In just 14 months, Mark Frisch went from not knowing very much – or even caring very much – about soccer to being owner of one of the North American Soccer League’s new expansion teams, the Jacksonville Armada Football Club.
Frisch described his rapid evolution in the soccer business Monday to the Rotary Club of Jacksonville.
“I didn’t grow up playing soccer. I didn’t grow up liking soccer. I watched it every four years – maybe,” he said, referring to the FIFA World Cup soccer championship, which is underway in Brazil.
That all changed May 26, 2012, when Frisch was invited to be on the field before the U. S. Men’s National Team vs. Scotland match at EverBank Field.
Being surrounded by more than 44,000 soccer fans and hearing the Star Spangled Banner performed was described by Frisch as “no better moment in sports.”
When the match began, he was impressed by the size and speed of the players. By the time the fans were leaving the stadium, Frisch had a different perspective on the sport and its future in Jacksonville.
“I gained a new appreciation for soccer when I felt the fans’ experience,” he said. “I decided we needed a professional soccer team in Jacksonville.”
The next step, Frisch said, was to “look into the pro soccer landscape,” an evaluation of what Jacksonville’s professional soccer options might be.
Frisch said he looked at Major League Soccer, but decided Jacksonville isn’t ready for the premier American league. That led him to look at the North American Soccer League, which was the predominant professional soccer league in the 1980s with teams including the New York Cosmos and Tampa Bay Rowdies. The league had the top players, including Pele, and drew as many as 80,000 fans to games. But the league failed financially and was replaced by MLS in 1996, Frisch said.
The revived North American Soccer League comprises 13 teams, including the Armada, and has a goal to expand to 18 teams by 2018.
Frisch described the franchise format as “independent,” with no league-mandated salary cap. He said the team’s players will be recruited from a “global free agency pool.”
The 30-player roster may include a maximum of seven international players. Frisch said he plans to sign as many as seven local soccer players to the Armada’s inaugural squad.
“The rest will be guys looking to make MLS rosters,” Frisch said.
Leading the recruiting effort will be Armada General Manager Dario Sala and Jose Luis Villarreal, who was introduced last week as the Armada’s first head coach.
The coaching staff grew on Monday when Eduardo Frisacaro was named first assistant coach and Fernando Argila Arque joined the Armada as second assistant coach.
Interest in joining the team has been strong, Frisch said. As soon as the franchise was awarded last July, his telephone began ringing and his email inbox began to fill with messages and resumes.
“When we announced our team here in little old Jacksonville, I started getting emails and YouTube videos from all over the world,” Frisch said. “It kind of caught me off guard.”
Invitation-only tryouts will be conducted for actively recruited talent and Frisch said open tryouts also will be on the team’s schedule to give local players the opportunity to compete for a spot on the roster.
Asked about Jacksonville’s history with professional soccer, which has been a series of failures, Frisch said he didn’t do any research on that subject.
“We don’t look at failures. We are focused on how we can be successful,” he said.
Frisch also said he’s not counting on the team showing a profit or even breaking even in its first season, which begins in April.
“You have to plan to spend money to market the brand for a couple of years. We will give fans a reason to come to a match and then give them a great game day experience,” he said.
The Armada hosted a U.S. vs. Ghana World Cup watch party Monday evening at the Jacksonville Landing. On June 26, the team will host a World Cup watch party from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Omni Hotel. Tickets are $30 per person or $300 for a table of 10, including lunch and a beer sampling provided by the Engine 15 craft brewery.
Frisch said when he booked his appearance at Rotary, no one knew it would be the U.S. team’s first World Cup action.
“There’s a little bit of destiny in everything in my life,” he said.