Tens of thousands of fans from across the country and around the world descend on Austin this week for what will be the biggest sports weekend in city history.
In its football stadium, the University of Texas will host Oklahoma State before as many as 100,000 fans. Fifteen miles away, the world’s most advanced race cars will compete before more than that many fans in Formula One’s United States Grand Prix.
It is an unprecedented pairing of high-profile events and disparate sporting cultures that brings together both the bedrock national and fledgling international faces of Austin’s developing brand.
Marv Danielski, senior vice president of Frank N. Magid Associates, a research consulting firm, said Austin has some similarities to hip college towns such as Madison, Wis., and Boulder, Colo., but, “What separates Austin is it is becoming a major city in reputation. Even without a major, big three professional team, it is (able to) garner events of note that speak to the vibrancy and vibe of the city.”
He added, “As a brand, it is all about creating and then maintaining this distinctive and unique perception, from Austin City Limits to Threadgill’s to South by Southwest, the city has alive streets, people who are engaged with the sense of place, who speak of its charms and values in a unique way. Great cities have a sense of brand magic to them, a sense of emotional connections.”
During its debut here last November, Formula One introduced Austin to a worldwide TV audience and aligned it with other racing locations such as Singapore, Sao Paulo, Melbourne, Shanghai and Montreal.
“I get the impression that the town (Austin) was not well-known in F1 circles prior to the race and, provided that it goes from strength to strength (and there is no reason why it should not), it is likely to increase Austin’s global visibility,” said Formula Money editor Christian Sylt in an email.
According to Formula Money, which is an F1 trade guide, the worldwide media coverage for last year’s inaugural Grand Prix generated $190 million in free advertising for Austin.
The success of the 2012 F1 race and the popularity of Austin’s new racing facility, Circuit of the Americas, primed the pump for other high-profile, international events, such as MotoGP, Australian V8 Supercars and World Endurance Championship racing. And it was a factor in ESPN’s decision to relocate the X Games from Los Angeles to Austin.
“Austin has established itself as a new age cultural hub,” said Scott Guglielmino, ESPN senior vice president for programming and X Games. “The energy and creativity that resonates from the city of Austin makes it an ideal fit.”
So high-level motor racing and extreme sports have joined music festivals, movie production, the food scene and high technology as part of Austin’s distinctive brand.
Nationally, it’s become difficult to find a Top 10 list that doesn’t include Austin: one of the best places to date, raise a family, retire, be fit, start a small business, own an electric vehicle or be an entrepreneur. A few years ago, Kiplinger’s pegged Austin as the Best City for the Next Decade, and last year The Street, a financial news website, touted Austin as one of 10 U.S. cities poised for greatness.
Austin could also make a Top 10 list for best city in which to own a restaurant. Austin restaurants are now featured on TV more often than eateries in Dallas or Houston. This summer, Zagat tabbed Austin’s Uchi as one of the country’s top places for sushi, and last month that renowned restaurant guide named two local bars, Wright Bros. Brew & Brew and Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co., as among the 19 hottest bars in 11 cities.
Other Austin-born businesses also add to the city’s hip image. These days even jaded New Yorkers get downright giddy about Austin imports such as the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema and Whole Foods. Shanghai now has a Stubbs barbecue joint.
The Austin brand isn’t universally popular. In a Huffington Post article last spring, travel writer David Landsel said Austin beat out the likes of Buenos Aires, Berlin, Vancouver, San Francisco and the entire Caribbean for No. 1 in his “10 Terribly Overrated Travel Destinations.”
Landsel declined to be interviewed, noting that Austinites have tended to get their feathers ruffled even when he has written complimentary things about their city.
Austin also now makes Top 10 lists for the worst traffic, with residents wasting about an entire work week every year stuck in jams — but people still want to visit.
The city’s skyline continues to change. Nearly a dozen hotels are either under construction or planned for downtown. The largest of these is a 34-story, 1,012-room JW Marriott convention hotel.
This year, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport officials announced the addition of four new carriers — Virgin America, Aeromar, Allegiant Air and British Airways.
Austin’s music scene continues to be a prime attraction. In addition to the long-running PBS show, Austin City Limits has a festival that has expanded to two October weekends. And South by Southwest, which began in 1987, is now a 10-day March marathon that highlights film and interactive media segments as well as music.
“South by Southwest gives Austin a great signature event,” said Bill Ghormley, senior vice president of Xconomy, a Massachusetts-based news service covering the tech industry. “The pure joy that festival brings is special.”
Ghormley said that British, Irish, Dutch and Germans are among those in the tech world who visit Boston, and then swing down to Austin for business and South by Southwest.
“There’s a lot Boston can learn from Austin about having a good time,” Ghormley said.
Bob Lander, president and CEO of the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, said music is still the main element of Austin’s brand.
“We take 150 local musicians on the road each year. We might be taking some to London this year,” Lander said. “We don’t do anything unless we’re talking about music, and nine out of 10 times we’ve got some technology twist.”
Today, Dell, IBM and Advanced Micro Devices are among area’s leading employers, while gaming and Web companies and various startups add to the variety and stability.
“Austin’s growing reputation is as a high-tech software/IT services area with lower costs than Silicon Valley. The shift is away from being about hardware, and whatever happens to Dell is unlikely to reduce Austin’s rep,” said Edward Friedman, a director for New York-based Moody’s Analytics.
Since the early 1990s, Austin’s involvement with the film industry has gotten progressively stronger. Gary Bond, director of the Austin Film Commission, said that, counting film second units and neighboring towns, about 200 feature films and TV shows have been shot in the Austin area.
That list includes everything from “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and Robert Rodriguez’s “Machete” to “Miss Congeniality” and Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” The notable TV fare is headed by “Lonesome Dove” and “Friday Night Lights.”
Bond said, “A film is not made to make a city sparkle, but that certainly happens.”
Lately, it’s Austin’s cuisine that has become a star. There are currently at least a half-dozen highly rated Austin barbecue restaurants or food trucks. Franklin Barbecue has a growing national reputation for its brisket, augmented by its current Chase Sapphire credit card commercial.
According to Tvfoodmaps.com, which tracks 37 different food TV shows, 62 Austin restaurants have been featured on at least one national show. That’s more than any other city in the state; Houston had 41, Dallas 27, San Antonio 22 and Fort Worth 20.
The arrival of the Formula One race last year and the completion of the state-of-the-art Circuit of the Americas added an international dimension to Austin’s brand.
Not that long ago, Austin would be lucky to stage a demolition derby or a Figure 8 race on a quarter-mile of crumbling asphalt. Circuit of the Americas is 3.4 miles of the best racing surface the German engineers at Tilke GmbH could concoct, a track designed to be something of racing’s greatest hits, an homage to some of the best turns in the world from England to Istanbul.
“Having a true Formula One race held on U.S. soil is pretty amazing,” Danielski said. “This is really a chance for Austin to be front and center on the world stage for a long time.”
In July, the circuit landed another major attraction shown around the world. “We beat Chicago and Detroit for the X Games and took it away from L.A. Young people understand what that means,” Lander said.
Guglielmino added, “Austin is a progressive and cutting-edge city, key characteristics to the X Games. The sports, music and lifestyle festival that X Games will bring to the city and Circuit of the Americas will be a perfect blend.”
Bond said the odds are good that the circuit will be used in a film in the future.
“I can’t imagine that it would not,” Bond said. “It’s unique not just to Austin, but to the world. It’s too pretty a girl. It’s going to get asked to dance.”
Ghormley said Austin’s brand could be more than just an image, but an approach to the future.
“Like any city there are issues. Part of the brand is, what are you aspiring to?” Ghormley said. “Can we make a city that’s more walkable? Can we make it a city where the cars don’t own us?
“What’s the next cool thing?”
Follow our coverage in your Statesman and on statesman.com.
• In Sports: Get caught up on the F1 season and what role Austin will play.
• Wednesday: In Food & Life, we give you recipes with an international flavor.
• Wednesday: Check out our 140-page fan guide to the Grand Prix.
• Starting Friday: We give you expanded coverage from the track and around town.