Austin FC Weaves Way into City’s Culture

It’s been five years since a Sports Illustrated story broke the news that then-Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt was planning to move one of Major League Soccer’s original organizations to Austin, Texas if a downtown stadium soccer stadium could not be finalized in the next year. He made good on his promise, and in just its second season of existence, Austin FC is making its MLS Cup Playoffs debut in 2022.

After finishing 12th out of 13 teams in the Western Conference with 31 points in its inaugural campaign, Austin FC did a complete 180 to lock up the second seed this season with 56 points. Austin FC hosts Real Salt Lake at 3 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 16, for the first round of the playoffs at Q2 Stadium.

While Precourt eventually transferred the Crew’s operating rights to an Ohio-based ownership group that included Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam, he was still granted permission by the league to launch an Austin-based expansion side, and thus, Austin FC was born. The process was complicated and messy but emphasized the seemingly unquenchable thirst for soccer and professional sports in Austin as the club continues to honor those who helped make it a reality.

“Austin FC has felt the responsibility to give back to the people who paved the way for Austin FC to exist in the first place,” club president Andy Loughnane says. “We were created under unique circumstances that had not been seen before and probably will not be seen again. But throughout that process there were large groups of people, not all of whom were soccer fans or aficionados, who helped pave the way whether that was through grassroots activism or maybe even formal political activism. 

“There was a group of people who were able to help give birth to the team. If there’s a pressure, it’s the responsibility to give back to those people.” 

As the lone professional sports franchise in the Lone Star State’s capital, Austin FC has authentically weaved its way into the city’s culture and fabric based on the responsibility of honoring those who helped it come into existence: the people of Austin.

Rather than appearing as a foreign entity jostling for eyeballs, money, and attention, especially in a city without precedent set by other pro sports organizations, Austin FC has leveraged and embraced the capital and its communities.

“Austin is a city that has a strong identity but has so many cultural aspects that are important stories to share,” Loughnane says. “For us, we knew we wanted to be a soccer team but we also knew we wanted to be a connective tissue that united all of Austin under one roof. It was our mission from Day 1 to make certain that we were building a team that was representative of Austin. 

“I think in a very short period of time Austin FC has become a brand that represents Austin.”

One of the main drivers behind Austin FC’s appeal and success has been how the club has leveraged the city’s thriving music scene. 

Not only is Austin home to iconic musicians including Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Lucinda Williams, but “The Live Music Capital of the World” boasts more music venues per capita than any other city in the United States. Austin City Limits, the longest-running concert music program on American television, is recorded at ACL Live at The Moody Theater.

Austin FC enlisted Black Joe Lewis to help with its 2022 schedule unveiling, hosted Nelson and Magna Carda at Q2 Stadium, and teamed up with Grammy-nominated Black Pumas to raise funds for local independent music venues and record stores.

Clearly, it’s struck a positive chord in the community.

“Long before the gates opened, Austin FC was cultivating relationships with local artists and musicians, creating a space that would embrace the whole of Austin,” award-winning Latinx pop artist Gina Chavez says. “And then they put the mic in our hands. It was an honor to sing the National Anthem for Pride night the first season and I will never forget what it felt like to walk into a stadium roaring with 20,000 people and sing our nation’s hymn in a custom rainbow FC kit while trans and gay pride flags waved from the fan section. 

“As a queer Latine from Austin, I never imagined such a powerful experience. Austin FC is the real deal.”

Austin FC hasn’t just banded together with local musicians to spread the word about the club, it’s also teamed up with local brands and designers, including outdoor apparel company Howler Brothers and iconic skate shop No-Comply for small-batch collaborations.

Loughnane said Austin FC is working with the Austin City Limits Music Festival to launch a merchandise collab inside the famed Zilker Park during the festival taking place Oct. 7-16.

“In the same way soccer can transcend boundaries and bring people together under one roof, music can bring people together from all backgrounds and create this deep, soulful connection within Austin,” he says. “We’ve been granted the good fortune of building this team in Austin, Texas, one of the most soulful and culturally rich cities in the world. Our ability to develop meaningful connections to our audience through the power of music isn’t just natural because we’re in Austin, I think it’s a competitive advantage.”

Ticket sales, merchandise sales, social media engagement, and any other measured metric reinforces how Austin FC’s competitive advantage is resonating with its fanbase, not only locally but beyond Austin city limits.

Austin FC was the only MLS franchise to sell out 100% of its home matches in 2021 with an average attendance of 20,738, ranking fifth in the league. The club has had 34 straight sellouts since joining the league. This year, Austin FC is poised to remain atop MLS in merchandise sales and is in the top five in sponsorship sales backed by corporate partners including Q2, Yeti, SeatGeek, Adidas, Lexus, and Diageo. The club’s season ticket waitlist remains 20,000 strong.

Austin FC isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel whether it’s with in-stadium experience, marketing campaigns, or fan engagement. The club’s secret sauce is simply embracing the community that is quickly embracing it.

“As a creative, working with ATXFC is an absolute pleasure,” Austin artist Chris Rogers says. “Rather than attempting to convince the people of Austin to be a part of the soccer club, they sought to have Austin FC be a part of the people of Austin. The truest art speaks to the deepest components of what it means to be human, the very fabric that connects us. 

“Austin FC understands the notion fully, and, like the local art it platforms, it galvanizes, not just a particular cross-section of the city, but Austin as a whole.”

NOTE: First appeared on Boardroom

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