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Boise Hawks owners bank on pro soccer, downtown stadium

The Basque Soccer Friendly match between Athletic Bilbao and Club Tijuana in 2015 was the first international soccer match in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Wide Eye Productions.

The Basque Soccer Friendly match between Athletic Bilbao and Club Tijuana in 2015 was the first international soccer match in Idaho. Photo courtesy of Wide Eye Productions.

The owners of the Boise Hawks minor league baseball team expect to add a second-tier men’s professional soccer team to their portfolio, and to have both teams play in a 5,000- to 7,500-seat stadium they propose to build in downtown Boise.

Atlanta-based Agon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Hawks, anticipates announcing soon that it will acquire the former Kmart building at Americana Boulevard and Shoreline Road that is now occupied by the St. Luke’s Business Center, said Jeff Eiseman, Agon’s president and partner.

Eiseman is trying to assemble a 15- to 20-acre checkerboard of properties in the area generally bounded by Americana Boulevard, Shoreline Drive, Spa Street and 14th Street. Eiseman envisions a mixed-use development with office, retail and residential, all anchored by the stadium.

The St. Luke’s Health System-owned Kmart building amounts to 6.44 acres with a 93,940-square-foot building constructed in 1966. The property is assessed at $10.48 million, according to Ada County Assessor records.

Eiseman believes he is near to acquiring the St. Luke’s property, while St. Luke’s refers only to a Feb. 10 prepared statement that acknowledges a desire to consolidate employees at the downtown Boise medical center but does not specifically address selling the Americana property to Agon Sports.

Boise Hawks owner is trying to buy the St. Luke's Business Center property on Americana Boulevard to build a baseball/soccer stadium. Photo by Teya Vitu.

Boise Hawks owner is trying to buy the St. Luke’s Business Center property on Americana Boulevard to build a baseball/soccer stadium. Photo by Teya Vitu.

“St. Luke’s is considering vacating Shoreline and bringing those employees closer to our flagship downtown Boise hospital,” according to the St. Luke’s statement. “St. Luke’s has been negotiating appropriately with multiple developers and parties to reach the best agreement.”

Eiseman and partner Chris Schoen acquired the Boise Hawks in 2014. This year, United Soccer, or USL, moved up from the third to the second tier league alongside the North American Soccer League. Both leagues are just below Major League Soccer, the premier U.S. pro soccer league. Ten of the 30 USL teams are owned and operated by MLS teams, and the Portland Timbers MLS franchise last year directly stated interest in involvement with a Boise team. Another 12 independently owned USL teams have looser affiliations with MLS teams.

Jeff Eiseman

Jeff Eiseman

“I’m bullishly optimistic (about soccer),” Eiseman said. “I believe this will be very successful. In some ways, this may outstage the Hawks, which does not concern me in the least.”

Attendance at MLS matches has soared in recent years, especially in the Pacific Northwest, with league attendance doubling to 7.3 million since 2009. Lower-level pro and professional development leagues also are flourishing with dozens more teams added each year (see accompanying story about new Boise FC amateur team).

The Boise Hawks season is limited from the second half of June to early September, while USL soccer plays from March to October to extend the active season at the stadium.

Eiseman proposes a stadium with 5,000 fixed seats for baseball and the option to add grandstands and concessions on the field to increase soccer seating to 7,500. Instead of shoehorning a rectangular soccer field onto a fan-shaped baseball field, Eiseman seeks to design a stadium that caters to both sports.

He’s thinking of having more seats on the third-base side to provide more seats when that section serves as one side of a soccer grandstand. He’s also looking at creating soccer supporter areas, which traditionally are behind the goals, or in the left field corner and behind the first base dugout in a baseball stadium.

“We’re reverse-engineering, looking at optimal sight lines for both sports so it’s not just fitting a soccer field on a baseball field,” Eiseman said.

The concept pleases USL President Jake Edwards, who is strongly suggesting that teams wanting to join the league  consider building soccer-specific stadiums, which have become common in the 2010s higher-level soccer leagues.

Jake Edwards

Jake Edwards

“What we’ve told them is you’ve got to build a stadium that is a true environment for that sport as it it’s playing,” said Edwards about accommodating soccer, baseball and concerts, “(Agon) presented a design able to achieve those three goals.”

A USL team in Boise would enter a league with much higher standards than when the Agon Sports official first started chatting with USL in 2014, or when Idaho Youth Soccer started lobbying for a USL team in 2015. Back then, USL was a Division 3 league.

On Jan. 1, USL was promoted to Division 2, alongside the eight-team North American Soccer League, both of which now directly feed players to Major League Soccer. Boise definitely would be a small-market team in a league where many teams are named for and play in the same cities as their MLS counterparts, such as Seattle, Portland, Ore., New York, and Kansas City. But other USL teams play in the much smaller cities of Reno, Nev., Bethlehem, Penn.,  Tulsa, Okla., Harrisburg, Penn. and Rochester, N.Y.

“There is a spotlight on the league and players that we have never had before,” Edwards said. “We are raising the stakes for teams every year. We are improving the overall quality of the competition and the professionalism of every club and its facilities.”

And United States Soccer Federation is raising the stakes on USL at its new Division 2 level, mandating that stadiums seat at least 5,000 people. Edwards already sees attendance trending toward 7,000 to 10,000 with USL’s top five teams averaging 9,000 people per game.

“For Boise coming into the league now, there are some new standards that have changed,” Edwards said.

Agon Sports embraces the higher standards, eyeballing $40 million to $45 million to build the stadium and $100-million-plus for the entire mixed-use stadium complex on Boise’s West End. Agon is now building a similar $170 million mixed-use stadium project in August, Ga., for the August GreenJackets, the other minor league baseball team that Agon owns.

Eiseman’s business partner at Agon, Chris Schoen, heads up Greenstone Properties, the development company for the Augusta and Boise projects.

“We haven’t targeted any (retail or restaurant) franchises,” Eiseman said about the Boise stadium project. “We’re not talking about putting McDonald’s down there. A hotel  is not in our plan.”

Right now, USL and potential tenants are waiting for Agon Sports to assemble property.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg component,” Eiseman said.

Two high-profile pro soccer matches in 2015, 2016 put Boise on the map

The Portland Timbers T2-Swope Park (Kansas City) Rangers game sold out the Rocky Mountain High School stadium with no marketing budget. Photo courtesy of Paul Cushin of Rekt Photography.

The Portland Timbers T2-Swope Park (Kansas City) Rangers game sold out the Rocky Mountain High School stadium with no marketing budget. Photo courtesy of Paul Cushin of Rekt Photography.

Two professional soccer matches that were played in the Treasure Valley in 2015 and 2016 directly influenced the scenario now.

The United Soccer League is waiting for a firm commitment in Boise to build a stadium before awarding Boise a team. The next step up for players would be Major League Soccer.

The July 18, 2015 Basque Soccer Friendly match between Athletic Bilbao and Club Tijuana at Albertsons Stadium at Boise State University was the first international soccer club match played in Idaho. A year later, the June 4 USL match between the Portland Timbers T2 and Swope City (Kansas City) Rangers at Rocky Mountain High School in Meridian was the first professional American soccer match in Idaho. It was also the first time USL played a regular season match at a neutral site.

Parks and Recreation Crew Chief Levi Conner over saw marking the field for the Boise Soccer Friendly at Albertsons Stadium in 2015. Photo courtesy of Doug Holloway.

Parks and Recreation Crew Chief Levi Conner oversaw marking the field for the Boise Soccer Friendly at Albertsons Stadium in 2015. Photo courtesy of Doug Holloway.

Besides the firsts, decision makers in the soccer world saw the public clamoring for soccer, especially at the Portland Timbers T2 game, where fans lined the fences behind the goals because the Rocky Mountain High bleachers sold out, even with next to no marketing.

“It’s clear there is something special there,” said USL President Jake Edwards, who traveled from league headquarters in Florida to Meridian for the game.

Agon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Boise Hawks baseball team, had already quietly been in talks with USL business development staff since 2014, right at the time the Atlanta-based company acquired the Hawks.

“If that (USL game) gets 4,000 people to a high school field with two teams with no local ties to the Treasure Valley and they can’t even serve beer – wow!,” Agon President and Partner Jeff Eiseman said. “Before they even did the Basque soccer event, we were already looking at the USL. When they did the soccer friendly (the Basque match), that caught our group’s attention.”

After drawing 22,000 fans, the Basque Soccer Friendly in 2015 drew serious interest from the Boise Hawks owners and United Soccer League to bring professional soccer to Boise. Photo courtesy of Wide Eye Productions.

After drawing 22,000 fans, the Basque Soccer Friendly in 2015 drew serious interest from the Boise Hawks owners and United Soccer League to bring professional soccer to Boise. Photo courtesy of Wide Eye Productions.

Portland and Seattle are Major League Soccer cities that pioneered European-style, boisterous soccer passion in the U.S.

“Soccer is like a counter-culture movement in the Northwest,” Eiseman said.

Late last year, Agon Sports submitted an application, a business plan and a stadium plan to USL to bring a team to Boise. USL evaluated the plans.

“We feel very good about those components,” Edwards said. “We like the ownership group. Agon is an impressive group.”

Bill Taylor

Bill Taylor

One of the faces behind the push for professional soccer

Bill Taylor, a Boise neuroradiologist, has been the public face of bringing professional soccer to Boise as president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association.

Taylor has been talking to USL for a couple of years, and when the city of Boise and the Basque community were negotiating to bring the Basque Athletic Club from Spain’s top soccer league to Boise, they turned to Taylor to find an opponent.

“The goal is to have a team here by 2019,” Taylor said. “To do that you need to have a stadium under construction by January.”

Taylor said he started with trying to get the Seattle Sounders, Real Salt Lake or Portland Timbers, adding that the Major League Soccer season conflicted with a July visit to Boise.

Idaho natives Blake Bodily (left) and Terrell Lowe, Idaho's first recruits to the Portland Timbers T2 soccer team, with Bill Taylor, who organized the Timbers T2 game in Meridian in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bill Taylor.

Idaho natives Blake Bodily (left) and Terrell Lowe, Idaho’s first recruits to the Portland Timbers T2 soccer team, with Bill Taylor, who organized the Timbers T2 game in Meridian in 2016. Photo courtesy of Bill Taylor.

He then looked at the Mexican League and brought Club Tijuana to Boise, drawing 22,000 to Albertsons Stadium at Boise State University.

“That woke everybody up,” Taylor said. “The next year I approached (Portland Timbers General Manager) Gavin Wilkinson and told him what we need for a greater plan, we need a USL game. We put a real product down and had real results and people paid $20 for a ticket. That convinced the Hawks.”

Boise FC takes the field in national amateur soccer league

Boise FC's Brian Buckingham in action in a pre-season game in Pasco, Wash. Photo courtesy of Hector Palacios.

Boise FC’s Brian Buckingham in action in a pre-season game in Pasco, Wash. Photo courtesy of Hector Palacios.

As Boise awaits a potential downtown stadium and a higher-level pro soccer team, soccer fans in the know can start taking in Boise’s first national soccer league team.

Boise FC Cutthroats plays its first home game April 1 at 5 p.m. against Real San Jose from California at the Boise State University Lincoln Recreational Field near the Lincoln Avenue Garage and Student Union. The team is scheduled to play 16 home games into December.

Boise FC joins Magic Valley FC in Twin Falls, which played its first season last year in the United Premier Soccer League, an amateur league with 70 teams that competes in eight states. The league has seven conferences, with each conference designed so teams are relatively close to each other, UPSL Commissioner Yan Skwara said.

Boise FC and Magic Valley FC, for now, are in the Northwest Conference composed of northern California and Reno teams, but Skwara is aiming to create a new conference with Idaho, northern Utah and possibly Oregon and Washington.

Hector Palacios

Hector Palacios

With a first-year budget of about $60,000, the team is bankrolled by its president and co-founder Hector Palacios, owner of Ultimate Linings of Idaho, a Boise auto accessory retailer.

Boise FC’s co-founders are Alyssa Buffi, Hector Coronado, Emmett Demirelli, Hector Palacios and Emerson Peredo, who is also the team coach.

Boise FC evolved from a local traveling soccer team that Palacios established about three years ago and took to places like Seattle and the World Soccer 5s tournament in Las Vegas. About 80 percent of Boise FC’s roster is students from Northwest Nazarene University, College of Idaho and Treasure Valley Community College, Palacios said.

“We just got to a point where everybody was saying, ‘We wish we were in a league playing all the time,’” Palacios said.

He researched several lower-lever player development soccer leagues and came upon United Premier Soccer League, based in Los Angeles.

Boise FC's Jacob Szuch (black/white jersey) battling in front of the goal in pre-season action in Pasco, Wash. Photo courtesy of Hector Palacios.

Boise FC’s Jacob Szuch (black/white jersey) battling in front of the goal in pre-season action in Pasco, Wash. Photo courtesy of Hector Palacios.

“They had teams from anywhere,” said Palacios. “It was so cheap for us to get in.”

UPSL does not charge franchise fees, Skwara said.

“We’re thrilled that Boise FC has extended a hand to the UPSL as it creates a first for the Boise market,” Skwara said. “In turn, we see tremendous potential in Boise FC and very much support their efforts to bring a home-grown product to Idaho.”

Palacios estimates each away game will cost about $2,000 to lease vans and for accommodations. Home games will cost about $500 a game, mostly to rent the field.

UPSL was established in Los Angeles in 2011 with 10 southern California teams to provide a competitive professional development league for players seeking to play at a higher level. The league has 63 active teams in California, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho and Colorado with teams so far announced for 2018 in New York, New Jersey and North Carolina in new Northeast, Southeast and Midwest conferences.

Skwara said UPSL teams typically have a life of about three to five years, as they are all locally funded, and typically operate on annual budgets ranging from $25,000 to $100,000.

“We advise teams to go slow and steady and get your market built,” Skwara said. “On and off the field, (Magic Valley FC in Twin Falls) did very well. We were impressed with their commitment to get to season two.”

In the early years, UPSL recruited teams, but Skwara said he now routinely fields calls from soccer organizers wanting to join the league. He is talking to a couple of teams in northern Utah, and a couple of teams in Oregon are “kicking the tires,” he said.

Jeff Eiseman and Bill Taylor, who are trying to land a second division professional soccer team in Boise, both see a role for Boise FC even as they seek a United Soccer League team for Boise.

“I don’t think it gets in the way,” said Eiseman, president of Agon Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Boise Hawks baseball team and wants to build a downtown stadium for baseball and a United Soccer League team. “There are potential opportunities where we could do things together.”

Taylor, president of Idaho Youth Soccer Association, noted that Boise State University does not have a men’s soccer team. Boise FC could fill that void.

“This would be as close to a college Division I team,” Taylor said. “it’s a lower-level team. It will provide more soccer opportunities for kids. I could dovetail into supporting a USL team.”

About Teya Vitu

Teya Vitu is an Idaho Business Review reporter, covering commercial real estate, construction, transportation and whatever else may intrigue him in the moment. Join me on Twitter at @IBR_TeyaVitu.

2 comments

  1. Karleen Andresen

    ERROR: You listed Brian Buckingham in the photo, and it’s actually DJ Savage heading the soccer ball.

  2. Congrats to Bill Taylor and Hector Palacios for never quitting on their dreams and finding ways to succeed despite the odds in the small market.
    I am cheering for them to make the dream of Pro-Soccer in Boise a reality in the near future.
    Yours in soccer… Ed Gracanin