When Austin FC finished their debut 2021 Major League Soccer (MLS) season 12th out of the 13 teams in the Western Conference, their fans might have struggled to picture the expansion team being in the position it finds itself today.
With just ten regular season fixtures of the 2022 campaign to play, Austin FC are challenging at the right end of the table, just six points behind conference leaders LAFC and looking destined to secure a playoff berth in only their second season. Sebastián Driussi, the team’s Argentinian midfielder who will be among the MLS contingent taking on the best players from Liga MX in Wednesday’s All-Star Game at Allianz Field, is considered one of the favourites for league MVP and was recently joined at the club by compatriot Emiliano Rigoni.
Yet even when things weren’t going the team’s way on the pitch, there was a sense that the franchise was still trending in the right direction, with both fans and corporate partners buying into the direction that had been mapped out by the team’s ownership group, Two Oak Ventures, which is headed up by chairman Anthony Precourt and also includes Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey.
Indeed, Austin had been readying itself for its moment for some time. MLS’s decision in January 2019 to award an expansion team to the Texas capital ended the city’s wait for its first major league sports team. The region is home to the Texas Longhorns college sports programme and a number of minor league outfits, but its soccer team would present the first opportunity for the city to be showcased on a national stage. The local community had already had to be patient, so hanging on a little longer for success was never likely to be an issue.
One man to have witnessed the club’s evolution up close is Andy Loughnane, who joined in 2019 as the team’s president from the Columbus Crew, where he served in the same role during the time that Precourt owned that club. Today, Loughnane is responsible for all aspects of Austin FC’s business operations, spanning everything from sponsorships and ticketing to infrastructure, community engagement, and stadium operations.
While admitting that there have been some challenges along the way – “launching a major league property in a pandemic is not something that I would advise,” he says – Loughnane tells SportsPro that the launch of Austin FC has exceeded his “wildest expectations”.
“Austin FC’s success is a reflection of Austin itself and the desire that Austin has to see its identity reflected in a major league club,” he continues. “For a variety of factors in my estimation, our successful launch has been performed in a uniquely Austin way that has resonated well within our community, and certainly has provided a vehicle for community pride and community expression.”
As Loughnane says, the trajectory of Austin FC is very much in keeping with the market in which it resides, with Austin among the fastest-growing cities in the US. According to the country’s Census Bureau, the Texas capital’s population grew by 2.3 per cent between July 2020 and July 2021 to reach more than 2.3 million, placing it fourth in the US for population growth over that period.
That is a huge potential fanbase for Austin FC and Austin FC alone to target and engage with. The franchise is the only MLS club that is also the only major league property in its respective market, which Loughnane says “can be very meaningful”.
“Our population growth is essentially unrivalled as a large city,” he notes. “That growth can be helpful as we think about fan engagement, fan growth, and also when you think about corporate growth. Again, there’s a lot of companies moving – whether it’s their headquarters or large office presences – to Austin, and that can also certainly be helpful.”
Q2 Stadium has already hosted US men’s and women’s national team fixtures
A stadium for Austin
At the heart of Austin FC is Q2 Stadium, the club’s US$260 million, 20,000-seater soccer-specific home ground which hosted its first event in June 2021, when the US women’s national team beat Nigeria 2-0 in a friendly. Located in the north of the city close to The Domain area, which serves as Austin’s second downtown, the venue has since gone on to hold men’s national team games and more recently staged Premier Rugby Sevens’ championship weekend in addition to its first ever concert, headlined by Texas country music icon Willie Nelson.
Loughnane says the club has had its “fair share of opportunities” to host other events but has been “very selective”. After all, Q2 Stadium is first and foremost the home of Austin’s MLS team, which has played in front of capacity crowds ever since the venue opened. In fact, the club has sold out every home match since it joined the league and in 2021 boasted the fifth-highest average attendance in the competition.
That is perhaps testament to the franchise’s efforts to create a comfortable fan experience for its supporters in the searing Texas heat. Q2 Stadium is equipped with a large roof canopy that overhangs the seating area to provide some relief from the sun. There are also breathable mesh seats in some of the hottest parts of the venue and its open-air corners are designed to ensure there is a natural breeze throughout games.
I don’t think there’s any arguing that Q2 Stadium is easily the best in-stadium atmosphere in the state of Texas across any sport.Andy Loughnane, President, Austin FC
True to form, there has also been a focus on local, with the stadium’s colours, materials, furnishings, landscaping and hardscaping all drawing inspiration from “elements that customarily exist in Austin”, according to Loughnane. There is equally a commitment to ensure that the products sold on the concourse are from the region’s culinary scene.
“If you were to somehow try to build a replica of Q2 Stadium in Las Vegas or Sacramento,” Loughnane begins, “it just wouldn’t make sense given the style and the climate features, especially the commitment to indoor-outdoor spaces, the open corners, roof canopy, corrugated metals, rustic furnishings, indoor and outdoor dining options, percentage of premium in the stadium. [They] all make a unique and smart design for Austin, Texas.”
All of those different elements have created an environment for what Loughnane asserts is “arguably the best in-stadium atmosphere in MLS”.
“The impact [our fans have] been able to make inside of our community and the impact they’ve been able to make inside of Q2 Stadium in such a short period of time is entirely unprecedented,” he continues. “The stadium atmosphere is arguably the best in-stadium atmosphere in MLS. And I don’t think there’s any arguing that Q2 Stadium is easily the best in-stadium atmosphere in the state of Texas across any sport, including any comparison to the other major league properties across the state and in comparison to some of the massive collegiate properties that exist in Texas.
“A full house with incredible supporters accompanied by pretty well engineered stadium acoustics that can naturally amplify the impact of our supporters, who are already in close proximity to the pitch, can ultimately lead to the creation of an intimidating in-stadium atmosphere for our opponents.”
Those that have visited Q2 Stadium have been keen to return. Some 96 per cent of the club’s season ticket holders renewed last year and Loughnane reveals that the franchise has seen “a very similar outcome” going into 2023. He expects the renewal rate to be “at or higher than our percentage from last year”.
With 28,000 Austinites on the season ticket waiting list as of the end of last year, it is hardly surprising to find that the club is already exploring the possibility of expanding its home.
“We’re analysing studies that could add anywhere between 400 to 1,000 seats in the north building,” Loughnane confirms. “And these are studies that are underway as we speak.”
Sponsorships with a local tech flavour
Austin’s newfound place as a major league sports town hasn’t gone unnoticed by brands, with the city’s MLS team ranking second overall in the competition for sponsorship sales.
“One of the working theories was that Austin would be a strong middle market as it relates to corporate partnership performance, especially when you compare performance versus other large markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago,” Loughnane explains. “So if you think about mid-market performance, we’re very fortunate to have had a base of support – in this case corporate support – that have identified with the club’s values, and identified with momentum that has been created in very short order.”
That theory proved to hold true. Austin FC had already sold two key pieces of inventory well ahead of its MLS bow, with outdoor lifestyle chain Yeti coming onboard as the team’s main shirt sponsor before financial solutions provider Q2 pocketed the naming rights to the stadium. Both those companies are Austin-based brands and a quick glance at the franchise’s long list of corporate partners reveals a strong portfolio of local businesses.
To that end, the club has been able to capitalise on Austin’s growing reputation as a technology hub. A number of businesses from the sector, including Apple, MLS’s new global media rights partner, are establishing a presence in the market, and have seen aligning with Austin FC as an effective way of growing their brand.
Shirt sponsor Yeti is one of several Austin-based brands sponsoring the city’s MLS team
Loughnane believes that part of the club’s commercial appeal is the opportunity it provides to engage with Austin’s diverse and youthful community. He points out that the city’s population is “somewhere between 35 and 40 per cent Hispanic”, while also noting that the market is increasingly attractive to young people as it solidifies its standing in the tech sector.
“Austin FC stands a chance to be very successful given that Austin has this multicultural millennial element and tech savvy element that can tend to play a role in the success of a club, especially in soccer,” he says. “And so we like our positioning, we’re really fortunate to be positioned in Austin as our home market.”
Loughnane, who has had a stint working in the National Basketball Association (NBA) as vice president of corporate partnerships at the Detroit Pistons, is also bullish about the growing commercial appeal of MLS more broadly.
“MLS is 27 years old,” he says. “If we were to compare other sports leagues in North America after their 27th year and where Major League Soccer stands after its 27th year, we are well positioned to continue our growth, especially when you consider what lies ahead with the World Cup in November and then a World Cup in North America in in 2026.”
That all bodes well for a new franchise still making its way in a growing league. For now, Austin FC’s priority is to secure themselves homefield advantage in this season’s MLS Playoffs. Beyond that, the focus is on continuing to engage with the Austin community to build a fanbase that can help the club sustain its position towards the top of MLS for years to come.
“Obviously, the club is very hopeful that we can earn our first ever playoff qualification,” Loughnane states. “That’s an important club objective. And I know that’s certainly an important fanbase expectation. So that’s a priority.
“We have continued expectations to grow our fanbase, grow our content. We’ve got this really highly engaged audience, but we want to continue to try and grow that audience.”