Alright, Matthew McConaughey is here. He’s spotted the group in the canoe. And he’s walking your way.
“Y’all figure it out, yet?” he says.
You think to yourself.
“Oh man, it’s McConaughey.”
“Wait, figure what out?"
Before McConaughey became Austin FC’s minister of culture, he became the minister of culture for the University of Texas. Before he could become that he had to become McConaughey, a relentless force of Austinhood. He’s not everything about the city, but he's an embodiment of it. The only thing that might figuratively carry more weight in town is a literal 1800-pound longhorn named Bevo.
But McConaughey has a growing advantage. Austin has been rapidly shifting from a college town to a city with one of the fastest increasing populations in the country. So for the folks who love UT and soccer, the folks who don’t know much about UT and love soccer, and the folks who don’t know much about how much they love soccer and just need a professional sports team nearby, there’s Austin FC. Which, of course, means there’s McConaughey.
When McConaughey became a co-owner of the club in August 2019, he’d already been the minister of culture for UT athletics since January of that year. It only seemed natural that he’d take over the same role for Austin FC as well.
That raised some eyebrows for fans of the new club and around the league. Folks had questions: How personally invested could a star on the scale of a real-life Oscar winner possibly be, but also what does a minister of culture actually do?
Both questions have been answered emphatically by the man himself.
“For a team that’s going to be representing the city of Austin, I need to be there as someone who knows Austin really well, that the two are mirror images of each other," McConaughey said during MLS is Back Media Week. "The team, the product we put on the pitch and the fan experience in that stadium. My goal, as minister of culture, is trying to align [the two]. When you take a snapshot above Q2 Stadium on any given night that we play, you should be able to see in the crowd the diversity, creative colors and vibrancy of Austin, Texas.”
Alright, can you imagine living next to Matthew McConaughey? Even better, can you imagine everyone thinking you were Matthew McConaughey? Or at least that you occupied his house? Some people live like this. In a world both adjacent to and inescapable from McConaughey.
Theoretically, your day could begin with a knock on the door at 3 am. You’re not gonna get out of bed because you already know what it is. If you did get up, you’d struggle to find a light, struggle to find clothes, amble to the front door and open it just to see a gaggle of college kids waiting expectantly and then dejectedly as they realize you aren’t who they’ve been looking for.
“Is Matthew McConaughey here?” the most outgoing of them would ask. And you’d say “no,” “get off my property,” “please don’t urinate in the bushes” and all the other things you’d gotten used to saying to college kids leaving Austin bars in search of McConaughey with approximate but not definite knowledge of his location.
And so you’d go back to bed, or try to at least, and in the morning you’d get in your car, still annoyed, and looking for something calming to listen to on your drive into work. So you turn on the local NPR affiliate. As you’re driving the sound cuts out. Three horrifying beeps go off over the radio. Silence. A voice comes in. It’s immediately recognizable.
“This is a test of the capital area emergency alert system. We are testing equipment that can quickly warn you during emergencies. If this had been an actual emergency an official message would have followed the alert tone and McConaughey wouldn’t still be talking. This concludes this test of the capital area emergency alert system."
You get to work at the University of Texas and pass a few posters of McConaughey on the way in. You eventually have to leave for a meeting off-campus. You hop on the public transport of your choice. A voice comes over the speakers. It’s immediately recognizable. You can’t remember exactly what it says, but you tell your friends later that it says something like “Thanks for making the traffic in our great city just slightly better. Alright, alright, alright.” You swear the voice also mentioned something about bongos.
Later that day, you head to a faculty-wide Christmas party. After a bit of the normal small talk and bad appetizers that accompany these things, you hear a voice. One you’ve been hearing all day. You turn around and see a professor from the film department. McConaughey is here. Because why wouldn’t he be?
“He's exactly like that all the time,” Austin FC supporter Landon Cotham said. “And you don't get a sense that he's like putting on a show for you and he's acting. That's who Matthew McConaughey is. And it's pretty electric.”
In the same way that he’s shown up for UT, both as a faculty member at its film school and as the minister of culture, in the same way he appears everywhere in Austin, McConaughey has shown up for Austin FC over and over. While his passion for the game has been infused by his Brazilian wife and his knowledge further imbued by reconnaissance trips to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge and long talks with LAFC owner Will Ferrell, what really matters is that he's truly put in the work to influence the culture.
When Austin FC’s senior vice president of Marketing James Ruth got called in to interview for his current position, he knew he’d be talking with Austin FC president Andy Loughnane. He didn’t know until later that the minister of culture would be in the room, too.
“He’s actually talking to the lead marketing person that's coming in for the club. He's taken some real ownership over it and it’s really, really cool,” Ruth said. “The interview was great. I mean, we really kind of hit a cord together just in terms of excitement about the sport, confidence about the sport and what the team can mean in Austin.
“Matthew is the first to say, he's not a lifelong soccer fan. He didn't grow up with the game, like a lot of people that are fans of the sport now. But he gets it, you know? He gets those fundamental elements that make this game so interesting.”
McConaughey has taken his understanding of those elements and applied them to his work in helping shape the organization as a whole, and in interacting with a rapidly growing fan base that has already broken the MLS record for a season-ticket waitlist without playing a game.
“I don't think he's putting on any airs or anything like that. I think he just is this like hyper passionate guy who genuinely wants to be involved in the culture of the teams that he's passionate about," Austin FC supporter Natalie Czimskey said. "And so here he is, as minister of culture at Austin FC. And I think he genuinely takes it seriously. I think he's very concerned and takes it like a real job that he involved in."
Despite the enormous challenges of building a club during COVID-19, both pre and post-pandemic McConaughey has put in the work with enthusiasm. That enthusiasm is undeniable. Once you’re in his cone of focus, you’re trapped. And you’re there until he’s off to share his ideas about the team with someone else. He’s been at groundbreakings, supporters’ group events at Yeti stores with big canoes for people to sit in and, of course, in Zoom calls.
Alright, you’re logging onto another pandemic Zoom call. But this one is a bit different. You’re part one of the growing Austin FC supporters’ groups and you’re heading into a call that’s part business meeting, part Q&A and part pep rally.
You log in. Wait. Notice the other squares looking and waiting intently. And finally see a black square with white lettering in the middle appear. It says all it needs to for you to know you’re in for something entertaining. “McConaughey.”
Just as soon as the black square appears, it disappears to reveal the minister of culture himself, shirtless, free, Austin FC beanie on his head, living his best life and ready to proselytize from a pandemic-created pulpit.
Your spouse walks in ... pauses … ”Are...you on a Zoom call with Matthew McConaughey?” You say yes. They had something to ask but they nod and indicate that they know it can wait.
Because McConaughey is on a roll. Like he always seems to be. And is delivering a halfstump speech/half prophecy on the future of Austin FC and MLS. He calls this the beginning of a “hundred-year war” for the culture of the club and league. He says he wants people to chant "M-L-S" the way college football fans chant "S-E-C" for the sake of pride. He wants everyone to be as invested as he is and lays out a vision of the present and the future. All you can do is sit back and watch him go.
Through Zoom calls, meet and greets, and other MOC duties fulfilled, McConaughey has won over the die-hards. But they were going to be there anyway. In fact, they were going to be there in numbers.
Austin, as a soccer city, feels as if its sporting culture is somewhere verging on mutant hybrid of Portland and Atlanta. Portland, with its clear identity of arts and culture and weird paired with being one of just two professional teams in town, and Atlanta with a hive of transplants who were looking for a team in the city they could call their own. Austin FC will be the only professional game in town. And there is a healthy mix of Longhorns and folks who wouldn’t be caught in burnt orange if their life depended on it all eager to wear bright verde inside a stadium.
With the right investment, they were primed to bring in fans by the masses from the get go. They appear on track to do just that. And you may not believe it yet, but if they put together an atmosphere resembling Portlanta, they’re probably going to win you over. At least until they start annoying you. Even then, you may have to begrudgingly admit, it’s good to see yet another team in the league create an atmosphere that outdoes the large majority of sporting events across the country.
So, if the die-hards were always going to be there, where does the minister of culture fit in? Well, the plan for the MOC didn’t and still doesn’t involve Austin FC turning into McConaughey FC. McConaughey is not the spirit of the club or the city but a distilled creation of it. A byproduct of a culture that already existed that acts as an exclamation point for what the best of the club can be: Kinetic, optimistic, unceasingly inventive and undeniably genuine.
What that exclamation point does is turn the fringe fans into just another part of the fold. The casuals who may not have been paying attention otherwise can take notice that Matthew McConaughey is not just talking about the new team in town, but actively representing an atmosphere they’ve never been a part of before. And representing it with a confidence that’s contagious.
“He has something. A perspective that maybe is missing in American soccer, where he's all about confidence,” Ruth said. “He's all about saying we're not going to apologize for anybody or anything and say that we're not like a certain other team. Which, let's be honest with ourselves, North American soccer fans love to play the comparison game. He's come in and said, I don’t give a damn about any of that. I'm willing to be focused on what this club can be.
“And ultimately this isn't a five-year thing. This isn't a 10-year thing. This is a hundred-year project. A hundred-year war. So when we get started thinking about a hundred-year war, we think differently, right? That air of how you judge success and how you think about how you build this club, it becomes different. And he's tapped into something that innately really motivates American soccer fans. Which is, “What if I told you that you could be part of creating Real Madrid or Barcelona or Bayern or Liverpool or Spurs from day one?
Alright, you’re sitting in a canoe inside a Yeti store, which, my goodness what an Austin thing to be doing. It’s compounded by the fact you’re there for an Austin FC event, decked out in Austin FC merch. And then it becomes exponentially more than that.
Matthew McConaughey is here. He’s spotted the group in the canoe. And he’s walking your way.
Later, the event begins and he, of course, takes center stage. The gathered crowd launches into a chant. It’s got the melody of the classic “Ole” chant with a homespun twist. It’s been around since well before Austin FC had a minister of culture.
“Alright, alright, alright — Austin FC.”
McConaughey laughs, points and smiles. For the first time the fans have surprised him instead of the other way around.
And you think to yourself.
“Austin may just figure this out.”