January 28, 2017
There is a fair bit of uncertainty regarding the upcoming Jacksonville Armada season. Questions abound such as “Where will the team play?”, (almost certainly not its home for its first two seasons, Community First Park, AKA the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville), “Who will be in goal? (the team does not have any goal-keepers under contract at this time), and so on.
One thing that is certain is the nature of the season. On January 20, the North American Soccer League announced that 2017 league play will consist of eight teams will play sixteen games in both a spring season and a fall season. After thinking about it for a moment, my reaction was similar to that of Florida Times-Union write Clayton Freeman.
— Clayton Freeman (@CFreemanJAX) January 20, 2017
Reaction on Twitter from supporters of NASL teams featured a bit of puzzlement, as well. While many were happy that the league’s previous practice of having a spring season that was half the length of the fall season (but whose titles counted equally) was a thing of the past, there was doubt over why the schedule wasn’t balanced. Why not just have 8 teams playing their opponents twice each season such that there would be two 14 game seasons? It seemed so odd to me that I almost seriously wondered if someone made a “fencepost error” and mis-calculated the number of games that would make up a balanced schedule.
The acting commissioner of the league, Rishi Sehgal, has answered the question in a consistent fashion during interviews. This, for example, is from Sehgal’s interview with Raleigh based writer Neil Morris
“Primarily because we wanted to give more games back to the fans. It was a long off-season without soccer, and the desire was to create more excitement about the competition rather than create a short season. I’ve read rumors out there that we had penciled in other teams to play and then canceled them. That speculation is just speculation. The decision was made to have as many games as possible and focus on the competition.”
There is something about adding “bonus” games in this manner that has bothered me. There are 32 weekends from the season-opening weekend to the weekend before the playoffs start (March 25-October 28). In the past, and Sehgal suggests that this will be the case in 2017 as well, there is a break between the two seasons. That means that there aren’t enough on which to play games. Some games will be played mid-week.
As an Armada fan, this concerned me, because there was a noticeable difference between attendance for the weekend matches and weekday matches last season. I mentioned this to Clayton Freeman on Twitter and he helpfully replied with the stats:
@clfenwi 2016 Armada midweek crowds:
Average, other games: 4,054
— Clayton Freeman (@CFreemanJAX) January 27, 2017
Admittedly, the drop of 43% wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed. One could argue that the number attendance dropped from was at least as problematic as the drop itself. That is, dropping 43% from a weekend of average of 8,000 isn’t that bad. When you’re only getting 4,000 fans on the weekends, though, the result is games that are money-losers. (Playing in an active baseball stadium, the Armada paid a city subsidized, yet still hefty fee, for converting the baseball field to a soccer pitch; Empire of Soccer cited a cost of $70,00 per match)
Being curious as to whether such drops were common across the league, or a problem unique to Jacksonville, I compiled the numbers for the past two seasons across the league. The figures are pretty interesting.
In 2015, eleven teams played each-other once in the Spring and twice in the Fall. That meant for five home games in the spring and ten in the fall. During the fall, most teams played two home games mid-week, while Atlanta played three and Edmonton, Indy, and Tampa Bay played only one. The following table shows each team’s average weekend attendance, weekday attendance, and the percentage difference between the two.
A few of these numbers are skewed a little bit. Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville, and New York all had season openers with attendance that was out-sized compared to the rest of the season. Adjusting those towards normal attendance improves the drop by 5% or so for each team. Un-adjusted, the league-wide figure suggests an average attendance drop of 25% from weekend to mid-week.
As one can see, not everyone was hurt by mid-week games; the 3,120 at Edmonton’s compared favorably to some weekend games that had 2,000 or fewer fans in attendance. Similarly, neither Ottawa’s or Minnesota’s games ranked atop the list of most lightly attended home matches. Elsewhere, however, the attendance drops were significant.
In 2016, the Spring season consisted of eleven teams (but not the same eleven as in 2015, since Miami and Oklahoma City replaced Atlanta and San Antonio) playing each-other once. Puerto Rico joined in the Fall season to make its season twelve teams playing each-other twice. This made for five home games in the Spring and eleven in the Fall. Jacksonville played one home one-game mid-week in the spring; the only team to do so. Jacksonville played four mid-week games at home during the Fall; again this was exceptional as all other teams played only two home games mid-week. (One of those mid-week Jacksonville games was not scheduled as such; Hurricane Matthew pushed a would-be weekend match against Indy into the week.) As was the case in 2016, some teams, particularly the southern ones, took significant attendance hits during the week.
The figure for Fort Lauderdale is not a typo; they only had 873 fans total at their two mid-week matches. The crowd for Puerto Rico’s mid-week games were roughly half the size of that for their most lightly attended weekend match. As was the case in 2015, Jacksonville and Carolina had big drops in attendance for mid-week games. The drop for the Cosmos wasn’t as bad… but the figure for weekend-games was worse than in 2015. Edmonton,Indy, and Tampa managed to keep the gap reasonably small. The figures for Miami and OKC are a bit wonky. Miami had some games with horrible attendance in the Spring. OKC managed to have their mid-week games before the franchise started to fall apart. Otherwise, their numbers would have likely been comparable to Fort Lauderdale’s.
Pardon a slight digression as I elaborate on the Armada. As mentioned earlier, Jacksonville played in an active baseball stadium; their home schedule was dictated by the home schedule of the AA baseball team. As home-stands that wrap around two weekends are not uncommon, the Armada were left with some tight windows for home games, hence the excess number of mid-week games. Cruelly, those were the games most poorly attended. The crowd for the mid-week Spring game was ~500 fewer than the lowest attended weekend game. Of the four Fall games, only one had higher attendance than the lowest week-end game (that week-end game had 2,516 fans in attendance; it was played on a scorching afternoon in advance of a Jaguars pre-season game). Weather was not a factor for the depressed attendance. In 2015 the only games affected by weather were the season opener (15 minute downpour in the second half) and a Saturday night game that was delayed by lightning. Similarly in 2016, the only games with unpleasant weather were during the weekend. The only mid-week game that had understandable poor attendance was the rescheduled Indy Eleven match; there were still Jacksonville residents without power on the night of that match.
League-wide, I calculated the 2016 drop in attendance from weekend to weekday games to be 27%, nearly identical to the drop observed in 2015. The drop isn’t so big to suggest that the average fan does not go to mid-week games. It is certainly large enough, however, to suggest that adding games to the schedule yields diminishing returns if the games in question are going to be played mid-week. A 28 game schedule fits into the given March 25-October 28 window fairly nicely; 14 week-end games each season and each team gets a week off as well as a two week break between seasons. Fitting a 32 game schedule into that window with a a an equal amount of rest means that each team would have to host two mid-week games each season.
If franchises are going to be on the hook for that many mid-week games, it appears that some will have to put some serious focus on how to make those games better attended. It certainly appears that Tampa did something that the other southern teams didn’t.
The other puzzler with the unbalanced schedule is how it’s going to work. It would be more evident if the teams were more evenly distributed geographically and everyone had a local rival. Under those conditions, it would make sense for the extra games to be merely just an extra home and away game against the rivals. Alas, the 2017 NASL is not like that. Here’s my best effort of making the unbalanced 32 game schedule work in a cost-efficient manner :
- Each team plays each-other home and away twice
- Puerto Rico, Miami, and Jacksonville play each-other home and away an extra time.
- Indy, New York, and North Carolina do the same.
- San Francisco and Edmonton: Y’all are going to love to hate each-other! Two extra matches, home and away!
This, of course, could make things a wreck balance of competition-wise. From a competition stand-point, the only fair way to do it would be to assign the extra games pseudo-randomly. As a few have noted though, that could bring delights such as Puerto Rico making extra trips to Edmonton and San Franciso, etc. Adding those extra trips, for any team, doesn’t make sense.
Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to have extra games that one can reasonably expect to have reduced attendance. As a season-ticket holder who is concerned about the feature of his team and its league, I am not in support of this unbalanced schedule as it has been presented.
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.
December 10, 2016
A struggling Jacksonville team whose owner remains popular with fans as it faces hard questions about the future is an apt description of the Jacksonville Jaguars. It is also true of Jacksonville Armada FC.
A successful early start upon the team’s debut last season, both on and off the field, faded as the months passed by. A three game scoring drought in July was followed by another one in September, which resulted in the manager’s firing. After finished the season under interim management, the team brought on former US National Team goalkeeper Tony Meola for the 2016 season.
As in the previous season, scoring droughts would weigh heavily on the Armada;464 scoreless minutes from late April to late May and one almost identical in July. The latter drought was broken in the midst of a Wednesday night 5-2 stomping that likely was the end for Meola (who coached one more game on the immediately following Saturday night before being sacked).
Another interim manager came aboard and he got results immediately. After failing in its first 25 attempts, the team finally won a game on the road (against Ottawa on August 13). A second road win came on October 1. Home fans had to subsist on the thin gruel of draws during this time, however, with three of those being scoreless.
After a wild and admittedly entertaining (in a gladiator/professional wrestling sort of way) loss to the New York Cosmos, the home fans finally got to applaud a win for the new coach, English-man Mark Lowry, who had shed the interim tag in early October. The season finished with a second home win for the Armada.
I have been with the team through all of this as a season-ticket owner. This is not the first time I’ve held season tickets for a Jacksonville team. Out of respect for how the Arena Football League re-organized itself, I purchased season tickets for the Jacksonville Sharks when they were first formed and held them for another season, when they won the Arena Bowl. Having been a fan of the Jaguars, but not necessarily one of Jack Del Rio or the franchise as it was being run under Wayne Weaver, I snapped up season tickets after the simultaneous departure of the coach and the arrival of the new owner (and availed myself of the option to lock in ticket prices for three years by committing to hold season tickets for that time period).
I bought my tickets fairly early on in the franchise; if I recall correctly it was within a few weeks after of the team name being announced in February of 2014. As I did with the Jaguars, I did so on a three year deal. My sister, Sara, is in the deal with me; at one point I think she was more excited about the venture than I was. At one point randomly during the World Cup, she said with a great deal of happiness “I am so glad we are going to have a soccer team to watch next year”.
All in all, low number of wins not withstanding, we have loved the experience. There hasn’t been a day where we’ve felt like going to the game was a chore vice a pleasant outing. Similarly, we have never departed a game with the feeling that we had a bad experience, again on-the field results notwithstanding. I am, of course, my season tickets for next year were already locked in. Even if they weren’t, though, my Sara I would have happily re-upped. We love Mark Lowry and it appears that the Armada are holding onto a nice core of players for next year. (At one point towards the end of Tony Meola’s tenure, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the fans around us complaining that they didn’t know any of the players on the field; all of their favorites were on the bench, seemingly without reason).
That said, our fan experience suffered a bit down the stretch. It was news, but not a surprise to read the following, written by Clayton Freeman in the Times-Union two days ago (“NASL’s struggles could mean changes for Armada in 2017“):
Sharp cutbacks took effect in August and September, when the Armada scaled back its game-day expenditures at the Baseball Grounds, stopped sending public relations employees for road games and slashed its budget for support staff.
The team was on the road from August 19th to September 24th. From that first game back, onward, there was a noticeable difference at the stadium. There were fewer people working the gates (making for a longer wait to enter the stadium) and a lack of attention to detail that wasn’t absent previously. For example, nearly all games featured some kind of give-away (usually a sponsor-backed scarf) to the first 1,000 fans through the gates. On one late-season occasion, we found 0 of the scarfs to be had when we came through the gate as it opened. After looking and waiting a couple of minutes, Sara hustled over to the main gate and managed to scrounge two scarves and alert staff to the fact that there weren’t any at the side-gate. On Fan Appreciation Day, $2 corndogs were advertised, but concession staff apparently hadn’t gotten the news; after going around the various stands in the stadium, Sara took to Twitter in frustration (and it was through that medium that she was assisted by the owner of the then Jacksonville Suns).
As Freeman mentions in his article, attendance was not high this season. I am obligated though, to note that while it is true that”At the lowest point, the Armada drew just 1,254 on Oct. 12 against the Indy Eleven.”, that game was a Wednesday night game that was a reschedule of a game that was originally scheduled for the preceding Saturday night and delayed due to Hurricane Matthew. Just over 3,000 fans were in attendance for the aforementioned lively match against the Cosmos on the following Saturday. Over 4,500 attended the Season finale. It was a bit sad to have the season come to an end at that point, what with the team finally doing well and having a decent crowd to boot.
Unlike the previous ends of season (in the North American Soccer League, there are “Spring” & “Fall” seasons, I did not receive a Fan Experience survey. The remarks I have made hear about the late-season game-day experience would have been the meat of my substantive response (i..e written comments beyond the numerical ratings of how satisfied I was).
As featured in Freeman’s article, the Armada’s owner Mark Frisch has big challenges in front of him. I’ll reflect on those in a later post.