As United Soccer League clubs meet this week in San Jose, Calif., it appears that Austin’s USL franchise, which suspended play for 2016, likely won’t return in 2017, either, as its long-term prospects grow dimmer.
“There is no suitable stadium. Until there is, the Aztex won’t field a team,” Bobby Epstein, chairman of Circuit of the Americas and a majority investor in the Aztex, told the American-Statesman on Thursday.
Aztex officials haven’t had any success finding help from a city, a developer or another partner to acquire land and build a 5,000-seat stadium that would cost $5 million or more to construct. Team owner Rene van de Zande previously told the Statesman he does not have the deep pockets to fund a stadium without significant financial help.
A proposed USL alignment plan for 2017 that leaked this week showed a 30-team league absent Austin, although a league official said a firm decision about Austin’s future hadn’t been made.
“We’re not expecting any immediate updates regarding 2017 and the Aztex,” said John Griffin, USL senior director of communications. The league’s meetings were set to conclude Thursday.
Van de Zande agreed with Epstein that a return next year seems a bridge too far for the Aztex.
“Nothing is formally confirmed, but taking the suitable soccer venue needs into consideration, 2018 has become a more realistic target,” he said.
In other words, no stadium, no team.
The Aztex have ruled out high school stadiums, where they cannot sell alcohol, and they have indicated the rent for Myers Stadium on the University of Texas campus is too steep. There is no other dedicated soccer facility in the Austin area.
The Austin Huns Rugby Club is trying to build a stadium on its 32-acre complex at 4107 Nixon Lane that could pair well with soccer. The club has an offer on the table to the Aztex, but the Huns are still working through planning issues with the City of Austin and there are infrastructure concerns regarding the remote area of East Austin.
More importantly, the Aztex prefer to own a stadium, not rent one, in order to control their revenue streams.
The club has lost more than $1 million, according to a source, since November 2014 when the Aztex stepped up to the USL, where players are paid, from the Premier Development League, where players receive money only to cover their expenses.
In their only USL season, the Aztex were displaced from House Park by flooding and moved to Reeves Athletic Complex in far north Austin. Their average announced home attendance of 3,227 fans was middle of the pack, but concessions revenue was skimpy, especially without alcohol sales.
The club still owed money to the Round Rock school district at the end of 2015, but the district’s athletic director, Dwayne Weirich, said the bills were paid and “we closed out our agreement with the Aztex early this year.”
Being sidelined for a second straight season is no way to build a fan base, but Epstein isn’t ready to give up on the Aztex.
“I want Austin to have pro soccer,” he said. “If there was a stadium, the Aztex would be playing now.”
Yet the man most responsible for building COTA, a world-class racing facility, isn’t about to whip out his checkbook and solve the club’s problems by himself.
“I’m probably out of the stadium-building business,” Epstein said. “We’ll keep looking for long-term solutions.”