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Fever Pitch

NASL sees Northeast Florida as a hot soccer market

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Steve Livingstone sees the fervor in Jacksonville's soccer community and believes the city will embrace its North American Soccer League expansion franchise.

Livingstone, who formerly had stints with NFL Europe's Scottish Claymores and with the Jacksonville Jaguars for the last eight years, was brought in as club president. The team will take the field for the 2015 season.

He said anecdotal and statistical evidence shows Jacksonville is a viable market for
the league.

"Jacksonville is already a great soccer community through the tremendous work that's been done within the numerous youth and adult soccer leagues that have been operating for many years here," Livingstone said by email. "You just need to visit any of the soccer parks around the city and region on a Saturday morning to see how many people are enjoying the game."

He said a vibrant local community rabidly supports the U.S. Men's National Team (USMNT) at area sports bars and through social media. Livingstone estimated that there are 200,000 people in town with an interest in soccer.

Will those numbers translate into paying customers? If they don't, it won't be for lack of trying from the local NASL franchise.

"We plan on giving Jacksonville a great soccer team and a great experience when they come to our games," Livingstone said. "Our ticket prices will be very affordable and we will present a great day's entertainment for everyone." Ticket prices for Jacksonville games have not been set. Individual game tickets for NASL games in other markets range from $10 to $55.

We've seen expansion teams come and go in the region. Corporate sponsorship is always part of the plan and a recurrent challenge. According to Livingstone, corporations will get involved because "we can deliver a specific, passionate and highly engaged audience to them," and because the team will be involved in the community through clinics and camps, and will be bringing in world-class soccer events beyond the NASL schedule.

The NASL has been around in its current version since 2009, as sort of a minor league compared to Major League Soccer (MLS) in the U.S. (not to mention Barclays Premier League), and now — as soccer becomes a major sport domestically — is betting heavily on expansion markets.

Livingstone has deep soccer roots, having worked for the Scottish Claymores around the same time that NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson was president of National Football League Europe.

"The ownership have great ambitions for the league and to get back to the success it had in the '70s and early '80s, and Bill is a great man to lead that expansion," Livingstone wrote.

The NASL has teams in Atlanta, Blaine, Minn., Cary, N.C., Edmonton, Alberta, Fort Lauderdale, Hempstead, N.Y., St. Petersburg and San Antonio. The league will expand into Ashburn, Va., Ottawa and Indianapolis in 2014, he said.

"We'll come on stream in the spring of 2015 alongside Oklahoma City, but I know there are great plans to continue the expansion of the league and continue to grow and develop it on and off the field," Livingstone wrote.

Soccer fans want to know how good the level of play will be. Livingstone said they won't be disappointed.

"The NASL has already got great reviews on the quality of the soccer that's being played, which I believe matches anything that we've seen in MLS. NASL recruits professional soccer players from all over the world, and the quality of the play and the players is extremely high," Livingstone said.

"I think soon we'll see an NASL team make a major run in the U.S. Open Cup, which is open to all clubs in the U.S., which will highlight the quality of the game that's being played," Livingstone said.

Perhaps this year's best candidate for such an honor would be the New York Cosmos, currently the class of the NASL. Maybe one day that could be Jacksonville.

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