Soccer, the beautiful game, has always been five years away from finding its audience in America. That was true in the 1970s, when the New York Cosmos brought Brazilian legend Pelé to the North American Soccer League. It was true in the 1990s, when the U.S. Men’s National Team made it to the round of sixteen in the U.S.-hosted World Cup. It was true in the aughts, when Major League Soccer began expanding to new cities and purpose-built stadiums across the country. And it’s true now, as the league’s highest-end franchise values have increased by almost 20 percent year over year since 2015. The trajectory of the game, as ever, points upward—yet, as ever, the present of soccer in America has yet to reach a point of cultural saturation. But leaders in Austin are clamoring to land the Ohio-based Columbus Crew and finally distinguish themselves with a professional sports team—even in a league less popular than the National Hockey League or Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The city has long been thirsty for a MLS team. The Austin Chronicle‘s publisher, Nick Barbaro, has been running a regular “Soccer Watch” column in the alt-weekly for years, and built enough momentum for the idea that a 2014 April Fool’s Day prank convinced a lot of residents, at least for a few hours, that a stadium was being placed in the middle of Lady Bird Lake. So when Crew owner Anthony Precourt suggested that he was interested in the move, the city immediately began exploring ways to make that happen.
It’s not uncommon, of course, for cities to try to poach pro sports teams from elsewhere. San Antonio has had its heart broken so often by owners looking to get better tax incentives on stadium deals in their hometowns that in 2015, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told the San Antonio Express-News that teams “are not honest with you, they lie.” But Austin is rarely in these conversations. A team that wants to manipulate the new city to play a leverage game with its current one, after all, can head down to San Antonio with its extra 500,000 people and get Wolff and Henry Cisneros to play the “Sure!” guy to their “How ’bout a nice Hawaiian Punch?” guy. Austin, meanwhile, hasn’t even been enough of a major player to get flirted with and then jilted.
Which made Precourt’s “Austin clause,” which contractually allowed the Crew owner to move his team to the Texas capital, flattering for a city that’s rarely been either bride or bridesmaid. It may be bad form to poach Columbus’s team, but all’s fair in love and sports, and if it steals the Crew away from Columbus, Austin’s not doing anything that Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Winnipeg, Oklahoma City, or Washington, DC hasn’t done in the past fifteen years.
But the prospect of putting a team in Austin has created local tensions about where the team would play. When the Crew’s ownership favored a location at a park near downtown, in a wealthy neighborhood near Zilker Park, residents rebelled. Austin City Councilmember Ann Kitchen introduced a draft resolution that would prohibit using public land for the stadium, and Precourt backed away from the location. That left East Austin’s Guerrero Park, in a less high-end part of the city, on the table, leading activists to protest with arguments about inequity between the two neighborhoods. Austin leaders are stirring up civic strife—all for MLS, the seventh most popular league in the country.
Soccer, certainly, is the most international of sports. It has a larger audience worldwide than any of the dominant American sports, and its fan demographics skew younger and less white than baseball or football. Those are good reasons to be interested in it, but the MLS in particular still struggles with attendance. More importantly, it struggles with profitability. Making money doesn’t come from selling 22,000 tickets per game for the cheapest seats in pro sports—it comes from sustaining television contracts, and it’s hard to sell those as the third most watched soccer league on television in the U.S. An average of 220,000 viewers watch the nationally-televised primetime MLS games, which is about half as many Americans as watch the Premier League on Saturday mornings, and fewer than watch the Mexican Liga MX. Without TV revenue, even if Austinites turn out to pack the eventual stadium, it’s hard to have much faith in the long-term health of Major League Soccer as a league. (And they won’t have the momentum of the 2018 World Cup, which the U.S. Men’s National Team didn’t even qualify for.)
So why does Austin want an MLS team so badly? They’ll have to steal it away from one of the league’s original markets, with one of its most dedicated fanbases; they’ll have to deal with the civic upheaval of building a stadium in a neighborhood that either doesn’t want it, or in a neighborhood the league doesn’t want to be in; they’ll be doing all of this for a team in a league that may not really be all that solvent. There may be twenty or thirty or even forty thousand future MLS fans living in and around Austin, but it’ll be a while before you walk up Guadalupe or down Sixth Street and see random strangers high-five each other because the Crew won, or sit on the bus and hear passengers get into heated discussions with each other on the merits of a given free agent. There’s nothing wrong with MLS coming to Austin, but it’s a niche product for a niche market.
Maybe getting MLS to Austin is more about the city than the league. The NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL aren’t coming around or building clauses into their contracts that favor the city. The local interest in the Columbus Crew, in that way, might be more about the city’s self-esteem than it is about soccer. Nobody in Austin believes that the city is going to land an NFL team. But for one of the fastest-growing cities in the country, and the largest in the U.S. without a pro sports team, soccer might just fit.