With under a year to go until their MLS expansion debut, Austin FC are cruising along, riding a wave generated by huge season-ticket demand, a steady stream of corporate partnerships and rapidly-advancing stadium and training facility construction projects.
The club had to work long and hard to complete the deal for their privately-financed, $260-million soccer-specific home at McKalla Place in North Austin, where ground was broken last fall. But overall progress in ATX has otherwise met or eclipsed their models and expectations.
“Austin, simply put, is the highest-potential market right now in major league sports,” president Andy Loughnane recently told MLSsoccer.com, noting Austin FC will be the only top-flight pro sports team in the rapidly-growing metropolis when the Verde take the field next season. “And Major League Soccer is the highest-potential league in North American sports. And the combination thereof is a powerful duo.”
In on-field terms, the new central Texas club brought aboard US soccer luminaries Josh Wolff and Claudio Reyna as their first-ever coach and sporting director, respectively. They’ve also recently hired Spaniard Manuel Junco as their chief scout, and stated they expect the on-field product to have a distinct Latino flavor in keeping with the area’s history, culture and demography.
Off it, Austin FC recently surpassed the 40,000 mark in seat deposits, and have sold out of all suites, field club and loge products available for sale. They’ve inked a jersey-sponsorship deal with locally-rooted outdoor products company YETI and expect to break ground in June on a $45 million training ground, dubbed the St. David’s Performance Center thanks to a major partnership with one of the region’s largest healthcare providers.
Club leaders see it all as a manifestation of the appetite for soccer that’s made Austin a top market in terms of television ratings — in both English and Spanish media — for World Cup, Women’s World Cup, MLS and other offerings.
“Austin is the fastest-growing market of the large cities in North America presently. And as we think about the makeup of our city — multicultural, millennial and tech-savvy — historically those are important successful ingredients inside of a successful Major League Soccer market,” Loughnane noted.
“There's so much pent-up demand. There's no other major-league team. There's a history of success when teams operate as the only major-league property inside of their respective market. And then the rapid growth and expansion of central Texas.”
An artist's rendering of Austin FC's future home | Courtesy of Austin FC
As for the task of luring those fans away from their couches and air conditioning and into a stadium in hot summer conditions? Austin FC’s home — designed by the same architect as LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium — will feature the second-largest roof canopy in MLS, slated to provide shade for nearly every seat in the 20,500-capacity facility, as well as a range of indoor/outdoor spaces that reflect the city’s traditional love of the outdoors.
“We have deliberately built in the ability for airflow to circulate throughout the stadium, to cool off, again, when there are some of the more warmer days of the year. The facility has been deliberately designed with circulation in mind,” noted Loughnane.
Loughnane is among a number of carryovers from Columbus Crew SC, ownership group Precourt Sports Ventures’ previous club, which has helped Austin FC hit the ground running. That’s helped lend a sense of optimism the team can be more of an Atlanta United or LAFC-type expansion story and avoid the hard knocks that befell FC Cincinnati, Minnesota United and many other MLS newcomers.
They’re also keen for their front office to reflect their market, emphasizing representation in their hires, which they say make them one of the most diverse organizations in North American professional sports. Over 50% of Austin's staff come from traditionally underrepresented groups.
‘We have some institutional knowledge that we were able to start with,” said Loughnane. “To our benefit, we have a significant amount of operational expertise ranging from commercial, whether that's sponsorship or ticketing, all the way to stadium operations, whether that's groundskeeper or facility management.
“It is an enormous advantage, we believe, to be able to start with a group that has been proven to be successful inside of the Major League Soccer environment … we've also layered on what we believe to be is a very strong, talented group that represents Austin.”