As the Seattle Sounders FC have risen to a place of prominence among the city’s professional sports teams, the Major League Soccer team has done so with co-owners, investors and a dedicated fan base heavily rooted in the technology community.
A new minor league team in the city’s Ballard neighborhood is hoping to follow a similar path to success.
Ballard FC officially launched on Wednesday, announcing the formation of a neighborhood-based semi-pro soccer team that will begin play next summer in the USL League Two. The co-founders have roots in Ballard and in professional soccer, and some of the investors are tech professionals who have kick-started the operation with $195,000 in funding.
The team was created by Sam Zisette, a 2012 Ballard High School graduate who played soccer at the University of Puget Sound and professionally for the Tacoma Stars; Lamar Neagle, a Federal Way, Wash., native who played professionally for 10 years, including several with the Sounders; and Chris Kaimmer, a 2005 Ballard High grad who attended Yale and has worked extensively building soccer-focused startups.
Zisette told GeekWire he’d been kicking around the idea for a local team for about three years. He connected with Neagle, who he played with in Tacoma, and they started building out a plan, which was further galvanized when the business-savvy Kaimmer came on board.
Much like the Sounders have done, with a high-profile ownership group that includes, among others, longtime tech investor and entrepreneur Adrian Hanauer, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Ballard FC has attracted a coalition of like-minded backers.
“All of our our backing investors are huge lovers of soccer,” Zisette said. “And they share our same vision about soccer and community and why they’re a perfect partnership.”
Bryce Smith is among those investors.
The founder and CEO of Seattle-based startup LevelTen Energy has been involved with soccer for a long time.
“Back in the day before I was completely broken, I played in college,” said Smith, who played at Davidson College in North Carolina and has had six knee surgeries and six ankle surgeries over the years. “Sometimes you can love it too much. Now I can live vicariously through my local team.”
Smith is a board member for the Richmond (Va.) Kickers, a USL Level One franchise. He wants to bring some of that experience to a local team in a neighborhood that he loves.
Smith said Ballard has long been his favorite haunt, and recalled that when he moved to Seattle in the late 1990s, he’d spend “eight nights a week at the Tractor Tavern.”
Now he pictures fans and those associated with Ballard FC hanging at Reuben’s Brews, the team’s title sponsor, before or after a match across the Ballard Bridge at Interbay Stadium, a soccer-specific venue that is home to Seattle Pacific University teams and seats 1,000.
Other investors include Van Katzman, a startup advisor and investor; Andy Dale of Montlake Capital, LLC; Mike Myers of BlackFishLaw; Cameron Hewes of BMO Financial Group; and a number of others who are active in the Seattle startup and technology ecosystem, according to Smith.
Even as he’s worked to build a clean energy tech company that’s raised $62 million, Smith sees the value in building something at the local level.
“The technology that we build or invest in is supposed to break down walls or facilitate communication globally,” Smith said. “At the same time, everybody still craves community. And that’s obviously what this Ballard FC project is all about. It’s about building something we can be proud of in our own neighborhood and walk out our front door and go participate in.”
The chance to participate started right away on Wednesday as Ballard FC launched a website where soon-to-be fans can put down a $22 deposit on season tickets or shop for gear such as shirts and scarves. A launch party is scheduled for Dec. 9 at the Reuben’s Taproom in Ballard, where the team’s home jersey will be revealed.
The inaugural season will kick off in May 2022 with a team of unpaid players comprised of top collegiate athletes, ex-pros and rising young stars. The summer season will feature eight home games, and Ballard FC will travel to play its Northwest Division opponents, all located in Oregon.
Zisette, who has past experience working with the Sounders, called the MLS club a big inspiration for Ballard FC. They’ve had some informal communication and the Sounders have been extremely supportive.
The belief is that the same fans who have been attracted to the Sounders and what soccer has to offer in Seattle will find that connection at the local level in Ballard.
“I don’t think many of us could have imagined that the Sounders would have so much success so quickly, not just on the field but really off the field they’ve become part of the fabric of the whole community,” Smith said. “And I think the prospects for the community embracing Ballard FC are pretty similar.”
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