Professional soccer is coming back to Austin. That was made clear when the United Soccer League announced Friday a team will return to the city after a four-year hiatus.
But Austin’s City Council will vote on a proposal Thursday night that would open the door for a Major League Soccer team to land in the Texas capital in 2019 — with implications for Columbus soccer fans as well as Central Texas residents.
The vote is on a proposal to allow Precourt Sports Ventures — the investor-operator group that purchased Columbus Crew SC in 2013 — to move forward with building a $200 million stadium on a 24-acre site known as McKalla Place, which was identified by City of Austin staffers late last year as one of a handful of city-owned tracts suitable for hosting a soccer-specific stadium.
In October 2017, PSV CEO Anthony Precourt announced he was exploring a move to Austin for the 2019 season. If that happened, it would follow the original San Jose franchise’s move to Houston in 2005 as only the second club relocation in MLS history.
Two weeks after Precourt’s announcement, PSV President Dave Greeley went before nearly 300 people packed into an Austin soccer bar, delivering a seemingly-simple pitch: If your city gives us the land, we’ll put a world-class stadium on it and bring you an MLS team.
More than nine months have passed, and the proposed move to Austin’s been anything but simple.
PSV’s initial two choices for Austin stadium sites, just to the south and then to the east of downtown, on what the City euphemistically called “underutilized parkland,” met with considerable public resistance. That led PSV to focus efforts on the McKalla site, about 10 miles north of downtown proper, in a district called The Domain being touted as “Austin’s second downtown.”
In its attempt to secure McKalla, PSV has had to navigate Austin’s notoriously exhaustive public process, which has included community input meetings featuring a recurring cast of community activists sparring with soccer supporters and several stages of negotiations inching the city and PSV closer together. In the most recent City Council session Tuesday, five different Austin entities had the opportunity to forward alternative plans for McKalla Place.
The current deal sheet calls for PSV to finance the building of the stadium, turn ownership of it over to the city and lease it as its primary tenant — but it’s become more favorable to the city since the original version went public June 1. An initial plank that had PSV paying $1 a year in rent, for example, was changed to $550,000 per year in years six through 20 of the initial 20-year lease. Because some city officials see McKalla as a preferred site for affordable housing, PSV welded 130 housing units onto its original stadium-and-green-space vision for the site.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler touted the current iteration of the deal as “the best stadium deal that anyone has gotten anywhere in the country” on an Austin radio show Tuesday. As he explained to ProSoccerUSA on Wednesday, the declaration was based on city staffers looking at other cities’ recent stadium plans, which he said generally called for city governments “to write bigger checks, finance projects and give greater concessions.”
Adler sees an MLS team’s potential to unify Austin as perhaps the most important benefit.
“Austin is a city segregated in more ways than we would like,” he said, “and soccer presents a unique opportunity for us to be able to pull together all parts of our community in ways that are not happening now.”
But he’s just one of 11 votes on the City Council. A group of four City Council members, led by Leslie Pool (whose District 7 would be home to the new stadium), issued a public memo Tuesday listing further concessions they “believe would improve the agreement currently on the table,” including substantially higher rent and ticket surcharges to fund transportation, housing and the city’s general fund. She also proposed the city having final say over naming rights to the stadium.
The incoming USL team, unveiled as Austin Bold FC, will play in a temporary 5,000-seat stadium to be erected adjacent to a concert amphitheater on the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) complex 15 miles southeast of downtown Austin.
— Marcelo Serrano (@Coach_M_Serrano) August 8, 2018
Bold managing partner Roberto Silva and majority owner Bobby Epstein were both involved with the second iteration of the USL’s Austin Aztex. That team, launched in 2011 to replace the first version of the Aztex, moved to Orlando by owner Phil Rawlins in 2010 to evolve into the Orlando City SC MLS franchise, went on extended hiatus after a flood devastated its home stadium partway through the 2015 season.
Silva said the Bold will be a “totally new franchise” rather than a revival of the Aztex, made possible only now by “having all the pieces together,” most notably the stadium.
They introduced some of the other pieces last Friday — namely, head coach Marcello Serrano, who last coached the U.S. Virgin Islands’ senior squad, and three mid-30s players with notable resumes: Brazilian striker Kléber, once a mainstay at Dynamo Kiev; Brazilian midfielder Marcelo Saragosa, part of successful LA Galaxy and FC Dallas squads through the 2000s; and Dutch left back Edson Braafheid, a 2010 World Cup finalist who counts Bayern Munich, 1899 Hoffenheim, and Lazio among his club stops.
Silva and Epstein are undeterred by the possibility of an MLS franchise encroaching on their soccer turf and, in fact, are thinking about what’s possible should demand for Bold tickets go beyond their initial 5,000-seat target.
“One of the benefits of the [temporary stadium] design it that we have some flexibility,” Epstein said. “Our objective is to fill the stadium we have rather than start with something big. The natural progression would be go to 5,000, fill it up, and then go to 10,000 and fill it up.”
COTA is big enough to house a bigger, more permanent second stadium should demand call for it — in fact, Epstein has offered Precourt land on the COTA site to build an MLS stadium, though it is far more isolated a location than the “urban core” model that MLS has trended toward of late.
“We’ve built this place for crowds,” Epstein said of COTA, which was initially created to host Formula 1 and MotoGP races. “We’ve built it for moving big crowds in and out.”
Unlike Texas’ two current USL teams — the NYCFC-affiliated San Antonio FC and the Houston Dynamo-partnered RGVFC Toros — the Bold haven’t yet secured an MLS affiliate. They’re noncommittal about the possibility of forging a partnership with a relocated Crew in Austin, even though the Aztex became the Crew’s USL affiliate for its final, fated 2015 season.
“We’re here,” Epstein said simply. “We’re going to be here. We plan to be here 10 years from now, and that’s really our focus. We’ve made a huge commitment here. We’re giving to the city, not taking.”
Epstein went as far as to offer an uncouth challenge after Friday’s press conference, conveyed through the Austin American-Statesman’s Kevin Lyttle, saying, “If The Domain Crew get their act together and are actually here next year, we want to play them … and we’ll kick their ass.”
Attn #MLS2ATX. First challenge issued from @AustinBoldFC. Owner Bobby Epstein tells @ChrisBils and I: "If The Domain Crew get their act together and are actually here next year, we want to play them … and we'll kick their ass." @MLSinAustin
— Kevin Lyttle (@klyttleAAS) August 3, 2018
Adler expects Thursday’s City Council vote to be close, saying, “Different people on the Council may view differently the benefits to the community. I’m not sure of the ultimate action the Council will take.”
Some City Council members have been quiet on whether they back the PSV plans, while others have lambasted the fact it’s taken so long to even get to this point.
On Tuesday, City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan criticized colleagues for creating a “frustrating and mind-blowing experience” rather than taking decisive action. Pool countered by criticizing PSV for setting “arbitrary deadline after arbitrary deadline,” and terming PSV opposition as “Austin standing up and saying, ‘This is not the Austin way.'”
PSV may be able to secure the needed votes Thursday by addressing issues other Council members have brought up, such as funding the construction of a new Capital Metro rail site next to the stadium, opening an Austin-based MLS academy to girls as well as boys and boosting the planned stadium’s LEED silver certification to a more ambitious level.
Wednesday night, PSV also put forth an updated deal sheet most notable for having a non-relocation clause saying if the potential MLS team ever moves from Austin, the investment group will have to pay $1 million a year for each unfulfilled year of the lease and demolish the stadium.
There’s also the possibility the Council could delay the decision beyond Thursday, putting PSV’s hopes for playing in Austin in 2019 in further limbo. And even if the vote passes, PSV still faces an ongoing lawsuit in Ohio challenging whether they can move the team.
But a number of Austin fans retain hope that Thursday’s vote will go their way, and that they’ll be at a yet-to-be-announced Austin area site for a 2019 home opener.
“I continue to be optimistic that Austin City Council will move forward with the stadium plan,” said Josh Babetski, who founded the MLS in Austin supporters’ group in 2013 and publicly supports the PSV plan. “It’s one thing to read about the oddities of Austin politics, but to have lived through it for the past year — it’s an eye-opening experience. I think we’ll be glad to be done with minoring in political science.”