Ball Games

JaxUSL kicks local soccer into gear

Words by Shelton Hull

 

The men’s World Cup ended back in December, and the women’s tournament begins this July. Both events get plenty of airplay here in Northeast Florida, whose soccer scene has been steadily percolating since the 1970s. Whether you’re a hardcore fan, a casual fan or not even a fan at all, soccer has become almost unavoidable on social media and in public parks around the region. That trend is sure to only increase with the recent launch of the Jax USL soccer club, a new local startup aiming to score big on the national level.

The process that has culminated in the launch of Jax USL began with another local soccer franchise, the Jacksonville Armada. “Of course, I was a part of the Armada from 2013 to 2016; I helped launch the club,” said Jax USL owner Steve Livingstone. “Through that, I was able to meet Maurcio [Ruiz], who was coaching JU soccer at the time. We were looking for someone to help with our broadcasts, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Mauricio.” They’ve remained friends ever since, and he was an easy choice to bring into this new project. “He’s joined up in this initial phase to help with business development, but long-term, we see him as a foundation, in terms of the growth of the organization. It’s great to be able to reunite with him.”

We’ve all heard the old adage that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” That will hopefully prove true with the Jax USL team raising the profile of soccer in general across Northeast Florida, but as always, there are some concerns. Some longtime Armada fans feel that the new team is taking market share away from the older club, while others have outright alleged an array of strongarm tactics that border on bullying. Livingstone and Ruiz acknowledge those concerns, but they insist that they are acting in good faith, working toward an equitable solution for all parties.

Part of the problem, from an operational standpoint, is that unlike other major sports leagues, soccer has no real unifying force. With football, baseball, basketball, tennis, golf, auto racing, even boxing and martial arts, there is generally a single authority that oversees the professional level, and all subsidiary action is organized with “the big time” as the ultimate goal that all the players are striving toward. The flow chart for professional soccer, by contrast, is a mess, by any objective standard, a maze of rival leagues with overlapping players and fans, a variety of interests competing within what is still a niche market. FIFA is more concerned with things like the World Cup, leaving individual countries mostly free to regulate their own activity as they see fit. The resulting system is more complex than the Habsburg family tree, and even the most hardcore soccer fans struggle to make sense of it.

The new franchise is linked to the United Soccer League (USL), which is projected to have upwards of 60 teams associated with it, on various levels, by the time Jax starts play in 2025. The USL is currently the No. 2 pro soccer league in the U.S., behind only Major League Soccer (MLS).

 “Typically, a USL Championship roster will have up to 30 players,” said Livingstone. “Women’s clubs, a little less, maybe 25 or so. But then, in addition to that, you’re hiring coaches, front office and support staff. When you add it all up, you’re well over 100, in terms of operations, and then when you factor in the people running and operating the facility, you’re getting pretty robust numbers, over 200.” Those conservative estimates could easily swell, based on success.

Diversity and representation are essential for success in any start-up venture, and Jax USL is no exception. The owners have emphasized the need to engage women, who have been a steadily growing segment of the overall soccer fanbase, dating back to the rise of the U.S. women’s national team over the past decade. Women are more than just the proverbial “soccer moms”; they are players, too. Jax USL will be running a women’s team on parallel tracks with the men’s team. Some aspects of those teams will overlap, like the ownership, but the coaching staff and travel schedules will be almost entirely different.

Another huge constituency is youth soccer, which constitutes a major portion of the fanbase. “We estimate that there’s over 100,000 kids playing youth soccer in Northeast Florida,” says Livingstone. “Ultimately, what we’d like to see is a kid rising through the ranks, representing Northeast Florida on a professional club.” They call this the “Pipeline to Professionalism,” and the Sao Paulo-born Ruiz will be key in making this work.

“There’s a two-part approach,” said Ruiz. “Obviously, our youth soccer community will be our fanbase, coming to games because they love the sport. The second part is that we, like many soccer clubs around the world, want to develop our local talent, so that we can showcase them in front of our fans. It’s vital for us to develop those relationships with players and coaches, so we can kind of add fuel to their tanks. The one thing in development that stunts growth is not having that next step [in place]. Right now, college soccer represents a final step for our local talent. So, having us as the local pro team, along with hosting other national and international teams, helps build up Northeast Florida as a hotbed for soccer activity, and that helps everyone.”

The club doesn’t begin play until 2025, but preparations have already begun. They are in active negotiations with the city to develop a multipurpose facility, presumably somewhere not too far away from the downtown entertainment district. Livingstone anticipates a potential $400 million in economic impact generated by the facility over a 10-year period.

At present, they don’t have a logo or team colors, but they have begun reaching out to fans, who can register as founding members through their website for a nominal fee that carries the promise of perks yet to come. While they are a long way away from signing any actual players, they are building a team behind the scenes. One key pickup is Tony Allegretti, a local legend whose influence can be felt across a wide swath of the community’s culture. He and other executives have been promoting the franchise in bars and clubs across Northeast Florida, almost like politicians but way nicer.

Longterm, the Jax USL concept has a ton of potential with Northeast Florida having built itself a reputation as a hub for niche sports of all kinds. But there’s also no shortage of potential issues, and the owners are moving toward fruition slowly but steadily, troubleshooting at every step along the way. Anything could happen over the next two years, but as things currently stand, fans of the local soccer scene have every reason to be optimistic.

 

About Shelton Hull

Shelton Hull has been writing for Folio Weekly since 1997, but his resume goes back even further. He has written for almost every newspaper, magazine and zine in Northeast Florida, as well as publications like Orlando Weekly, Narrow GNV, Creative Loafing Tampa, Charleston City Paper, Ink19 and The Atlantic. He currently writes the "Folio Weed" column, which he created in 2018; he remains one of the widest-read and most influential cannabis writers in the world today. He also compiles material for "Weird Wild Stuff" column, and he previously wrote the legendary "Money Jungle" column for Folio Weekly from 1999 to 2009. He is a regular contributor to "First Coast Connect" on WJCT, as well as the Jacksonville Music Experience. He is a co-host of "The Contrast Project" and the "Bold City Civics" podcast. He is also a co-founder of the record label Bold City Music Productions. He can be reached at sheltonhull@gmail.com.