Austin lands MLS team amid stadium questions

Major League Soccer (MLS) has ended a long-running effort to take a team to Austin by awarding the Texan city its 27th franchise, however opposition remains to plans for a new 20,000-seat stadium.

Austin FC is set to commence play in 2021, with MLS to become the first major sports league to have a team in the city. The new stadium will be located at city-owned property at McKalla Place in North Austin.

The publicly-owned $225m (£174.8m/€197.1m) project on 24 acres will feature a 20,000-seat, natural grass stadium and public park that will be entirely funded by Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV), the investor-operator of the club. Groundbreaking for the new stadium is set to take place later this year and the venue will officially open with the club’s first home game in the spring of 2021.

“Austin is a thriving metropolitan city – the embodiment of what we mean when we say MLS is a ‘League for a new America,’” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “We are extremely proud to be the first major professional sports league to become part of the fabric of this important and thriving American city.

“In their support of a world-class soccer stadium that benefits the entire community, the leadership of the City of Austin has shown tremendous faith in our league and the sport of soccer in North America.”

PSV was founded in 2012 by Anthony Precourt, who has been the managing partner at Precourt Capital Management since 2008. Prior to becoming investor-operator of Austin FC, PSV held the same responsibility for the last six years with Columbus Crew. Indeed, PSV and Precourt had initially targeted moving the Crew to play in a new Austin stadium in what had been a highly controversial proposal.

Precourt said at yesterday’s (Tuesday’s) announcement: “Our intent is to build a team that will be a perennial contender for MLS Cup, to build a stadium at McKalla Place that rivals the best sporting venues in North America, and to cultivate a club culture that brings people together and always give back.”

The city-owned 24-acre parcel of land at McKalla Place has been vacant for over 25 years and will be transformed into a state-of-the-art park and stadium, which will be entirely funded by PSV under a deal announced last month, including all construction costs and operating expenses during the course of the club’s lease of the stadium from the City.

Precourt said PSV has nearly completed its stadium renderings and has finances in place to start building. “To open on time for the 2021 season, we’ll need to break ground this September, so we’ll go through a process with city council now on zoning and permitting for the stadium,” he added, according to local broadcaster KXAN.

However, a group entitled Friends of McKalla Place this month said it had filed a petition with 29,000 signatures at City Hall. If enough of the signatures are verified, it would require the city to either adopt the petition’s proposed ordinance or potentially hold an election on the stadium.

Francoise Luca, a representative of Friends of McKalla Place, told KXAN yesterday that either the City of Austin or Major League Soccer may face lawsuits as a result of the franchise and stadium moving forward. “The stadium deal is bad for Austin,” she said. “We lose the opportunity to build a transit oriented affordable housing development and neighbourhood park.”

The City has said the process of counting signatures on the petition is likely to take several more weeks, with November said to be the earliest the petition could be ready for a potential election. However, Austin Mayor Steve Adler expressed his confidence this situation won’t come to pass.

“I would suspect the stadium’s going to be under construction before the vote could happen, but even if it wasn’t this has progressed to the point where the petition can’t undo it,” Adler said. “I am concerned about the petition, if it gets on the ballot, it would impact our ability, not just sports venues, but arts venues, it could stop an amphitheatre in a public park.

“Quite frankly, this (petition) was put up by the same do-nothing status quo voices you hear in Austin from time to time, that are not really letting the city change in order to preserve what is special about the city. If it makes it on to the ballot I will be working against it just because it’s the wrong thing for us to do.”

Image: Austin FC