Hockey is officially returning to Jacksonville, as a press conference Wednesday, February 8 introducing the IceMen confirmed. The team will start play this October at Veterans Memorial Arena, and will officially be the fifth minor league franchise in Jacksonville when they take the ice this fall. In the wake of the recent struggles of some of the other teams to stay afloat, have we hit a tipping point on professional sports in the River City?
“Jacksonville is a great sports town.” We hear this all the time. In fact, ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said this at the press conference introducing the latest sports team hoping to grab a share of the public’s interest. Being a great sports town is one thing, but in a climate in which everyone is second fiddle (with good reason) to the NFL’s Jaguars (the only major league team in the city), can multiple sports franchises survive in the post-HDTV sports world?
This past year alone, the seemingly successful Sharks chose to leave the dying Arena Football League to start its own operation, now called the National Arena League. It will feature eight teams in the 2017 season and only time will tell how successful this new venture will actually become. The Armada FC is still part of the North American Soccer League, but the league appears to be on life support and the club is undergoing an ownership change as well as moving to a new, smaller home for next season, and most of the optimism of the team’s debut nearly three years has evaporated.
The increase in prominence and popularity of the local college athletics over the past five to 10 years has also attracted more casual sports fans that may have spent money of pro sports teams in Jacksonville in the past. Not to mention the bevy of semi professional teams all over the city, ranging from the Cannons of the American Ultimate Disc League to the Jacksonville Axemen of the USA Rugby League, which are considered to be wildly successful by league standards and have carved out nice niches of their own over the years.
The brings us to hockey. The IceMen are not the first, in fact, they are the sixth minor league hockey team to try its hand in Jacksonville, starting with the Rockets back in the 60s to the Barracudas, who folded in 2008. A lot of the battle for attendance here feels like it ties back to the even more basic battle for the second most popular sport on the First Coast. The popularity of football lead Jacksonville to earn an NFL franchise against all odds, and has helped the Sharks stick around for what will be its eighth season this year. The jostling for attention between baseball, soccer, basketball and others has led to much of the fluidity amongst pro franchises in the region over the years.
The IceMen have a tall task ahead. How will it configure the cavernous JVMA to fit its needs, as the size and upkeep is part of what eventually doomed the Barracudas a decade ago. Can the season, which overlaps with football for three of its seven months, work for this region, which usually draws the best when not going head to head with the Jaguars. Most importantly, will the game experience be enough to interest people regardless of the play of the team on the ice, something that the Suns/Jumbo Shrimp seem to have figured out, but have the other teams still searching for that magic formula. The team president has already used the phrases “affordable” & “family fun”, so that is a step in the right direction initially.
My only concern long term, is that the IceMen will attract fans who previously spent money on tickets for other minor league teams, who may have come in to Jacksonville with similar fanfare recently and are no longer the shiny new toy. And if other teams lose fans, will they be able to survive, especially the teams in tenuous league/ownership situations. I certainly hope that all teams can survive in our “great sports town.” It just feels like a city, no matter how much it loves sports, can only support so many teams, and that the arrival of the IceMen may have been the death knell to another local franchise.