Sports

How Austin FC Became Texas’s Most Popular Soccer Team—Before Ever Playing a Match

Sports fans in the capital city have long clamored for a pro team. Savvy marketing helped too.

Practice for La Murga de Austin, the Austin FC band, in the stadium parking lot on March 9.
Juan de Dios Tapia Perez at a practice for La Murga de Austin, the Austin FC supporters section band, on March 9. Tyler Schmitt/Los Verdes

Austin FC superfan Roma Desai is ready for game day. In her North Austin home near Q2 Stadium, more than a dozen jerseys, shirts, scarves, and hats hang in her closet—a montage of green and black that Desai is eager to don when the city’s new Major League Soccer team kicks off its first season next month. The crown jewel of her swag is undoubtedly her handmade sneakers emblazoned with Austin FC’s live oak logo. Using the rubber soles of Air Jordan 1s, sections of black and green leather, and the skills she learned in an online class, she constructed the shoes from scratch. 

A corporate attorney who grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Desai fell in love with soccer in high school during the 1999 Women’s World Cup. She recalls saving a poster of Brandi Chastain from a box of cereal and pinning it to her bedroom wall. Even for a soccer lover, Desai’s commitment to Austin FC runs impressively deep, considering that the team has yet to begin its inaugural season. But she’s in good company.

The club already has multiple supporter collectives, including Los Verdes, Austin Anthem, and La Murga, a band that will perform from the stands. Since January 2019, La Murga’s forty members have been meeting regularly to practice the songs they’ll belt out at matches. Rigo Rodriguez plays the surdo (a large bass drum) and was born in Reynosa, Mexico, where he grew up following Tigres, a Mexican professional team. (Like Rodriguez, many in Central Texas’ growing Latino population are already familiar with the world of pro soccer.) Now, Rodriguez lies awake at night thinking about Austin FC and wakes up brainstorming “song ideas or a new chant for a player that’s going to be a star.” He says being a part of La Murga is “like a second job, honestly.”

How does a team ignite such unwavering adoration before ever playing a match? The answer is an amalgam of market potential, shrewd advertising, and fan enthusiasm. 

First, the demographics just make sense. The eleventh-most populous city in the U.S. last year, Austin was also the largest city without a major league sports franchise. The metropolis also boasts one of the nation’s youngest populaces, with 52 percent of its citizens under age 35. That coincides with the fact that the MLS’s average viewer age is 40, the youngest among major sports, according to 2016 data reported by MarketWatch. 

prepping the Austin FC stadium
A worker paints lines on the field at Q2 Stadium. Austin FC will play away games until its home opener versus the San Jose Earthquakes on June 19. Courtesy Austin FC
Practice for La Murga de Austin, the Austin FC band, in the stadium parking lot on March 9.
Ray Castelo is a capo, or chant leader, for the spirit group La Murga de Austin. Tyler Schmitt/Los Verdes

“I know a lot of people who aren’t soccer fans but are very excited about this team,” says Landon Cotham, a local soccer aficionado who hosts the podcast Moontower Soccer. He describes young Texans as “soccer curious,” which he defines as “at least open to being interested in soccer.” It’s no coincidence that Austin FC built its approximately $250 million stadium adjacent to the upscale apartments, condos, and retail of the Domain shopping district. North Austin is teeming with thirty-something tech professionals who have expendable income and are in search of something new and exciting—the exact kind of newcomers Austin has seen arrive in droves over the past decade. These recent transplants are looking for ways to associate with the city, but have no allegiances to the de facto home team, the Longhorns. For a long time, “people assumed that the University of Texas took up too much of the sports oxygen in Austin,” says Cotham. However, the Texas capital’s growth has drastically altered that landscape.

Austin FC president Andy Loughnane is quick to note that “you need to have not just a healthy understanding of the relevance and influence of the university, but a healthy respect” when operating an adjacent sports franchise. Loughnane previously launched a major league team, the National Hockey League’s Columbus Blue Jackets, and later ran Columbus’s pro soccer team, the Crew. He likens the situation with Ohio State University to the current paradigm in Austin with the University of Texas. Loughnane says the success of the program hinges on building a positive relationship with the city, and he frequently cites a mantra that transcends sports: “Our brand is community.”

In keeping with that mindset, the club’s senior vice president of marketing, James Ruth, and his team have focused on Austin culture in their advertising strategy. Last October, the franchise ran a series of ads across billboards and magazine pages, in which iconic Austin personalities such as musician Shakey Graves, neon artist Evan Voyles, and embroidery artist Kathie Sever appeared alongside the club’s live oak crest. (The logo is an homage to the city’s oldest tree, the five-hundred-year-old Treaty Oak downtown.) Graves likely needs no introduction, though Texans may be less familiar with Voyles, whose work lights up numerous signs along South Congress, or Sever, whose chain-stitching company Fort Lonesome has clothed the likes of actor Ethan Hawke and musician Jenny Lewis. Rather than appealing directly to soccer fans or broadly to all Austinites, such niche advertisements were meant to reach specific yet varied community subsets.

The team followed a similar approach for the unveiling of its jersey in November. Dubbing it the “uniform for Austin,” Ruth says the club strove to “literally put the story of Austin on the jersey.” In short videos posted to social media channels, Austin FC’s black and green jersey appeared surrounded by paraphernalia related to a slate of renowned Austinites. One video shows the jersey adjacent to country music legend Willie Nelson’s red, white, and blue knit guitar strap and famously weathered guitar, Trigger, as a haze of smoke floats above the setting. Other videos featured the accoutrements of sushi chef Yoshi Okai, barbecue pitmaster Eliana Gutierrez, and muralist Chris Rogers. True to Austin’s spirited ethos, the campaign even briefly landed the marketing team in hot water with jersey sponsor Adidas, whose ad guidelines state that the jersey should not be affected in any way. Proposing to photograph the jersey with barbecue sauce, paint splatters, and a dead fish on it raised a few eyebrows, but Adidas ultimately warmed to the campaign and allowed it to proceed. 

Without other major league franchises to compete with, Ruth seized the opportunity to “create a club and identity that is synonymous with Austin.” Toward that end, Austin FC hired a local brand development firm, The Butler Bros, to design the live oak logo and the rest of the team’s visual identity. Yeti, headquartered in Austin, has the honor of its name in bold across the club’s jersey, a deal reportedly worth more than $4 million annually. The team has also partnered with popular local brands like H-E-B and Austin Eastciders. Local icon and University of Texas “minister of culture” Matthew McConaughey, an investor and part owner of the team, even appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to plug Austin FC’s “starting eleven players.” The segment highlighted a fantasy roster of some of the city’s biggest stars—Richard Linklater, Andy Roddick, and Gary Clark Jr. among them. “We’re planting a flag for Austin in the global game,” McConaughey tells Texas Monthly.

All of this was part of a deliberate, cohesive marketing strategy. Before ever assembling a team of soccer players, Austin FC encouraged fans to see the franchise as an extension of the city itself and everything people love about it. “It feels like a community; you have this shared bond,” says Desai of the energy created by so many new people forging Austin FC’s burgeoning fan base.

That excitement not only envelops die-hard soccer lovers but also general sports fans, like forty-year-old project manager Richard Kentopp. Though he’s never been much of a soccer fan before, Kentopp laments the turnover and inconsistent performance of collegiate teams. “I’ve always wanted a pro team in Austin—literally anything,” he says. Then there are fans who don’t even watch sports, like high school teacher Sam Groom, who lives adjacent to Q2 Stadium and envisions planning fun group outings with friends and colleagues. 

Judging from the club’s sold-out season tickets, record-breaking jersey sales, and stickers that seem to decorate half the cars in Austin, these fans are just a few of many. Demand for access to matches is already at a premium, with a $50 fee just to acquire a waitlist membership. That status grants discounts on merchandise and first access to single-game tickets as they become available. Fans are hoping such tickets might be attainable for the team’s home opener against the San Jose Earthquakes on June 19. (With the stadium still under construction, Austin FC will play away games for its first two months, starting with an April 17 match versus the Los Angeles Football Club.)

sign at the new Austin FC stadium showing their logo
The Austin FC logo pays homage to the Treaty Oak, the city’s oldest tree. Bryan C. Parker

In a way, the fervor around Austin FC is entirely logical—and how long it’ll last is an open question. The club has yet to prove that it is exceptional or that it’s terrible. It claims no wins and no losses. There are few team decisions or management missteps to criticize, a fact made more significant by the recent disappointment in virtually all other major Texas sports franchises: Dynamo FC and FC Dallas, as well as the Texans, Cowboys, Astros, Rangers, Spurs, Mavericks, and Stars. Other than the Astros, whose recent World Series championship was tarnished by scandal, the Spurs and Mavericks hold the state’s only other highest-level major league championships in the last decade. Of the other six teams, two haven’t won a top-tier major league championship title since before the turn of the millennium, and three have never won a top major league title. 

Texas soccer has been especially dismal in recent seasons, which heightens the possibility of fans defecting from other clubs to Austin FC. One of them is Chris Murphy, 52, who grew up in Dallas and now lives in Leander. For years, he had season tickets to FC Dallas matches; in 2005, he even got a tattoo of the club’s crest on his upper arm. But last week, he had the tattoo covered up with a brand-new Austin FC logo. “I decided I couldn’t not support the local team,” says Murphy, who plays recreational league soccer on weekends. 

Many of his fellow Austinites have joined him as fans, if not with quite the same fervor. For now, Austin FC is still a tabula rasa, a blank slate onto which Texans can project their hopes and dreams. Fans have a chance to be in on the ground floor as a team begins a journey. For the first time, a professional sports franchise from Austin will have intrastate rivalries with Houston and Dallas. And while Austin’s sports scene is still a long way from measuring up to those of powerhouses like New York and Los Angeles, at least now it’s in the conversation. There is something alluring about seeing the letters ATX on scoreboards against ATL or CHI. The outcome of these future matches remains to be seen, but for now, anything is possible.