Fever Pitch

Is soccer the next big thing in Jacksonville?


To borrow the immortal words of rap legend T.I., "Big things poppin'" in Duuuuuuuuval when it comes to the city's association with professional soccer.

For starters, the smart money says that the inimitable Tony Meola, the U.S. Men's National Team cornerstone in 1994, is the frontrunner to coach the Jacksonville North American Soccer League team when it starts play next year. The franchise has reportedly interviewed 30 candidates for the job, so nothing's set in stone, but hiring Meola makes a lot of sense for one reason — two words:

Name value.

When dealing with the local media, the question, as always, is the hook. Since Meola still is among the highest-profile players in National Team history, putting him at head coach makes sense. He knows the game, and knows how to be an ambassador, a promoter of brand-awareness in a market still learning to embrace soccer.

Sometimes the obvious choice is the best one. Undoubtedly, many of the area's 30-something soccer fans wanted to be Meola, on some level, when they were playing the youth game on pitches all around Northeast Florida. Certainly, they did when they were playing the almost-forgotten Super Nintendo game Tony Meola's Sidekick Soccer. In terms of launching a franchise and giving it an instant identity, Meola is a great choice.

Of course, Meola isn't the only great choice soccer fans are considering in the next few weeks. Local soccer buffs long ago circled Feb. 12 on calendars as a day to head Downtown and catch some first-class pro soccer action.

On that day, the New York Red Bulls take on the Philadelphia Union at EverBank Field. The Union committed to one preseason game a year at EverBank for three years; this is Year No. 2.

For the Union, the game — part of a month in Florida preparing for the regular season — comes just a few days after a scrimmage at its Deltona training facility against the mighty University of North Florida Ospreys.

Last year, 5,000 local fans turned out to see the Union battle to a scoreless draw against Montreal, which looked a lot like a preseason dress rehearsal in terms of pacing and urgency.

The weather cooperated then, keeping the draw healthy and helping make the case that Jacksonville is indeed a soccer market on the rise. What's the forecast for this year? Dunno — ask Julie Watkins. I can tell you, though, that to reassure stakeholders, there needs to be an attendance uptick. And that's entirely possible.

What we're seeing in the Bold New City of the South is a demographic shift local sports commentators aren't fully hep to yet. Transplants from the Northeast come in, often for corporate jobs which locals lack the skill set to fill (thanks, Duval County Public Schools!). With this migration, we're seeing a seismic shift in the preeminence and popularity of certain sports.

College football? A drag. The ACC title game couldn't draw here. The 2014 Gator Bowl? Likewise, box office poison. Sponsored by Should've been underwritten by the Hemlock Society, as the once-proud bowl floats on a garbage scow to Irrelevant City.

We'll see soccer continue to grow — at the expense of football, which is getting a bad rap among parents concerned about concussions, and is seeing a downward trend in youth participation nationally.

Given that the Tea Men used to draw upward of 10,000 in Jacksonville in the 1980s, and from a much smaller demographic base (albeit one with fewer entertainment options), any crunching of attendance figures should be viewed with some skepticism. That said, the number needs to be closer to 10,000 than 5,000, lest existential questions arise. Considering that Orlando City Soccer averaged more than 8,000 a game last year in the third-tier USL Pro, that's a reasonable expectation here.

Mayor Brown has talked often about wanting to bring an NBA franchise to town one day. A successful soccer push — packing EverBank's seats for a preseason match — may be a catalyst, a signal that Jacksonville could indeed be a viable multisport town.

One positive sign for soccer's future here: Major League Soccer is expanding into Miami (via a team owned by David Beckham) and Orlando (whose team will migrate to MLS in 2015).

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