How would Austin feel about taking Columbus' MLS team? It's complicated
AUSTIN, Texas -- Matthew Gray still remembers what it was like in late October 2010, when the news leaked that the Austin Aztex were planning a move to Orlando, Florida. Gray headed up Chantico's Army -- later renamed Eberly's Army -- the biggest Aztex supporters' group during their brief two-year tenure in USL Pro.
He scrambled to rally Aztex fans, but in the end it was a lost cause. Days later the Aztex left town, bound for central Florida, where the promise of a possible MLS future awaited.
Five years later, there was a disappointment all over again when the second version of the Aztex, established in 2012 as a Premier Development League team and later a USL team in 2015, had suspended operations.
So when Gray woke up last Tuesday morning and saw the news of Columbus Crew SC exploring the possibility of relocating to Austin, his first thought was with the fans in Columbus.
"It brought back the emotions of October 2010 and also October 2015," Gray says. "My immediate reaction was, 'What about the Columbus fans?' I really wanted Austin to get an MLS team someday, but not in this way. It feels dirty. My mind knows this is a business, but my heart wonders if [Crew owner] Anthony Precourt is really an owner I want to support."
But people like Gray are in the minority. Most Austinites have no clue that a USL-based team existed at one time and that its fans were crushed when it relocated to Orlando. They don't know the long, storied history of the Crew in MLS, Columbus' important role in U.S. Soccer lore and how it was the first city to have a soccer-specific stadium in the league.
For the past week this unexpected news has been on the lips of residents in the Texan capital, who routinely rank high in World Cup viewership. The topic of soccer is not something one usually hears at tailgates before a University of Texas football game, but before last Saturday's game against Oklahoma State, many a conversation was had about the Crew potentially coming to town.
Outside of a few snarky "I wish a pro team from a real sport would come instead" comments, Austinites far and wide are excited about the prospect of MLS in Austin, and why wouldn't they be? A team could soon be dropped in their lap.
As coldhearted as it sounds, Austin would welcome the team without giving a second thought to Columbus' predicament. American sports teams move all the time. What's the difference?
But it's one thing to welcome and quite another to support.
There are many things to consider. First, Precourt has correctly assumed that no public money would be used to construct a new stadium. That's just not going to happen. So everything is all rosy, considering it'll be privately built, right? Hardly. While public dollars may not be used to build a facility, it will be interesting to see if Precourt approaches the city about receiving tax breaks. In his favor, the City of Austin seems willing to talk about it.
"I can only speak for myself and not the entire Council, but at this time I don't think we'd commit to any incentives but we'd be open to discussion," said Austin City Council member Alison Alter. "We would want to see what they would come to the table with."
There is also the topic of the location of the stadium. A downtown stadium, while assuredly attractive, would be enormously expensive. Dreamers point to the space where the Austin American-Statesman is located, on the south shore of Lady Bird Lake opposite of downtown, but that 19-acre site would probably have a price tag north of $200 million.
There are a couple of options that fit Precourt's "urban core" objective. There is scuttlebutt of placing it at Guerrero Park, located on the east edge of Lady Bird Lake, but that would be subject to public approval as it is a city park. There is also the Mueller area in east Austin where the former airport was located and has been transformed into a growing neighborhood of family homes, bars and restaurants.
Both are areas that have become increasingly popular as Austin's population has surged 19 percent, adding a total of 330,000 residents since 2010. The numbers are staggering. A March 2017 report stated that Austin gained 159 residents per day in 2016, a trend that has likely continued into 2017. The area's economic forecasts are also positive, giving Precourt a desired demographic of a fan base in a city that has well more than 2 million residents.
Yet, despite all these positive indicators, there are many reasons to be skeptical, and no one knows that better than longtime Statesman sports columnist Kirk Bohls.
"Austin is the largest market in the country without a pro sports team, so there must be a reason for that, right?" Bolhs said. "This is a recreational town, this is a town that likes to be outdoors, that participates in sports, people spend time on the lake or listen to live music. I think MLS can work, the prospects of a pro franchise are tantalizing to outsiders, Precourt seems smitten with Austin, but when you peel back the layers, it's a lot more complicated."
That's the fear behind this potential move. It is likely that in years one, two and maybe even three that an Austin team would draw good crowds and people would come because of the novelty. But once the shine wears off, would the team still have the same support? Would an MLS team in Austin realistically be able to compete and draw 20,000 the same night of a Texas football game and the Austin City Limits Music Festival?
Those who have been around soccer in Austin for years all believe it can work, as long as it is done right, starting with the crucial aspect of marketing.
"Who is the primary fan base? The team will have to make the decision about who they are courting," says Kit McConnico, host of The Throw In on 104.9 The Horn. "Once the newness wears off, the big question is how they are going to draw."
There is also the question of how Austin would market to its Hispanic population. By 2020 the number of Hispanics in the city of Austin is forecasted to be almost on par with the Anglo population. Nobody expects the Mexican-Americans in Austin who support Chivas, America, Tigres or Monterrey to set aside their allegiances, but as long as the club treats the fans with respect and makes a concerted effort, there is a chance to make inroads.
"I think it is going to depend a lot on the marketing that the team uses toward the Hispanic community," says former local Univision and Telemundo sports anchor Jorge Iturralde. "They will need to try to have a star from [Mexican] football on the squad."
Another factor that has to be considered is the heat. In an interview with the Statesman, Precourt refutes the notion that heat could hamper attendance, pointing out that plenty of people go out to the bars on Sixth Street and Rainey Street during the summer.
That's overlooking the fact that many of those outdoor bars are stocked with cooling fans. Imagine a 7:30 game in late July when temperatures routinely hover between 100 and 105. Are fans really going to want to sit and bake in the sun for the first half? Judging by the attendances of FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo, two cities where it is equally as hot, Austin would suffer the same fate.
Taking all this into account, while it is exciting for Austin to be on the precipice of having its first major professional sports franchise, there needs to be a degree of caution. Precourt is drawn to Austin because of its strong high-tech business presence, its counter culture and its booming population, but in the end what could end up preventing the team from having success in Austin is what makes Austin such a great place to begin with.
The competition for eyeballs is going to come from people being engaged in their own activities: Austin's live music, Texas sports, summer Saturday boat parties on Lake Austin and Lake Travis, swimming at Barton Springs, Rainey Street and Sixth Street, Zilker Park and the hundreds of restaurants and food trucks that permeate the city.
What will happen then, in seven or eight years from now when the shine is worn off and a team with no major stars on it is submerged in mediocrity and attendance is lagging?
"Why wouldn't Precourt move the team again?" Gray asks. "Who's to say it can't happen to us?"
It could be like October 2010 all over again, but on a much bigger scale.
Arch Bell is based in Austin, Texas and covers CONCACAF for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @ArchBell .