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Commentary: Why Austin needs pro sports — or a venue for smaller clubs

As you have likely heard, Austin is now the largest city in the United States without a major professional sports team.

This is something of deceptive statement given the expansive boundaries of Texas cities; the city of Boston encompasses roughly 90 square miles, while Houston by contrast is a whopping 627.

That said, Austin has experienced explosive growth, pushing the population of Travis County well over the 1 million mark. And so Austin sits, according to the U.S. Census, as the 11th-largest city in the country. Cities No. 12-19 all boast a major pro sports team — either football, baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer —including Fort Worth, if you count the short drive on Interstate 30 over to Arlington, home of the Dallas Cowboys and Texas Rangers.

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There is also an oft-muttered joke in Austin that the city does in fact have a “pro” team, that being the University of Texas Longhorns football team, which has its own TV network and plays in the mammoth Royal-Memorial Stadium, one of eight stadiums in the country that holds in excess of 100,000 people. Texas football is also the stuff of reverence, legend and identity, permeating the local culture, despite the team’s recent struggles. If you haven’t had a beer at the Earl Campbell Sports Bar at Austin-Bergstrom before catching a flight out of town, chances are you may not partake in drinking. Or flying.

The question of whether Austin can or should have a major pro sports team has been debated at length. Part of the issue is the abundance of other teams in the state. Austin sits within an urban triangle brimming with major pro sports teams – three NBA franchises, two MLB, NFL and MLS franchises, and the Dallas Stars of the NHL. Part of the issue deals with infrastructure – Major League Soccer recently declined exploring adding a team in Austin, citing the lack of an appropriately sized facility (they currently require cities to build stadiums that hold about 20,000 people). There are also critical questions of whether the People’s Republic of Austin, already dealing with choking growth and traffic, would support the physical and financial impact of building a major pro sports stadium of any kind within city limits.

Lastly, there is the existential question of whether a major pro sports team would comport with the official municipal motto of “Keep Austin Weird.” While attending a UT football game doesn’t quite have the feel of attending Eeyore’s Birthday Party or a Phish concert, how would welcoming one of the titan sports leagues into town jive with the city’s pride in supporting creativity, diversity and standing outside of the mainstream?

Switching gears, Austin does come up short in providing a suitable venue in the central city for its existing, smaller pro teams. Austin is home to a number of smaller outdoor pro and semi-pro sports teams — including the Austin Huns (Rugby), the Austin Sol (Ultimate Frisbee), Yellow Jackets and Outlaws (Women’s American Football) — that do not have a central city venue to hold their games. Teams are currently making use of fields at area high schools, in East Austin and in Round Rock. The Austin Independent School District operates House Park in downtown Austin, but the inability to sell alcohol there presents a challenge for teams to use the venue and turn a profit.

I am a big fan of the Austin Sol, a pro Ultimate Frisbee team founded in 2016 that is part of the American Ultimate Disc League. Games at House Park draw an energetic crowd of about 1,000, and the team boasts one of the highest attendance marks in the AUDL. Fans of this growing sport include primary education and college players from across the area and pioneers of the sport who started playing in the 1970s. Heck, my daughter’s elementary school, Barton Hills, even has a team.

The availability of a smaller venue in the central city where alcohol could be served would go a long way to help existing teams solve the puzzle of financial viability and become long-term fixtures in the community. And while Major League Soccer may not be viable, a smaller venue could draw a smaller soccer franchise for the thousands of soccer enthusiasts in the metro area to enjoy.

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Absent the construction of a new dedicated outdoor facility, the city could explore opportunities to more effectively partner with the Austin school district and UT on use of their facilities. The Austin school district’s aforementioned House Park is one option, but a state law prohibiting the sale of alcohol on school property makes that difficult. Another is wider use of the University of Texas’s Myers Stadium, which mostly sits empty outside of university sports and the Texas Relays. El Paso, a top-20 population city without a pro sports team, holds the 3,000 capacity Patriot Stadium, and soccer teams have also made use of the University of Texas at El Paso’s Sun Devil Stadium.

Round Rock in May opened the Multipurpose Complex close to Dell Diamond, which checks many boxes for smaller pro teams. However, located over 30 miles from downtown Austin, this essentially outsources city culture and recreation to a surrounding suburb. Absent the question of whether Austin can or should kick the moniker of “Biggest City Without a Major Pro Sports Team,” the city should seek to find a better home for its smaller, weirder clubs.

Weinberg lives in Austin. He’s worked in politics in Texas and New York.

Weinberg lives in Austin. He’s worked in politics in Texas and New York.

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