AUSTIN (KXAN) — After lots of hurdles and anticipation, Major League Soccer has announced it will establish Austin FC as an MLS franchise in Austin.
“This is such an exciting day, it is Austin’s first, professional, major league sports team,” said Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer to a crowd of cheering supporters in Austin Tuesday.
“We can’t be more excited to be in one of the coolest, most creative, most vibrant and most passionate cities in the U.S.,” Garber continued.
Excited future fans and community VIPs met at the Rustic Tap bar on West 6th, cheering and chanting in anticipation.
Austin FC’s future had already been solidified by an agreement between city leaders and Precourt Sports Ventures who owns the team back in December.
But prior to that, the team’s fate had been through months of negotiations, heated meetings, and disputes that extended into Texas and all the way to Ohio.
“Like everything that’s worth having in life, our journey to Austin wasn’t linear and it certainly wasn’t all that easy, as all of you know this was certainly the most complicated project in our league’s history,” Garber continued. “And it took the work of so many people who cared about sports, who cared about the city and who cared about building something great for our country.”
Garber gave a shout out to Austin Anthem, the group of Austin supporters who have been rallying to bring MLS to Austin for five years. He said that group is now more than a thousand strong.
Austin FC CEO and Chairman, Anthony Precourt of Precourt Sports Ventures, thanked Garber for helping all parties, “to come to a very happy outcome for Austin and for our league and for Columbus.”
Precourt was the previous owner of the Columbus Crew MLS team and early on in the process it seemed he might uproot the Ohio team to Austin. But after Ohio leaders opposed the move and the owner of the Cleveland Browns officially bought out the Crew in late 2018, the MLS chose to grant Austin it’s own team.
Precourt has promised to be a “good corporate citizen” to the Austin community and announced Tuesday that the team would immediately begin underwriting 30 youth soccer camp registrations for boys and girls, to fund 30 youth scholarships, and to launch a soccer foundation with a local advisory board.
“We’re big fans of MLS as well as Austin FC and we’re really excited to see what they bring to the area,” said Chris Glynn, who traveled up from Killeen to be at the announcement. He plays on a semi-professional soccer team there which is two tiers below Major League Soccer.
He and his friends have already put the Austin Bold Soccer team games on their calendars, they plan to put the Austin FC game schedule on their calendars too.
“A lot of major cities have their football, they have their basketball, but soccer is always that growing sport,” Glynn said. “It’s really great to see our capital city in the state of Texas to get another team, especially in Austin.”
“I’ve not seen another city do such a good job of integrating such a multicultural fan base into one entity,” said Joel Ducey who attended the announcement as well. Ducey works at a soccer store and he is excited to see more of the soccer communities between Austin and San Antonio blend together.
The crowd Tuesday was clearly invested in city politics, they chanted for city council members by name and even one of their new chants (“7-Foooour, 7 -Foooour/ It’s not the score, it was the vote that got us all our brand new home,”) references the vote by which city council approved the deal with Precourt Sports Ventures.
The message: these fans are following what’s going on at city hall.
Austin Mayor Steve Adller was glowing to see this day come to fruition, he held onto a signed soccer ball from Commissioner Garber calling him “the best Mayor in America.”
“He probably says that to all the Mayors,” Adler laughed.
Austin’s mayor said he was happy to see a diverse group of people at the announcement Tuesday.
“This [team] is something that has the potential to bring together all parts of this community in ways that don’t happen as much as it should,” Adler said.
The mayor explained that while the city was negotiating through the lease at McKalla Place, he was “pretty sure” that Austin would be awarded an MLS team.
“I was talking to the commissioner while that was happening, and while he couldn’t speak for the league at that point and we had to go through the process, I felt pretty sure we would be where we are today,” Adler said.
He acknowledged that many of the speakers at Tuesday’s announcement mentioned how many meetings and community discussions the city wanted to have before they were comfortable with a deal.
“I would say the amount of meetings and public engagement we had I’m sure surprised everybody who is not from Austin,” Adler said. “But that’s one for the reasons why I love that place, it’s part of who we are, that level of civic engagement unmatched by any city in the country.”
“If we’re going to preserve what’s special about this city we’re going to have to do big things,” he said.
Leading up to the Announcement
On Dec. 19, the city of Austin and Precourt Sports Ventures, LLC. announced an agreement for a 20,000 seat stadium to be built on a city-owned 24-acre parcel of land located at 10414 McKalla Place. The groundbreaking for the new stadium is expected to happen in 2019 with hopes to open it officially by 2021.
Under this agreement, if by March 1 Major League Soccer does not officially give Austin a soccer team, the deal could be scrapped. This MLS announcement falls well within that timeline.
Under this agreement, the stadium will be entirely funded by PSV, and noted that this deal would result in no new or higher taxes for Austinites and $550,000 annual rent payments to the city of Austin for the duration of the lease
Precourt Sports Ventures is now in the process of going through the city’s permitting department to plan out the stadium.
On Jan. 3, Austin FC announced that Andy Loughnane, who was previously the president of the Columbus Crew MLS team, would be the president of Austin’s soccer club.
On Dec. 28, Major League Soccer announced that the Columbus Crew team would stay in Ohio after being bought out by two families (including one who owns the Cleveland Browns). This move came with the dismissal of a Columbus and State of Ohio lawsuit against PSV.
“We are pleased with the lawsuit dismissal and the outcome that will ensure Major League Soccer teams in both Austin and Columbus,” said Anthony Precourt, CEO of Precourt Sports said at that time in a statement within an MLS press release.
One-on-one interview with Austin Mayor Steve Adler
What happens next for Austin FC
“To open on time for the 2021 season, we’ll need to break ground this September, so we’ll go through a process with city council now on zoning and permitting for the stadium,” Anthony Precourt said.
He explained that Precourt has nearly finalized their stadium renderings and have their finances in place to start building.
Precourt expects that Austin FC will grow to around 125 employees.
“So we’ll be hiring over a hundred employees from the Austin and the Central Texas region in the coming months so you know we’ve got a lot of work to do to build a culture and a club to make the city proud,” he said.
And of course, Precourt noted, Austin FC still needs to build up a fan base.
“We have to inspire them, we have to bring them into our tent, our vision,” he said, “building world-class soccer infrastructure with the training facility and the stadium, and making it family friendly and hiring people who inspire the city and doing good in the city.”
Mayor Adler explained that Austin FC will now have to go through the city’s development and permitting process just live anyone else building in the city.
“I think it will be pretty clean and go through pretty quickly, I anticipated these folks will be turning dirt in early fall,” he said.
McKalla Place, he noted is in an area served by public transit and the CapMetro Red Line.
“The team agreed to spend about two million dollars to improve transit accessibility in that area, but I imagine that there will be parking lots that will be opened up for people to drive to within walking distance of the stadium,” Adler said.
Earlier this month, a group called “Friends of McKalla Place” delivered signatures they’d collected to Austin’s City Clerk in support of an ordinance aimed at challenging the MLS stadium deal.
Friends of McKalla Place said they have collected 29,000 signatures, more than the required amount to bring something to a city vote, but the city is still counting those signatures.
Specifically, this ordinance is worded as an “initiative [that would require] any sale, lease conveyance, mortgage or alienation of City-owned land for a sports facility, sports arena, and/or concert stadium” to be approved by voters before giving a private, for-profit business tax free use of public land.”
The ordinance would also require a super majority of Austin City Council members in addition to voter approval for any deal of this sort.
The signature drive was made possible by two local Political Action Committees: IndyAustin and Fair Play Austin.
Circuit of the Americas (COTA) chairman Bobby Epstein is a known opponent of this MLS stadium deal as well as the funder for the Fair Play Austin PAC. Epstein is constructing a United Soccer League stadium at COTA with games set to start in 2019. He withdrew his funding from Indy Austin in October of 2018 after Indy Austin made a video showing an image of Pepe the Frog (an Anti-Defamation League-recognized hate symbol).
Indy Austin, who was also behind the petition effort that fueled Prop J which did not pass on Austin’s November ballot, had been gathering signatures for this new ordinance. Epstein’s new PAC, Fair Play Austin, paid canvassers to gather signatures in support of the same ordinance.
Francoise Luca, with Friends of McKalla Place, explained Tuesday that the MLS announcement does impact their petition efforts. She said that either the city of Austin or Major League Soccer may face lawsuits as a result of this team and stadium moving forward.
“The stadium deal is bad for Austin,” she said.
Luca expressed concern that the deal would cause the city to miss out on tax revenue dollars.
“We lose the opportunity to build a transit-oriented affordable housing development and neighborhood park,” she added, referring to McKalla Place.
“Friends of McKalla has nothing to do with soccer at all it has to do is with the city giving large subsidies to wealthy individuals, and in this case, at the expense of the neighborhoods,” said Craig Nazor who lives in Gracy Woods neighborhood near the stadium.
Nazor also expressed concern that the stadium will be located near the headwaters of Little Walnut Creek, he wants to know that the environmental impacts will be of building this stadium.
The city of Austin said that the process of counting the signatures on the petition will likely take several more weeks. A city spokesperson added that the November election is the first election this petition could potentially be on the ballot for, citing a city rule which says special elections on initiatives can’t happen more frequently than once every six months.
“And from what I heard — I am not a lawyer — from what I heard, that depends on how you interpret what a law actually says, so that leaves it open to some kind of legal action,” said Craig Nazor.
Mayor Adler, however, does not think this petition will jeopardize the MLS deal.
“I would suspect the stadium’s going to be under construction before the vote could happen, but even if it wasn’t this has progressed to the point where the petition can’t undo it,” Adler said.
“I am concerned about the petition, if it gets on the ballot, it would impact our ability, not just sports venues, but arts venues, it could stop an amphitheater in a public park,” he said.
“Quite frankly, this [petition] was put up by the same do-nothing status quo voices you hear in Austin from time to time, that are not really letting the city change in order to preserve what is special about the city,” Adler said.
“If it makes it on to the ballot I will be working against it just because it’s the wrong thing for us to do,” he said.