Austin, Texas, now you’re major league.
At a downtown ceremony Tuesday complete with confetti, champagne and plenty of bright verde (a color that should pair just fine with the University of Texas' burnt orange), Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber officially recognized Austin FC as the 27th team in the league. The franchise is set to begin play in the spring of 2021 at a privately financed, 20,000-seat stadium in North Austin.
The team will be majority owned by Anthony Precourt, but the California-based investor acknowledged during an exclusive interview with the Austin American-Statesman that he plans to announce local investors soon. Precourt was one of the presenters Tuesday at Rustic Tap on Sixth Street, along with Garber and Mayor Steve Adler.
“I’ve had very productive conversations over the last year, and we have very strong interest in a great lineup of local Austinites that will be part of this going forward,” Precourt said.
Indeed, Garber has hammered home in recent years that local ownership is a key for franchise success. Precourt said he has already bought a home downtown and plans to be heavily involved in day-to-day operations.
“If not for those plans, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” Garber told the Statesman. “The final ownership structure will be one that would satisfy our real strong desire and preference to have our clubs have local roots.”
After all, this will be Austin’s team. It is the first professional franchise for the city in any of the five major American sports leagues. While attendance for FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo has lagged behind other MLS clubs, the league is extremely bullish on Austin.
“Austin might be in Texas, but it certainly feels very different than any other city in the state,” Garber said.
“It’s always good to be first in anything you do,” he added. “I think our optimism about the success of this club is going to drive other leagues to start thinking about Austin. Because the city is growing so fast and has got such political and strategic importance to what’s going on in our economy and throughout our country.”
Fox Sports personality Alexi Lalas emceed the raucous event. He was greeted with chants of “alright, alright, alright, Austin FC.” Garber made things official with Adler and Precourt wearing team-branded scarves, and fans began chanting “queso fountain” when Precourt got up to say his part. “Absolutely,” Precourt replied. Add it to the stadium bill.
Adler declared that it was officially “Austin FC Day” in the Texas capital. He and City Council Member Kathie Tovo received praise from the commissioner and Precourt for their efforts leading City Council discussions starting in late 2017.
“It is one of my prouder moments,” Adler said. “You get elected to be mayor, and you have a real short time that you have to give to that position. You want to do big things. You want to do things that will fundamentally enhance and improve the quality of life. This is a big thing, and I’m proud to be part of it.”
In addition to Tuesday’s announcement, Austin FC officials began fulfilling their pledge for more than $36 million in community benefits. The team will host 10 annual youth soccer clinics for 500 participants, including 30 free registrations, and award scholarships to 30 girls and boys in Austin youth soccer clubs. Those were part of agreements with the city that Precourt Sports Ventures wasn’t obligated to begin fulfilling until the stadium opens in 2021.
Precourt also said the team hopes to launch its first academy team in 2019, possibly at the under-15 age group level. Former MLS player Tyson Wahl has been brought on as academy general manager.
“At the end of the day, this is not just about being a business,” Precourt said. “This is about being a community asset and being a unifying element for the city. Austin has so many amazing things going on culturally, and we think major league sports adds a unique element.”
Team officials hope to break ground at the stadium site by September and are finalizing plans that would allow construction to begin on a training facility at a yet-to-be-named private site. Some opposition to the stadium deal still remains — in the form of a petition filed with the city aimed at forcing a referendum — but the league isn’t worried.
“We have faith in the mayor, we have faith in the City Council, and we have faith in the work that Anthony (Precourt) is going to do early on with his community benefits agreement,” Garber said. “People here will see the value very quickly of having an MLS team. We’ll support any democratic process, but we’re here to stay.
“We can’t get distracted by the noise.”
Garber also said that part of Precourt’s commitment to Austin was in forfeiting his rights to operate Columbus Crew SC, the team he originally invested into in 2013. As part of that team staying in Ohio, a new ownership group led by Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam bought rights to the Columbus market. Garber wouldn’t disclose the financials behind the deal, but he said going dark for two years comes at a cost to Precourt.
Austin FC will have two years to build from scratch, starting with a portion of the front office Precourt had in Columbus. Andy Loughnane will lead the business operations as team president, along with 15 front-office staffers who were announced earlier this month.
The team will begin the process of evaluating general manager and coaching candidates later this year. Hires on the player side likely won’t begin until 2020.