How many times does attending a sporting event truly impact your life?
Ask Mark Frisch.
In 2012, he attended a U.S. Men’s National Team friendly against Scotland at Jacksonville’s EverBank Field. Frisch was on the field before the match, hand over heart, gazing up at 44,438 supporters singing the national anthem. He felt the deafening roar of the crowd when Landon Donovan scored the first of his three goals in a 5-1 U.S. victory.
Frisch, born and raised in Jacksonville, was a changed man. He wanted to bring soccer back to his hometown.
Three years later, he’s done exactly that. Frisch is the Owner of the Jacksonville Armada Football Club, the newest member of the North American Soccer League (NASL), which kicks off its inaugural season at 7:30 p.m. Saturday against FC Edmonton at EverBank Field.
“I saw this as an opportunity to bring a great game to the city,” Frisch said.
Frisch (BSBA ’03) said he was a casual soccer fan with his interest increasing around major tournaments like the World Cup. While attending that 2012 friendly, Frisch said he got an up close and personal look, including meeting with several US Soccer officials. The excitement generated and record-breaking crowd (largest attendance at a U.S. Men’s National Team friendly in the Southeast at the time) motivated Frisch.
“There was a lot of energy,” recalls Frisch, who is also the Executive Vice President of Beaver Street Fisheries, one of the nation’s largest seafood distributors. “I thought I needed to do all I can to have that here on a more regular basis. So that’s when I started really looking hard at the pro soccer landscape.”
Professional soccer in Florida has had its struggles. Major League Soccer (MLS) had teams in Miami and Tampa Bay in the late 1990s, but those franchises lasted only four and six years, respectively, due to poor attendance and declines in revenue. It was also difficult for soccer to gain traction in those markets because of the more established and popular sports it was competing against.
Thanks to increased interest from a younger demographic and improved quality of play, the landscape has indeed changed for American soccer, and Frisch believes Jacksonville is just the type of market to benefit. Unlike other markets, Jacksonville has only one sports franchise—the Jacksonville Jaguars— in the Big 4 professional sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL). The city’s minor league baseball team, the Jacksonville Suns, isn’t a direct competitor with Armada FC because they share the same home stadium—Community First Park at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville. (Armada FC’s only home game not scheduled at the Baseball Grounds is Saturday’s match). Frisch also said that the area’s large youth soccer population, increase in adult leagues, and high school and college soccer success makes Jacksonville an attractive site for a professional soccer franchise.
Although the genesis for Jacksonville’s newest sports team was born from patriotism and hometown pride, Frisch said he would not have gone forward if it didn’t make business sense.
“You very quickly put emotion to the side when you start looking at budgets,” said Frisch, 34. “We’re running very hard after relationships for ticket sales and sponsorships. Without that, nothing else matters. We need the revenue to give the team an opportunity to play.”
Frisch said one of the biggest surprises in building Armada FC has been the worldwide response. Frisch said he’s received emails and YouTube highlight clips from players and coaches in Europe, Africa and South America wanting to come and join the club.
“For some player in Portugal, Jacksonville may not have even been a place that existed to them,” Frisch said. “Now they want to play or work for us. It’s pretty cool.”
In addition to beginning Armada FC’s inaugural season with a victory, Frisch is also hoping to make another kind of history Saturday. He said the organization’s goal is to set a new NASL regular season attendance record, currently held by Ottawa at 14,593. Considering Armada FC’s first home friendly against the MLS’s Philadelphia Union drew 13,934 fans, Frisch is hopeful a record attendance can establish Jacksonville as a soccer town.