It was the opportunity of a lifetime. By stepping in as the first in-house lawyer at soccer club Austin FC, Eric Hagen would help launch a franchise and bring major league sports to Austin, Texas, for the first time.
“It was a job I couldn’t say no to,” Hagen says of his decision to leave equity partnership at a big law firm for an assignment loaded with uncertainty. “The chance to launch a professional sports team rarely comes along. I was all in.”
It’s a dream job for a sports fanatic. Hagen, who grew up in a small Iowa farm town and played multiple team sports, remembers piling into the family car to see the Minnesota Vikings. His family had Vikings season tickets since 1963. Experiencing live sports became an important ritual and a way to connect with friends and family.
College took Hagen to California, where he studied at Pepperdine University. There, he joined the lacrosse team and met Anthony Precourt, the future CEO and majority owner of Austin FC. The two quickly became friends, attended graduate school at Dartmouth, and kept in touch as they began their respective careers.
Following a federal judicial clerkship, Hagen focused on intellectual property and commercial disputes at Kirkland & Ellis in Los Angeles, where he eventually made partner and successfully second-chaired a US Supreme Court case. He later moved to McDermott Will & Emery, where he spent the next decade of his legal career, led the firm’s trade-secret practice, and found time to volunteer with a group of pro bono lawyers representing juvenile prisoners in Uganda.
Meanwhile, Precourt formed Precourt Sports Ventures to investigate ownership in a Major League Soccer (MLS) club. In late 2017, Precourt announced his intention to launch a team in Austin. Soon after, Hagen joined DLA Piper, a global firm with many MLS clubs in its large client roster where he got a crash course in “soccer law.” There he began to formally advise Precourt in laying the groundwork for the new club.
In 2018, Precourt Sports Ventures announced a deal to build a privately financed, state-of-the-art $260 million, 20,500-plus seat soccer-specific stadium in Austin. Precourt also brought in several local investors, including actor Matthew McConaughey as the club’s “Minister of Culture.” And in January 2019, MLS officially announced that Austin FC would become the league’s newest club and would start play in 2021.
Hagen shortly thereafter moved his family from Los Angeles to Austin and set up shop in DLA Piper’s Austin office. In October 2019, he joined the club full-time as its chief legal officer and set out to handle all the complicated legal aspects of building a stadium and training facility—all while signing players, hiring employees, engaging civic partners, attracting sponsors, negotiating TV rights, selling tickets, and creating a fan base.
Hagen and his colleagues quickly turned their attention to an important key to success: founding-level partnerships. “Community is everything in soccer. Getting the right partners is important because we want partners who connect with our community and resonate with our supporters,” Hagen explains.
Among the many iconic Austin brands that have partnered with the club are its jersey sponsor YETI, the naming-rights partner for its $45 million training facility St. David’s Healthcare, and its stadium-naming-rights partner Q2, a young and successful local fintech company. Q2 Stadium blends the best design features from the latest American soccer venues with special touches that connect with the city and that will help fans cope with the Texas summer heat, Hagen says, adding that Q2 Stadium will also host tournaments, concerts, and other public events.
Starting a new sports franchise in a major city is always a weighty endeavor, but the COVID-19 pandemic and an unprecedented ice storm made the effort especially challenging. “It’s been an interesting time to have a business model based on getting large groups of people together,” Hagen jokes. “But we persevered.”
While two expansion teams—Charlotte and St. Louis—tabled their launch plans, Austin FC kept going. It signed a talented head coach in Josh Wolf, signed top international and domestic players, built a top-ranked youth development academy (Hagen has a son who plays striker for Austin FC Academy), hired a well-known play-by-play commentator, sold out of season tickets several months in advance, and built a brand with widespread buzz.
Excitement is still brewing in anticipation of the home opener on June 19, 2021. Although Austin FC lost its first match against Los Angeles FC, Hagen considered it a win. While large groups of supporters gathered at watch parties back in Austin to celebrate the team’s long-awaited debut, many traveled to Banc of California stadium to see it live—including Hagen. As he entered the stadium, he looked up at the sky. A plane flying overhead carried a banner, paid for by devoted supporters, reading: “Vamos ATX. ¡Verde hasta la muerte!” (Bright verde is the club’s primary color.)
A week later in Denver, Hagen witnessed history when he saw Austin FC score its first goals in a comeback win over the Colorado Rapids. He and his front-office colleagues celebrated late into the evening with the hundreds of supporters who traveled from Austin.
Within hours, he was on a 6 a.m. flight back to Texas. There’s still much work to be done before the club hosts its home opener and the rest of its inaugural season.