The Cruel Sea – Armada FC’s Fight For Survival and Prosperity
December 11, 2016
In my post yesterday, I neglected to mention one of the high points of my Armada experience last season:The team hosting and winning a US Open Cup match, which set up a game against visiting Major League Soccer side Orlando City. Played in the immediate wake of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, with a healthy amount of traveling supporters, it was a great evening of togetherness. On the field, the Armada put up a good fight, and held the scoreline even for an hour before conceding the winning goal. A good night of action on the field and a great night in the stands. It was a night enjoyed by only 2,055 fans, alas.
Allow me a slight digression as I review what lead to that night (I feel obliged to point these matters out and regret not having done so at some earlier point). The US Open Cup is a tournament for all of the soccer teams in the United States. It starts with amateur teams and those of the lowest levels of professional soccer. As it progresses, teams from the top three levels of professional soccer (the United Soccer League, the Armada’s North American Soccer League, and MLS). Supporters of non-MLS teams dream of their team slaying giants and accumulating upsets against the teams from the league’s higher up the ladder than their own.
Armada fans did not come close to realizing that dream last year. Fielding a mostly second-string team, the Armada traveled to USL side Richmond Kickers and got stomped 3-0 (trust me, the scoreline does not come close to capturing how awful the game was for Jacksonville). It’s not clear whether the manager thought the second stringers would be enough to compete against lower level competition of he just didn’t care and was perfectly content to fall out of the tournament immediately. It was disappointing for fans though, as an Armada victory would have brought an MLS squad to town for the next round.
The memory stuck. During the Town Hall Forum with then newly hired coach Tony Meola, a fan inquired as to whether Meola would take the tournament seriously. The coach pledged to do so and in marked contrast with that of his predecessor, the line-up showed it. The Armada defeated a pesky Charleston Battery squad with a thrilling goal in extra time. As was the case in the previous season, fans and team knew that a victory in the opener would give the Armada the opportunity to host an MLS team. Having gotten the job done this time, the team got to host Orlando City.
So, we had one of the big boys coming to town. A chance for an upset against a team from the big league. A team close enough to Jacksonville for its supports to easily travel for the game, even with it being on a Wednesday night. This had all of the makings of a big event. And yet, there was no chance for it to be.
The current home of the Armada is the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville (re-branded as Community First Park on Armada game-days). The primary tenant, of course, is the baseball team, AA side Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp (formerly the Suns). As such, the soccer team’s scheduled home games are squeezed in-between the lengthy home-stands of the baseball team. Such an arrangement is not conducive for holding relatively “on-the-fly” events such as US Open Cup matches. Because of that, the matches were held at Jacksonville’s Southern Oak Stadium, an attractive, yet tiny facility. And that’s how there came to be only 2,055 fans to take in a night that ought to have been taken in 3-4 times as many, at least. The stadium situation is certainly one of the challenges for the Armada organization, going forward.
The current home, itself, is quite nice. It’s a stadium for a AA baseball team that was built to AAA standards. It is very well equipped in terms of concessions and is a pleasant place in which to watch a match. I haven’t been to any of the other stadiums belonging to NASL teams, but it does seem to be one of the nicer ones. It isn’t the only baseball stadium either, Tampa Bay (who has now departed the league, alas) plays in a converted baseball stadium as does Puerto Rico FC. The Armada isn’t the only team that has a home that isn’t quite its own, either as a few teams play on university grounds (ones significantly larger than that of Jacksonville University, one should note).
That said, it does seem to be a limitation for the growth and development of the team. Besides the issue of the primary tenant restricting availability of the stadium, its downtown location causes other events to affect the Armada’s games as well. A would-be Saturday night match against Minnesota United became a mid-afternoon match due to the Jaguars having a pre-season game on that night. The result was a match played lethargically in brutally hot conditions (the Armada supporters group Section 904 decamped from their usual haunt behind the east goal to the southwest corner of the pitch, located somewhat more comfortably in the shade.
Armada owner Mark Frisch made public remarks that playing at the Baseball Grounds would be a three year deal with the end goal being the Armada having a home of its own sometime after that. I’ve heard second-hand that in private remarks he’s said that he would want to have a consistent base of at least 5,000 fans before considering such a venture. While things were looking good for that to happen in the first year, things have since gone awry.
The Armada’s season ticket renewal campaign apparently went as well as the campaign of the Spanish Armada. The failure was apparently part of the reason for the firing of club president Mark Livingstone in early February. While the books show 8,147 fans attending the team’s 2015 opener at Community First Park (the season opener was at EverBank Field), they indicate only 5,112 in attendance for the 2016 opener. The same records show the 2015 low point for attendance being 5,652; 2016 did not have a high point that high.
A brief aside at this point. I will elaborate in a future post, but I am a fairly long-time soccer fan, but one who only re-immersed himself into the game a few years ago, with the 2014 World Cup and NBC Sports winning the Premier League contract being major factors. My earlier fandom was fairly shallow and I’ve come to realize that there were a lot of things that I didn’t know back then. The point of mentioning this is that there’s a lot of things going on that have a back-story longer than I’ve been closely following the game. I’ve done a fair bit of reading to fill in my (massive) knowledge gaps, but I will freely admit there are matters for which others will have (much) more informed opinions (such as judging the quality of play in the NASL).
The $64 question, whose answer I do not come remotely close to knowing, is the nature of the fans who attended games in the Armada’s debut season but did not show up in the second season. Let us consider a few possibilities:
- Devoted soccer fans who are fans of the game, but do not feel a need to be attached to their local team. They might have found a little bit to like in the game-day experience, but didn’t find anything attractive to watch on the field. This is not a problem restricted to lower-level teams in the United States; it is a bit of a global issue. As the highest levels of play have become more accessible on television, some fans have gotten so accustomed to watching the high level of play that they cannot stand to watch anything that’s even a little bit lower. That is a tough fight for any team outside of the highest tiers football, one that is a bit of a fight for even Major League Soccer.
- More casual fans of soccer, maybe even people who are mostly unfamiliar with the game. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the team last year had a brutal stretch of scoreless play. On the field, there wasn’t much in the way of excitement to draw in and keep the uncommitted fan. Too many times, the games appeared to confirm the worst stereotypes of soccer.
- Folks who fell somewhere in between who took spent their money elsewhere. It would be wholly unsurprising to find many took their money across the street (to EverBank Field) as there were wide expectations that this was going to be the break-out season for the Jaguars.
Of course, none of these possibilities are exclusive of one another. Without knowing the nature of those disappearing fans, though, it is a nearly impossible task to suggest a course of action for the Armada to get them back and solve this worrisome issue. There was a stretch during the late part of this season where attendance was clearly at a negative tipping point. When you have fewer than 3,000 people in a stadium that has a capacity three times greater, the atmosphere suffers, regardless of how lively the attending fans are. The Armada tried gamely to entice fans with various special ticket promotions; one fears that it started to verge on desperation and started to give an air to the public that the tickets couldn’t be given away.
Complicating matters for the Armada is the future of their league. Major League Soccer in one fashion or another (either by directly bringing in a NASL team or announcing a franchise in a NASL market) has severely squeezed the league from the top. Below, a few teams have recently fled NASL to USL. Throw in a couple of teams on financially shaky ground and the league is looking at having fewer than 8 teams playing next season. While the original NASL survived dropping to 5 teams before its growth in the 1970’s the landscape is completely different today and a repeat is unlikely.
To a great extent the issue of leagues is a conflict of visions. MLS has a distinctly American sports approach including looking to ultimately have the same number of teams as the NFL, et al. It appears that the USL is becoming subsumed as a minor league (in the sense of minor league baseball) counterpart to MLS. The NASL has tried a different approach, something closer to European soccer norms than American sports. For a number of reasons, I have found myself disliking the MLS outlook and preferring that of the NASL. It appears, though, that this battle is all but lost.
It now seems that the Armada’s immediate will be predicated on joining the USL. I hope that they do so without becoming a minor-league affiliate (I admit gross ignorance on the nature of the league; from my limited knowledge, I find it odd to have a league have both independent squads and ones that are developmental/reserve squads for MLS teams).
I will conclude with one final bit from the Orlando City match. Before the game, I was participated in a radio interview with a reporter who noticed my pride scarf. During the interview, I mentioned the Armada organization being a solid member of the Jacksonville community and one that I was proud to support. That remains true today and it is why I have felt compelled to write this post as well as yesterday’s.