The dangers of Austin: Why Precourt’s Crew move would be a huge gamble for Major League Soccer

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Locals are optimistic, but soccer has failed in Austin before. What makes MLS any different?

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Major League Soccer is casting its eye over a range of cities across the United States, and ample speculation simmers over the prospects of the 12 markets and would-be ownership groups that threw their hats into the ring by submitting official applications for the league’s next round of expansion.

Austin was not among that dozen, with the long-range ambitions of its soccer community hampered by a lack of wealthy backers, stadium plans or even a track record of lower-division success.

I had more traction with people in the U.K. and outside of Texas who wanted to invest in us than I did in Austin. Several people were telling me Austin was not the right marketplace.

- Phil Rawlins

Yet the River City finds itself skyrocketing towards the top of the heap with the bombshell that Crew SC is prepared to relocate there in a year’s time unless Columbus comes up with a plan to replace 19-year-old MAPFRE Stadium with a plusher, downtown facility.

Safe to say that the local footy heads are pumped.

“As someone who’s been on a team working towards this since late 2013, it’s pretty vindicating,” Josh Babetski, president of the Austin Chapter of the American Outlaws and a leading figure in fan-led efforts to bring MLS to town, told FourFourTwo. “It’s always been this mirage in the distance. Well, that mirage got a lot closer today.

“It’s a big soccer town, it’s a big soccer community. The sport is growing. Austin has all the demographics that are appealing to a league.”

Young, dense, hip, quirky and worldly, Texas’ capital city is a cultural and economic dynamo that has appealed to MLS, at least on paper, for quite some time. The reporting of multiple outlets this week suggests that Crew owner Anthony Precourt has had it in mind from the moment he bought the team in 2013, reportedly inserting an Austin-specific escape clause in the 10-year commitment to Columbus contained in his purchase documents.

Other links, like the Crew’s 2015 affiliate partnership with the now-shuttered USL side Austin Aztex and participation in the ATX Pro Challenge preseason tournament that year, might have looked random at the time, but in retrospect, they were clear signs of interest. Bebetski himself predicted this week’s developments way back in February, noting that the same consultants who worked with the Crew to analyze new stadium options in Columbus were also hired by MLS to evaluate Austin’s viability as a market for the league.

“It’s massive. But it’s fragmented, so it’s very hard to see,” said Babetski of the city’s soccer community, noting that Austin boasted the nation’s third-highest viewership ratings (measured by percentage of households, not cumulative audience) of English Premier League matches last season, behind only Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

“Austin really hasn’t had an opportunity to really harness and focus all that energy toward rallying around one brand, one entity, which is something we’ve struggled with as we try to raise awareness and build support.”

Temptations and dangers of Austin

So the River City has been a tempting target for some time, and it grows even more so as its population and economy continue to mushroom at explosive rates. It’s telling that global powerhouse FC Barcelona picked the market as the site of its third U.S. Escola (youth academy) last year.

But Austin has also been an elusive target, in terms of soccer. Just ask anyone involved with the repeated failed attempts to set up a sustainable lower-division club there. Soccadillos, Lone Stars, Posse, Aztex, Aztex mark II – Austin’s soccer past contains a litany of ill-fated efforts, occasionally leaving behind a trail of unpaid bills and jilted supporters.

Austin really hasn’t had an opportunity to really harness and focus all that energy toward rallying around one brand, one entity, which is something we’ve struggled with as we try to raise awareness and build support.

- Josh Babetski

In nearly every case, investors encountered steep costs, scant revenue, imperfect venues, modest crowds (at best) and a chronic lack of sporting oxygen in a environment dominated by the University of Texas and its well-funded NCAA teams.

Phil Rawlins’ Aztex probably gave it the best shot of any, competing in PDL in 2008, USL in 2009 and the stopgap USSF D-2 Pro League in 2010. But facing seven-figure annual losses and struggling to find additional local investors and sponsors, he and his group left for Orlando, Florida, where they were welcomed warmly, rebranding as Orlando City SC and eventually making their way into MLS.

“In our two years as a pro team, we won the Chamber of Commerce community relations award for our work in the community both years, and still we weren’t getting any traction,” laments Rawlins in “Defying Expectations,” a new book about his work with Orlando City. “People would listen to us, but nobody was willing to back us.

“I had more traction with people in the U.K. and outside of Texas who wanted to invest in us than I did in Austin,” he tells author Simon Veness, stating that he lost $1.6 million in the Aztex’s first year in USL. “Several people were telling me Austin was not the right marketplace. I pushed back and tried to sell them on why Austin was a good market, but what I heard back was unequivocal. It was not where they wanted to invest their money.”

Like other Austin clubs, the Aztex struggled to find sustainability at both House Park, a centrally-located high-school football stadium with an artificial turf and no alcohol sales allowed, and suburban venues with poor accessibility for the young downtown crowd. A local group resurrected the brand in the PDL after Rawlins & Co. decamped to Florida. But the reborn Aztex experienced heavy financial losses upon moving up to USL in 2015 and wound up homeless and on hiatus after House Park was damaged by severe flooding that May.

The complicated Austin landscape

Precourt and the Crew are also not alone in holding pro soccer ambitions for central Texas, potentially portending future complications.

Bobby Epstein, the wealthy founder of the $400 million Circuit of the Americas racetrack on Austin’s southeast outskirts, has been planning to launch a new USL team in 2019 at a new 5,000-capacity stadium on the track site and likely harbors long-term MLS interest. And an hour south, San Antonio FC and its owners, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, have methodically pursued an MLS expansion slot for years and would see their hopes crushed if the Crew move to Austin.

Multiple sources familiar with soccer in Austin told FFT there’s major potential in the market, but the team’s rollout -- and especially its venue --  simply have to be home runs. A distant spot like Circuit of the Americas is a non-starter, they said.

Babetski says it’s clear that Precourt and MLS want a situation similar to Portland’s or Seattle’s, with a stadium in or near the heart of the city’s urban core and accessible via multiple modes of transportation. Longtime Austin American-Statesman sports columnist Kirk Bohls cited Epstein as saying Precourt is eyeing Butler Shores at Town Lake Metro Park as a stadium site, a primo piece of publicly-owned downtown parkland on the shores of Lady Bird Lake and Barton Creek.

It would be a truly optimal location, on par with Providence Park or CenturyLink Field. But given Austin’s progressive and NIMBY-heavy political climate, it looks like a very tall order. Others believe Precourt could pursue the American-Statesman building, a lusted-after riverside plot in the shadow of downtown. But that site’s close proximity to the Congress Avenue Bridge, home of the city’s famous and beloved bat population, hints at major environmental roadblocks.

Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess where a team – which at least could count on UT’s soccer-specific Mike A. Myers Stadium as a decent enough temporary home – might aim. One thing is clear, though: Precourt & Co. will need substantial help from Mayor Steve Adler and other heavyweights in Austin’s rough-and-tumble political landscape.

“Based on what’s been laid out by Precourt Sports Ventures, their intention, this all falls in the hands of 12 people: the Austin City Council,” said Babetski. “While PSV isn’t necessarily asking for public money, they are going to need public support. There’s always zoning and infrastructure and things like that. So as long as we can get our city council behind this, this is a done deal. The land is available, the development’s available, and we have a lot of sports fans in local government, but they’ve been very clear in not really wanting to support any kind of public financing.”

Austin is a developing city, with some projections calling for the population to grow from two million to three million people over the next 10 years. The immediate future for the Crew franchise is volatile, but Precourt is certainly playing the long game.

“People can make arguments about the size of the TV market and things like that,” Babetski says, “but if you’re looking at the long game, Austin is growing exponentially faster than most markets its size.”

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