Austin FC's on-schedule 2021 debut season shines as a bright spot for optimistic fans amid a pandemic
Jeremiah Bentley is planning to purchase season tickets for Austin FC, the soccer team that will be the city's first major league sports franchise, despite the uncertainty that comes with a pandemic.
Bentley is a member of Austin Anthem, the team's official supporters group, whose members have access to a designated section in McKalla Place, the $260 million stadium under construction in North Austin.
The stadium went vertical in early February and work has continued, thanks to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's March 31 executive order deeming construction an essential service. It is expected to open early next year, ahead of Austin FC's inaugural season, which is still expected to begin in the spring.
McKalla Place, the $240 million stadium under construction in North Austin(Austonia staff)
"I've got my supporters-section deposit in, and I'm planning on buying three [sets of tickets], for me and my two sons," Bentley said.
Amid the havoc wreaked by the pandemic, some Austinites have found a bright spot in Austin FC. A poll of Austonia readers found nearly 70% believe the team's debut will continue as planned, and meanwhile future fans are making pilgrimages to the McKalla work site to see its progress.
Our house is looking so good! Made me so excited to drive by and see the progress today!! @AustinFC @AustinAnthem… https://t.co/Yiyc1hqh07— Andi (@Andi)1589064912.0
Sunday afternoon bike ride (dare I say pilgrimage?) to visit our favorite example of sacral architecture 🏟️🌳⚽🚴🏻♂️😄… https://t.co/gGymD5M2ef— Chris H (@Chris H)1588529094.0
Beautiful afternoon to ride and wonder around. Decided to check out this beauty up close. Looks amazing!… https://t.co/5HyTfOC8MX— Juan M. (@Juan M.)1588290531.0
"The club's fortunate—where we are in terms of timing—because you're still building the framework, you're still building the outside, so it's really easy to be able to do that socially distanced and safely," Bentley said.
Austin FC has not provided formal updates since mid-March, but its president, Andy Loughnane, reported to MLS that ticket sales were strong earlier this year.
When the team opened ticket sales to the public last June, it broke a league record for most deposits made in the first 24 hours: 30,000. Since then, sales have surpassed 40,000 deposits and the stadium's most expensive products—suites, field club and loges—have sold out entirely.
Ticket prices have not been announced, but local Austin FC blog Capital City Soccer compared prices from the league's newest clubs: FC Cincinnati, FC Dallas, Houston Dynamo, Inter MIami CF and Nashville SC. Among those teams, supporters' season tickets went for $180-$425, with the high-end seats ranging from $1,400 to $4,100.
"It does not seem like interest has slowed down," Bentley said of what he's heard from other Anthem members. "I'm sure that there are individual people who are going to be affected by [the pandemic] that have to make changes because of their budget, but it doesn't seem to have had a significant effect on people's appetite for tickets."
The stadium went vertical in early February. (Austonia staff)
The next batch of tickets that will be made available to deposit holders are more affordable. The team has committed to selling 70% of stadium season tickets for $48 or less in an effort to make the games accessible for the wider Austin community, and supporter tickets are expected to be even less.
In the meantime, both Austin FC and Austin Anthem are planning for the year ahead.
Sporting Director Claudio Reyna said at a January press conference that the team would likely sign its first players this summer, though this is a process that may be delayed by the pandemic for leagues around the world.
Austin Anthem has paused its in-person events for the time being. But Bentley is optimistic. "It's been a good change to plan and develop a strategy about how to grow [the group] out because it has been going nonstop with things ever since the club got announced [in 2019]," he said. "So a little pause is not the worst thing in the world."
Anthem has around 2,000 members on its email list—but has room to grow. There are over 3,000 seats in the supporter section at McKalla Place. "We need to double in size between now and a year from now," Bentley said.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct value for the stadium. The original version said it was $240 million; it is $260 million.
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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more race in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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Houston? Dallas? San Antonio? No, it has to be Austin.
We know Californians love Texas, but a recent string of posts on neighborhood platform Nextdoor in Santa Barbara, California, displays what the craze to move to Austin looks like.
When one user posted, "Hi neighbors, I want to buy a house in Houston, Texas any recommendations?" the responses flooded in displaying what the admiration for Austin looks like from the West Coast. Users mostly advised against a move to Houston; one person even wrote, "Austin is the ONLY place to consider!!"
While some defended H-town, saying, "Awesome place to live," one person wrote, "WORST PLACE TO LIVE." Reasons to not move to Houston from Californians' perspective included:
- "Foul air from refineries"
- "horrible flooding due to the flat Gulf coastal shelf"
- "crazy zoning"
- "racial prejudice"
- "super high humidity"
- "very conservative"
The comments were shifted to Austin's lush greenery, weather and acceptance of gay people.
Over the last five years, Austin has seen more migrants from California than any other state, according to an Austin Chamber of Commerce report. The Austin appeal from residents living in more congested places like California became more prevalent during the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued and people sought more space.
It wasn't just Austin though; lots of other Sunbelt cities saw an influx in their housing market as a result of people working from home and looking for a lower cost of living. And that included Texas in general, with people flooding to various Texas cities.
But it hasn't come with resistance. The "Don't California my Texas" pleas are still alive and well, as Californians are blamed for raising the cost of living by outpricing current residents. The housing market has reached record numbers in the median home price year-over-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Austin was even predicted to be the most expensive city outside of California by the end of the year.
Still, Californians and even New Yorkers can't stay away. Companies and celebrities have followed, leading Texas transplant Elon Musk to label Austin's future as "the biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."