Taking Austin's temperature for MLS: A reluctant optimism as Crew SC's future hangs in the balance

Columbus? Austin? Neither? Phil West speaks with Austin locals about their feelings regarding the Crew SC relocation saga.

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Last Thursday, the World Cup’s opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia brought close to 250 Austin soccer fans out for a viewing party in the public space adjoining City Hall. Many wore jerseys revealing wide-ranging allegiances, including Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, Bayern Munich, and even Tanzania. One wore a Russian fur cap despite the city’s oft-unforgiving summer sun, and another wheeled around a dog in a baby carrier, perhaps in keeping with the unofficial “Keep Austin Weird” motto that the city has adopted as part of its identity.

While they watched soccer in the late morning hours, amidst the tech-driven bustle of the largest American city without a major professional sports team, the Austin City Council met inside City Hall — with Austin’s soccer fortunes largely hinging on what they do next time they meet there, on June 28.

You have to actually live here for a while to realize that this city is also political to its core. ... If Jesus came to Austin offering eternal life, someone would demand a cost-benefit analysis.

- Lee Nichols, Austin advocate

At issue is a 24-acre tract of city-owned land known as McKalla Place, on which Precourt Sports Ventures, the investor-operator group running MLS’ Columbus Crew SC, wants to erect a stadium and public space. Earlier in June, in conjunction with a city-commissioned report stating that the stadium was a viable option for the site, PSV made its vision for the site public — predicated on the belief that Austin’s “demographics and psychographics,” as PSV President Dave Greeley puts it, will provide ample support for the team.

The City Council’s approval would allow PSV to move the franchise from Columbus to Austin in time for the 2019 season, making it the first such move for an MLS team since 2006, when the league’s first edition of the San Jose Earthquakes (originally the Clash) left the Bay Area to become the Houston Dynamo.

Austin citizens — as PSV has painfully learned from earlier public outcry over its stadium proposals for two separate park sites — can be suspicious of any corporate entity promising progress. Many of its neighborhood groups take on a NIMBY (not in my backyard) stance if a proposed development threatens to bring noise, traffic, or, indeed, any change at all.

Even as Austin Mayor Steve Adler and at least two City Council members have publicly hinted at support for the PSV plan, a group of four Council members are proposing the site be opened to a bidding process to include private developers — a scenario that Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo expressly discouraged as the city government began its recent assessment of the site.

“Austin is easy to fall in love with, as [PSV CEO Anthony] Precourt clearly did,” says Lee Nichols, a former political reporter at the Austin Chronicle, and one of the city’s most visible Tottenham Hotspur fans, who now does advocacy work at the State Capitol.

“You have to actually live here for a while to realize that this city is also political to its core. Any big proposal calling for substantive change — light rail, urban redevelopment, building a stadium — is going to get picked apart, scrutinized up and down and analyzed to death. If Jesus came to Austin offering eternal life, someone would demand a cost-benefit analysis.”

The PSV report notes that while Austin would be one of the smallest MLS markets, it would also be one of the fastest-growing markets. A 2015 Urban Institute study holds that the Austin metro area could jump to as many as 3.2 million people by 2030, and the more conservative projection of 2.6 million is still a nearly 47 percent increase — more than double Columbus’ projected percentage growth in the same time frame.

“It’s clear that Austin is very ripe for professional soccer,” Greeley says in looking at the survey date PSV has accumulated. “It’s the largest marketplace in America without pro sports. We’d have 2.1 million consumers all to ourselves.” He points in particular to an influx of new residents who “all love soccer and are looking for something to rally behind.”

Photo: Phil West

PSV’s report includes a survey of 3,645 people — mostly Austin residents who feel positively about MLS — with more than half having trekked to a match in the past three years. While Greeley acknowledges that the respondent numbers are more “fishing where the fish are” than a representative sample of all Austinites, the numbers give them reason to believe Austin has the baseline of potential season ticket buyers to help fill the planned 20,000-seat stadium PSV hopes to open in 2021.

When Josh Babetski came to Austin from New York City in 2013 — by way of Philadelphia, where he became a Union fan — he sought to create a directory of his new home’s soccer fans. By December of that year, he launched MLS in Austin as a 501(c)(3) — at first, for soccer supporters who wanted to show the world that Austin was a soccer market, but now, as potential beneficiaries of PSV’s decision to move the Crew SC.

Though Austin wasn’t one of the 12 expansion city candidates who applied to MLS by its January 31, 2017 deadline, Babetski still stayed hopeful Austin would get a team — publishing a Medium article three weeks after that deadline date, predicting that Austin would get a team, through relocation, via Columbus. He also posited the possibility that Spurs Sports & Entertainment, the ownership group behind the San Antonio bid, might be persuaded to anchor its MLS team in Austin rather than its existing, expandable San Antonio site.

Eight months later, Precourt revealed that he was indeed exploring a move to Austin. “I couldn’t believe that so much of what we had published was right,” Babetski notes of the announcement.

“We got a lot of flak,” he noted, “People said we were on the inside, as if this ownership group set up an astroturf supporters’ group in 2013 for the express purpose of playing the long game.”

Babetski says the proposed PSV move has bolstered MLS in Austin’s membership numbers; though he won’t share official numbers, he notes 30 percent growth in 2018 alone, with its Facebook group at more than 1,000 followers and its Twitter group at almost twice that. The announcement has also brought some unwelcome confusion their way. The PSV-launched, PR firm-driven #MLS2ATX campaign is separate from the supporters’ group’s ongoing efforts, but many — including critics in Columbus opposed to the move — have conflated the two.

The MLS in Austin effort isn’t the first attempt to rally the city’s soccer fans around growing the sport. The Free Beer Movement, created in 2009 by Dan Wiersema — best known to American soccer fans as the communications director for American Outlaws — proposed that each member take a friend to a bar to watch soccer, buy said friend a beer, and dispel misperceptions of soccer being boring in the process.

“Austin is certainly a vibrant community, but I think it has a complicated relationship with live, local soccer,” Wiersema says.

Two versions of Austin’s most recent pro soccer team, the Austin Aztex, met their demise earlier this decade. The 2008-2010 USL PDL edition, moved by owner Phil Rawlins to Orlando, eventually developed into the Orlando City SC franchise joining MLS in 2015. The 2012 edition of the Aztex, making its way to USL proper by 2015, went on hiatus at the end of that season, when a Memorial Day flood made its downtown high school stadium home unplayable, forcing its move to a suburban high school stadium that didn’t catch on with fans.

One owner from that second iteration, Bobby Epstein, is moving forward with a USL franchise based at the Circuit of the Americas complex in 2019, despite the awkwardness the unfolding MLS drama is creating for all involved.

Rendering provided

Wiersema notes that he’s hearing more support for what he terms “a full-fledged professional team” than another go at USL. He also notes that even though some Austinites might not be aware of the controversy PSV’s proposed move is generating, “It will be an interesting challenge for that team to explain where they came from.”

This year is proving challenging for a specific group of Austin soccer fans — the 400-strong chapter of the American Outlaws that was hoping for a more festive World Cup. “The fire marshal came out to our home bar during the last World Cup due to numbers, so we can certainly pack out the bar,” said AO Austin chapter president Liz Molleur. She notes, “We have many members who are interested in MLS and follow the league,” and she thinks a sizeable percentage of chapter members will band behind an Austin team.

Kit McConnico, host of “The Throw-In” — a weekly soccer radio show on The Horn, the flagship radio station for University of Texas football — thinks Austin is ready for MLS. “It’s what this city needs,” he says. “It would fit perfectly here. I have no doubt fans would support it. For so long, we’ve had our different pockets of soccer fans, be it European teams or Latin American teams. Bringing all those people under one banner, to support the team of the city they live in — I think that’s the ticket.”

Josh Jackson, an Austin soccer superfan by way of Stuttgart, Arkansas, currently at the World Cup in Russia, has publicly paraded his #MLS2ATX scarf in Houston and Manchester on soccer-centered vacations, talking up the possibility of a top-tier team in Austin, and playing pickup soccer wherever he can to help spread the word. “I like to connect people,” he smiles, adding, “Soccer really does the work for me; I just meet people, and everyone I talk to here about MLS says, ‘Dude, sign me up right now.’”

The fans who formed Eberly’s Army, the supporters’ group for both Aztex iterations, are still waiting to see how it will all play out. “We still have members who are fully for this, and others who have questions that they have yet to see answers for,” said president Matthew Gray. “We even have folks who were so put off by how the team could be acquired that they cannot get behind this.”

Yet, as he also notes, “We know that soccer in America is a business, which means if an owner thinks they can get greater value for their product elsewhere, they'll do that,” before asserting their bottom line is that “we support soccer in Austin as a mission, and nothing changes that.”

“I’m very uncomfortable with the prospect of another city’s team coming to this town,” Wiersema says, reflecting the “we didn’t ask for this” reaction that PSV’s relocation plans sparked for a number of Austin fans. “But we also want to prove that Austin can support professional soccer.”

MLS in Austin, optimistic that the City Council will vote to partner with PSV, wants to prove that as well. Babetski is eager for his group to move from the morass of city politics to the project of coalescing Austin soccer support. Should PSV be allowed to move forward (clearing the Austin City Council hurdle as well as a pending Ohio lawsuit), the group will look to fill — according to mockups from the Gensler architecture firm that created LAFC’s recently-opened stadium — a nearly 4,000-capacity safe-standing zone at one end of the stadium.

“I firmly believe that the PSV franchise will operate in Austin in 2019,” Babetski says. “And if they get delayed and slide into 2020, then we’ll just be really prepared when it does happen.”