How professional soccer could work in Boise
By MICHAEL LYCKLAMA
The latest proposal to bring a long-awaited baseball stadium to Downtown Boise has created plenty of buzz. But tucked into the proposal is an overlooked first for the Treasure Valley — the chance to bring professional soccer to the area.
Turning that stadium dream into reality took a step forward last week when the owners of the Boise Hawks agreed to terms with St. Luke’s on an 11-acre property. That deal is not final.
Plenty of questions remain to how professional soccer could work in the Treasure Valley. Here are answers to some of the most pressing questions:
Q: When could Boise expect to get a team?
The spring of 2019 is the aggressive goal, while 2020 is the conservative goal, said Jeff Eiseman, president of Agon Sports and Entertainment — owners of the Hawks — and Bill Taylor, president of the Idaho Youth Soccer Association.
Eiseman said negotiations to bring a minor league soccer team to Boise started before his group bought the Hawks in 2014.
"There is a counterculture movement going on in sports around soccer, and the heartbeat of that exists in the Northwest," Eiseman said. "I just feel it in my bones that Boise has got that in its DNA."
Q: Is there demand for soccer?
The past two summers have shown Boise has at least some interest in the world’s most popular sport.
The Basque Soccer Friendly, which pitted Spain’s Athletic Bilbao against Mexico’s Club Tijuana on a grass field at Albertsons Stadium, drew 21,948 fans two years ago. Last summer, a regular season United Soccer League match between the Portland Timbers 2 and the Swope Park Rangers drew 4,352 fans to Rocky Mountain High.
USL President Jake Edwards attended last year’s game and said the sellout crowd showed Boise’s potential for an expansion team.
"It was really encouraging to see," Edwards told the Idaho Statesman in June. "… We’ve had interest in Boise for a while now, and to have this crowd when neither is the local team, we feel pretty good about the market."
Taylor admits the Basque Soccer Friendly was a one-time event that drew casual fans. But he said a sellout crowd at a high school for two out-of-market USL teams shows the Treasure Valley has plenty of diehard soccer followers.
"We spent all of $200 in marketing, and we sold it out," Taylor said. "Over 4,300 people got in, but we had more than that wanting to get in. We had to turn them away."
Q: Isn’t Boise too small to support pro soccer?
The Treasure Valley would be one of the smaller markets in the USL. The league has teams in Los Angeles, greater New York and Toronto, but it also fields clubs in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Charleston, South Carolina.
The Treasure Valley’s metropolitan population (664,422) is higher than two of the USL’s current markets: Reno, Nevada (425,417) and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (560,849).
Attendance varies wildly in the USL. Expansion club FC Cincinnati led the league last year with 17,296 fans a game, but 13 teams averaged fewer than 2,000, including league champ New York Red Bulls II (589). The league average attendance last year was 3,439.
The Hawks had an average of 3,094 tickets sold a game for 38 home dates last summer, and the Idaho Steelheads hockey team averaged 4,253 tickets sold for 36 games this winter.
USL clubs play 16 home games this season.
Q: What is the USL?
The United Soccer League began in 2011 and previously served as the third tier of professional soccer in the U.S. and Canada, behind MLS and the North American Soccer League. But with the financial struggles of NASL, the U.S. Soccer Federation granted both the USL and NASL second-tier status for one year.
What the future holds for both leagues is up in the air. The USL fields 30 teams this season to the NASL’s eight, and the USL has the backing of MLS.
MLS clubs own 10 USL teams and affiliate with 11 others to develop their players, similar to how minor league baseball operates. New England and first-year Minnesota United are the only MLS clubs without a USL partner.
Many USL teams use the name of their parent club — Portland Timbers 2, Seattle Sounders FC 2 or LA Galaxy II — and share stadium and training facilities with their MLS counterparts.
The league has exploded in recent years, adding 12 teams in 2015, six in 2016 and three in 2017. Two of the franchises founded in the past three years — Montreal and Austin, Texas — have since folded.
Q: Would the Portland Timbers be involved?
As of now, no.
Eiseman said he wouldn’t shut the door on a future MLS partner. But all plans are for an independent franchise with its own branding and to-be-determined mascot.
Q: How could a soccer and a baseball team share a stadium?
The differing dimensions of baseball and soccer fields might seem irreconcilable. But MLS’ NYCFC plays its home games at Yankee Stadium, and four USL clubs share their stadiums with minor league baseball teams.
In Reno; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the soccer club covers one side of the infield dirt with temporary sod and the field is angled to avoid the pitcher’s mound. But in Louisville, Kentucky, the field runs over a removable mound.
Boise would follow Louisville’s model, and Eiseman insists the club will use grass. He estimates the club would need to convert the field six to seven times a year, with the USL’s schedule spread from March to October. The Hawks’ baseball season runs from mid-June to early September.
"You’re not going to see a whole lot of basepath or infield," Eiseman said. "We don’t want soccer players running around kicking a ball on the infield and then back on the grass. We think that’s wonky."
Q: What is a removable mound?
At Louisville’s Slugger Field, they dug a hole 7 feet deep and 30 feet across and installed four motors to raise and lower the mound like a screw.
"It’s almost like jacking up your car," said Tom Nielsen, head groundskeeper for the Louisville Bats.
For soccer games, groundskeepers install foam pieces above the mound and cover it with a tarp. Sand weighs it down and levels the surface, then turf is installed over the top.
Nielsen said it takes only 10 minutes to raise or lower Louisville’s 14-ton clay mound. But the entire process of installing turf over the mound or resmoothing the edges of the mound for baseball takes three to five hours.
Q: How many could the stadium seat for soccer?
The stadium in Downtown Boise would feature 5,000 fixed seats for baseball, plus club areas and a 360-degree wraparound concourse. For soccer, it could hold 7,000 to 8,000, Eiseman said.
The field would run along the third-base line, allowing soccer fans to fully utilize those seats. The foam pads in the left-field wall would be removable to create a field-level club area. And if there’s enough demand, the club can install temporary bleachers in right-center field.
"I think we’ll be sold out, and then some," Taylor said. "We’ll have people clamoring for those tickets when they go on sale. I think we’re more of a 6-to-7,000-seat market than a 4-to-5,000 seat market. That’s my gut feeling."