Jeff Eiseman sees professional soccer as the next step in Boise’s sports evolution — and, perhaps, even the catalyst for what could come in the distant future.
Agon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Boise Hawks baseball team and hopes to place a multisport stadium in Boise’s West End, announced earlier this year that it has acquired a franchise for Boise in the rapidly expanding United Soccer League. The team is expected to begin play in 2021, said Eiseman, the president of Agon — but the team’s existence is contingent upon completion of the new stadium.
The soccer team would be unlike the minor league baseball (Boise Hawks), hockey (Idaho Steelheads), basketball (Idaho Stampede) and football (various indoor franchises) teams that have come to the Treasure Valley.
Pro soccer teams, in cities like Seattle, Portland, Cincinnati and Louisville, have attracted throngs of passionate, festive supporters. Boise would compete with cities like Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Phoenix — and, once a year, the team could enter a tournament that includes Major League Soccer clubs.
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“The game-day experience is going to be really unique, really cool, really vibrant — and a lot of fun,” Eiseman said in a phone interview.
Major League Soccer is Division I. The new USL League One provides a Division III option.
The Boise team could operate independently or in partnership with an MLS club, helping to develop players as a Triple-A baseball team might. Regardless, the team will be built to win, Eiseman said. That would be a condition of any affiliation agreement, he said.
“The soccer fan will not put up long with an ownership group that is solely about making money and not putting a quality product on the field,” Eiseman said. “That was drilled into my head loud and clear. .... We will explore all avenues here and look at what we think is best to launch this thing well and make sure we create a great legacy for soccer in this market.”
Quite a first impression
The USL has played in the Treasure Valley once — and Bill Taylor, president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association, considers that event Exhibit A in his case for Boise as a potential hotbed for pro soccer.
Portland Timbers 2 and the Swope Park Rangers of Kansas City, Kansas, played the first neutral-site, regular-season game in league history in 2016 at Rocky Mountain High in Meridian. Taylor spent $200 on promotion and sold out the stadium with $20 tickets, he said. The official crowd was 4,352, but others watched from outside the gates, he said.
The crowd included local members of the Timbers Army fan group who brought flares and green smoke.
“It was a very different environment,” Taylor said. “Our athletic director at Rocky Mountain was a little taken aback at what was taking place in his stadium.”
That game was a test for the Boise market, with the USL president attending.
Neco Brett of Timbers 2 said after the game that he was motivated by the crowd.
“Wow,” he told the Idaho Statesman. “I loved the environment. ... When I went outside and saw so many fans, I was like, ‘Neco, come on, you’ve got to go out there and be your best.’ ”
One way Taylor attracted the crowd was by spreading the word through the Treasure Valley’s large club soccer community. About 7,000 kids play youth soccer from Boise to Caldwell, Taylor said.
He’s hopeful a Boise team would draw fans from those families, interact with those soccer-playing kids and inspire the Valley’s top players to pursue a higher level of soccer.
“The kids in the area, they’re able to evaluate their own game because they get to see the game at the highest level,” Taylor said. “The camps, clinics — it brings a whole new level of opportunity for our children.”
Taylor envisions sellouts for every home soccer game. He has encouraged Agon and its development partner, Greenstone Properties, to leave room for expansion in their stadium design. Both companies are based in Atlanta.
In addition to the USL game, Boise also sold out an indoor soccer game at CenturyLink Arena on short notice in 2017 and attracted 21,948 people to Albertsons Stadium in 2015 for the Basque Soccer Friendly featuring Athletic Bilbao of Spain and Club Tijuana of Mexico. A second indoor soccer event in 2018, however, attracted only 4,461 fans combined in two days, according to CenturyLink Arena figures.
“People want to say we don’t have the appetite for it,” Taylor said. “They’re crazy. ... We’ll have a fan club. They’ll be a very robust fan club, like other MLS and USL teams have. They’ll take ownership of the team. I would imagine they would have a seat at the table in communicating with ownership like many others have.
A comparison for Boise
Ryan Madden, the USL vice president for communications, sees Boise as similar to Louisville, Kentucky, which won its second straight USL title last fall. Louisville also has a university that dominates the sports market and a longtime minor league baseball team, the Triple-A Louisville Bats.
Louisville City FC’s announced attendance averaged 7,888 fans per regular-season game and 6,822 per playoff game at Slugger Field in 2018, according to the Louisville Courier Journal. The club drew 14,456 fans for the 2017 USL Cup final.
Louisville City FC is building an 11,300-seat soccer stadium, funded in a similar fashion to the deal Agon and Greenstone seek in Boise.
Boise’s stadium would seat about 5,000 for baseball but hold as many as 7,500 fans for soccer, including standing areas. It might have artificial turf to handle the baseball-soccer combination.
“It’s like college football, on a smaller scale,” said Jonathan Lintner, who covered the first Louisville season for the Courier Journal and later worked for the team in public relations but has returned to journalism. “It’s not like Triple-A baseball, which was our other professional sport here. People care if the team wins or loses.”
Sweeping the nation
The USL is reshaping pro soccer in the United States with an eye on the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted jointly by the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
Major League Soccer began play with 10 teams in 1996. It has grown to 24 teams in 2019, including new member Cincinnati from the USL, with plans to reach 28. Nashville, Tennessee, and Austin, Texas — two more USL markets — are in the pipeline for MLS expansion.
The USL’s own dramatic expansion plan was featured by Sports Illustrated in January. The USL hopes to have 40 teams each in the Championship and League One divisions — bringing pro soccer to many midsize cities like Boise.
This year, the USL has 36 clubs in the Championship division and 10 in League One — with a combined 14 first-year franchises. The Championship’s Western Conference includes teams in Texas, Colorado, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
Some Championship clubs are expected to drop down to League One, creating room for about 15 expansion clubs in the top league, Madden said. Stadiums are being built or refurbished in several markets, and some high-profile owners have joined the league, including owners of the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers of the NBA and Tampa Bay Rays of Major League Baseball, he said.
“That sounds like a lot of supply,” Madden said, “but we’ve heard from almost double that, around 30, who are interested in USL Championship in their communities. Most are top-100 media markets.”
In fact, U.S. Soccer has established requirements for markets and owners that want to compete in Division I, II or III. At least 75 percent of a Division II league’s teams must play in metro areas with a population of 750,000 or more. All league stadiums must have a capacity of 5,000 or more. And each club’s principal owner must have a net worth of at least $20 million.
Boise’s metro area had an estimated population of 709,845 in 2017, the most recent number available.
Eiseman declined to reveal how much Agon paid for its USL franchise. The league lists the average expansion fee in 2018 as $7 million.
A long USL season
USL teams play 34 regular-season games from early March to mid-October, with the 20-team playoffs ending in mid-November. Most games are on Saturdays, with some midweek games, and they stream on ESPN Plus. ESPN also has committed to air 22 regular-season games on TV this season, Madden said. Ticket prices in Louisville range from $14 to $37. They start at $15 in Reno, $19.50 in Fresno and $16 in Sacramento.
USL teams also will have two annual tournament opportunities that are played during the season. The U.S. Open Cup this year features 84 teams from all levels of American soccer. USL teams join in the second round and MLS teams join in the fourth round, creating matchups between USL and MLS clubs. Last year, Louisville City beat New England of MLS on its way to the quarterfinals. MLS posted an 8-3 record against the USL in the tournament, but two of the MLS wins were in penalty kicks.
The USL also plans to implement a tournament that will pit the Championship and League One clubs against each other by 2021, Madden said.
USL draws players from all over the world and U.S. colleges. The league’s 1,234 players in 2018 represented 61 countries. There were 213 players who are on national teams. Still, more than half of the players were Americans. Salary estimates are difficult to come by, but the league has started negotiations for its first collective bargaining agreement with players.
Player ages run the gamut from teenagers to 30-somethings. Phoenix Rising co-owner Didier Drogba, an aging superstar, played in the USL last season.
And unlike many minor league sports, it’s possible to retain a large percentage of the roster. Louisville returns more than half of its players from last year’s championship team.
“It’s no different, really, than it is anywhere in the rest of the world,” Madden said. “You’ll have some guys who will play with their respective clubs for five years.”
Sport of the future
Adding a soccer team was part of the business plan for Agon in its quest for a new stadium for the Hawks, who have been trying to replace Memorial Stadium for years. The USL was the best soccer option, Eiseman said, and a better fit than Major League Lacrosse.
“It seemed like a natural fit for what we wanted to do,” he said, “and it would make a great tenant to a new sports park and be a tremendous addition to the Treasure Valley.
“... We’re not looking at this as a five-, 10-year thing. We’re looking at this as where the Treasure Valley is going.”
Eiseman compares the Treasure Valley today to Las Vegas of the late 1990s. The Las Vegas metro area, whose population has nearly tripled since 1990, recently picked up an NHL team and soon will get the Raiders of the NFL.
Two decades ago, a major league team didn’t seem possible there.
“Boise’s not there yet,” Eiseman said. “It’s not there as a major league market. But it’s under the radar and it continues to grow as a candidate market, and the most likely major league sport that’s going to catch attention is going to be soccer in that market. We believe that.
“We look at us as caretakers to make sure when the time is right that it will be a major league market someday. Maybe it’s with us, but maybe it’s with some other group. Whether it’s 20 years or 30 years, it’s going to come. When it does, we believe this club will be the precursor to it.”
Stadium update: $50 million, 2021 projection
Before the Boise soccer franchise can join the USL, it needs a place to play. Agon, which owns the sports teams, and Greenstone, the developer, are working on a plan to build the multisport stadium between Main, 27th, Fairview and Whitewater Park streets on the western edge of Downtown Boise. Greenstone managing principal Chris Schoen also is the managing partner of Agon.
The $50 million stadium primarily would be funded through bonds sold by the public Capital City Development Corp. The bonds would be repaid with increased tax revenue from the surrounding 30th Street urban renewal district and more than $1 million per year in stadium lease fees paid by tenants, Eiseman said. Greenstone anticipates producing more than $100 million worth of development in the urban renewal district to create the increased tax revenue needed to make the deal work, Eiseman said.
The city of Boise would contribute $3 million and own the stadium, but tenants would be responsible for maintenance costs, he said. The Greater Boise Auditorium District also is expected to contribute $5 million, according to previous Idaho Statesman reporting.
Greenstone could present a plan to the city as soon as this month, Eiseman said. A citizens group is calling for a public vote on the stadium, and a bill working its way through the Legislature would require one, which makes the project’s timing unpredictable. Agon hopes to have soccer and baseball in the new stadium for the 2021 seasons.
“This isn’t a handout,” Eiseman said. “... This is a private-public partnership that basically is being quarterbacked and shouldered by private development and the teams participating in this. This isn’t the library. This isn’t a performing arts center. This is a public facility that is basically being covered with private investment with minimal public contribution.”