As any local – or any of the ubiquitous best-cities-to-live lists, for that matter – will tell you about Austin, the city possesses a youthful energy, an increasing diverse population and a thriving downtown.
In other words, Austin has the three primary characteristics that Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said attracts MLS officials at a South By Southwest panel discussion Saturday at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin.
Yet, Austin has failed to support a minor-league soccer team, and it will remain the largest city in the U.S. without a professional sports franchise after MLS announces its four-team expansion in the near future, including two by the fall. The continued growth of soccer in the U.S., which includes the quixotic attempt by several local groups to bring professional soccer to Austin, served as a backdrop to Saturday’s trio of panels.
“It (Austin) is a special place, and in many ways, it mirrors the dynamic of MLS,” Garber said following a discussion moderated by Sports Illustrated soccer reporter Grant Wahl. “There’s a young, innovative, diverse population living in a city. Austin should be a good MLS market.”
But the lack of public and private support for a professional soccer franchise says otherwise. The Austin Aztex had its activities suspended by the United Soccer League in October 2015 after, among other reasons, failing to find suitable facilities, and the club’s identity remains in limbo.
Austin’s struggles contrast with the growth of the sport, which Garber touted during a wide-ranging conversation with Wahl that included questions from the audience.
Garber admitted to entering MLS in 1999 without much understanding of soccer, but the league has experienced tremendous growth during his long tenure. Seeing what he called “the fruits of all our labor” makes the demanding job worthwhile, he said.
“It’s a hell of a lot cooler than it used to be,” he told Wahl. “It used to suck, to be honest. We didn’t know if we’d go bankrupt.”
Prior to the day’s panel discussions, Garber experienced how much the perception of soccer has changed in the U.S. since he became MLS commissioner. On Sunday morning, Garber attended a U.S. Conference of Mayors event organized by Austin Mayor Steve Adler. He proved a popular figure to the delegation, drawing inquires and invitations concerning MLS franchises.
“There was a time I couldn’t get a meeting with any mayor,” he said. “Now, there’s a lot of buzz about how soccer has been good for the community.”
That buzz has drawn plenty of European interest, too, as evident by Saturday’s first panel discussion attended by representatives of powerhouse clubs Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Barcelona. Rudolf Vidal of Bayern Munich, Tom Glick of City Football Group and Arno Trabesinger of Barcelona discussed their strategies about penetrating the vast and profitable sports landscape in the U.S.
In 2014, Bayern Munich, the richest and most influential club in Germany’s Bundesliga, established the first office by any European club in the U.S. Other teams have followed suit, and Barcelona’s investment in the U.S. includes an upcoming soccer academy being built in cooperation with the Circuit of the Americas in southeast Austin and additional facilities in Round Rock.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to come to Austin,” Trabesinger told the Statesman after the panel discussion. “For us, it’s a chance to engage with a dynamic city that has characteristics we look for like a young population and a large Hispanic population.”
Each panelist also cited the spirit of cooperation among the clubs, at least when it comes to tapping the U.S. market.
“There is no competition among the international clubs,” Vidal said. “We can all work together here to make our sport grow.”
Vidal then grinned and eyed the other panelists, whose clubs, like Bayern Munich, remain alive in the prestigious Champions League tournament.
“At least there’s no competition until the next round of play,” he said.
Of course, cracking the U.S. market remains a challenge for any European club, said Richard Clarke in the third panel discussion of the day. Clarke, a former English sports journalist who later served as Arsenal’s longtime editorial director, now heads the media relations department for MLS’ Colorado Rapids. His positions in both the English Premier League and MLS provide a unique perspective on just how much the fan experiences and expectations differ in Europe and the U.S.
“You’re telling different stories for different countries,” he said.
In the U.S., he said, fans crave much more engagement on social media. In comparison, European media coverage remains a bit stodgy.
Clarke also pointed out the lack of what he called “tribalism” among fans. Fans in the U.S., he said, often follow more than one club and even form a camaraderie with supports of a rival team.
“I think fans here realize there’s a need to keep growing (MLS) and the sport,” he said.
And that’s a sentiment that every panelist on the day would agree with.