One of the top TV personalities in American soccer needs to be persuaded that Austin is a can’t-miss Major League Soccer market.
Former U.S. national team standout Stuart Holden will be one of several Fox Sports personalities in town this week for South by Southwest as the network rolls out its Fox Sports House at Hangar Lounge, 318 Colorado St. Fox will televise the World Cup for the first time this summer, when 32 sides will square off in Russia.
As excited as Holden is for the World Cup, he’s also keenly following the MLS2ATX saga involving Columbus Crew SC.
“I love Austin in so many ways,” Holden told the American-Statesman recently. “I’ve visited a number of times, and it’s a city I would consider living in. It’s exciting from a business perspective with all the tech start-ups and other things going for it. The University of Texas is big, bold and arrogant. But I’m still not sold that Austin has a vibrant soccer culture. It is an unproven market. I’m a skeptic.”
Major League Soccer hasn’t exactly flourished in Texas lately. FC Dallas finished last in home attendance in 2017, averaging 15,122 fans. The Houston Dynamo ranked 17th at 17,500, but Columbus lagged behind in 20th with an average of 15,439.
“I know youth soccer in Texas is really strong,” Holden said, “but the Dynamo and FC Dallas have fallen way off. Would Austin be different because it would not have major-league competition? I don’t know. Friends tell me the demographics would support it. Personally, I’d want to see some proof. Austin doesn’t have much of a track record in this sport.”
Holden said it would be tough to see one of the original MLS franchises move, but he said the Crew faces serious economic concerns in the Ohio capital.
Mar 3, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Columbus Crew midfielder Federico Higuain (10) celebrates his goal against Toronto FC with Columbus Crew defender Milton Valenzuela (19) during the first half at BMO Field. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
“For me, it would be bittersweet,” Holden said. “Columbus is an MLS original, and I have family that attend a lot of games there. But I also have strong ties to Austin, and having another team in Texas would appeal to me.”
Holden said he knows the first two questions he would ask the Crew’s owner-operator, Anthony Precourt.
“What makes him think Austin is a slam dunk for MLS? And if it doesn’t work out in Austin, how does he stay in Columbus?” Holden said. “He’s talking about financing a $200 million stadium and several hundred million in a benefits package. That’s a pretty bold statement, and he must have some serious research to back that up.”
Holden, who said he’s attended Austin City Limits shows and ACL music festivals but has never done SXSW, expects a great show in Russia, even without the United States’ national team, which failed to qualify.
“After you get over the disappointment of that — and there’s no way to candy-coat it — you think about how we’ll be bringing the big three — Neymar, Ronaldo and Messi — into your living rooms.
“We’re partnering with National Geographic and Twitter, and we’ll be demonstrating a lot of our digital platforms this weekend in Austin at our Fox Sports Social House. I hope a lot of soccer fans here come by to check out some of our panels.”
Holden, who will be part of a 30-minute daily pre-game show, said once he gets to Russia in early June, he’ll be diving right into the tournament.
“Spain vs. Portugal is my first game,” he said. “Does it get much bigger than that? You’ve got England vs. Belgium. A group of Argentina, Croatia, Iceland and Nigeria. There are tons of story lines.”
Without the United States to showcase, Fox will lean heavily on Mexico, making El Tri the network’s second home team. Fox Sports has been broadcasting Mexican friendlies for a few years, building a relationship.
“I certainly hope Mexico makes a good run,” Holden said. “They’re in a tough group with Germany and Sweden, but they’re carrying the banner for CONCACAF, and there’s something to be said for supporting our region.”
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