It is almost certain though, that they will serve to reduce the number of people interested in attending another sporting fixture.

Taking these factors into consideration, I think an attendance of 30,000 is the best that can be hoped for… and that may be generous.  It would be interesting to know how that lines up with what the city and Major League Soccer would consider to be a success.

* The weather was a factor in the reduced attendance in Tampa; it was anything but lovely.


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