Following announcements on home debuts and opening game dates for the upcoming Major League Soccer 2021 season, it is now official: Austin FC will begin its inaugural season April 17 on the road in Los Angeles.
The team and its fans, however, will have to wait two months for the inaugural kickoff at Q2 Stadium, formerly known as McKalla Place, in North Austin. MLS announced March 10 that the debut home game for Austin FC will be
held June 19, when the upstart team hosts the San Jose Earthquakes.
Ahead of the team’s summer home debut, supporters groups, surrounding businesses and Austin FC itself are finalizing preparations to make match days celebrations that start well before kickoff and last into the night.
“We want to make sure if it’s a game day for Austin FC, you can’t go around without knowing it’s a game day,” said Mateo Clark, a member of the leadership committee and a trumpet player with La Murga de Austin, the festival band for Austin FC’s supporters groups.
That sentiment was echoed by James Ruth, the senior vice president of marketing for Austin FC, when he spoke with Community Impact Newspaper. According to Ruth, the team is working to set up watch parties for the first seven away games Austin FC has to play before it returns to Q2 Stadium. Once it does, the team is looking to utilize its amenities—alongside the city’s music and festival culture—to create programming for fans beyond the stadium seats.
“We’re focused on creating a match day at the stadium itself where people come early and stay late,” Ruth said.
MATCH DAY AT Q2 STADIUM
As of March 24, Austin FC has yet to comment on whether fans will eventually be allowed to attend games in person due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19. That decision, team President Andy Loughnane told Community Impact Newspaper, is likely to come about four weeks ahead of Austin FC’s home opener in June.
The team will use the next couple of months to examine the safety of in-person attendance at other major sporting events across Texas, Loughnane said.
Currently, the Texas Rangers of Major League Baseball is planning to open its stadium with 100% capacity for its April 5 home opener. Its minor league affiliate, the Round Rock Express, will open with limited seating capacity and social distancing mandates when the team’s delayed season begins in May. The National Hockey League’s Dallas Stars and its minor league affiliate in Cedar Park both currently allow limited capacity for home games.
MLS franchise Houston Dynamo FC has announced it will open its stadium with 30% capacity to begin the season. FC Dallas will host fans at a limited capacity for its preseason games, and the team’s website is currently selling single-game tickets and other ticket packages for the 2021 season.
“We will be able to observe MLS matches in Texas and other large professional sporting events,” Loughnane said. “We will continue to observe and continue to be patient.”
But even without fans at the stadium to begin the season, Austin FC is finalizing plans to safely host watch parties for away games.
For its first-ever match, Austin FC will hold a watch party for 1,000 fans outside the Long Center off the shores of Lady Bird Lake, and Loughnane said the team may explore hosting away game events inside Q2 Stadium before its home opener.
When fans are allowed into the stadium, whenever that may be, Ruth said the team is working to craft an experience for fans before, during and after the game. Live Oak Park, the public park adjacent to the stadium, and H-E-B Plaza outside the northeast stadium gates are both on track to open by June, Ruth said. Austin FC intends to use those spaces to host pregame and postgame concerts with food trucks.
“To have those assets in our vicinity, it’s just going to totally elevate the game day experience,” Ruth said.
La Murga de Austin, made up of dozens of drummers, brass instrument players and song leaders, has been preparing for Austin FC’s June home opener for years, Clark said.
Throughout the pandemic, the volunteer supporters band has held socially distanced practices. The band played in Austin’s 2019 Pride march and has even shown up to youth soccer matches and practices to play their support songs for local kids.
“Our goal is for [La Murga de Austin] to be a long-term project that is focused on connecting raw fandom to something that’s more tangible and has an impact on the community,” Clark said.
For the upcoming season, Clark said La Murga de Austin has held conversations with the numerous bars and breweries surrounding Q2 Stadium to coordinate pregame plans and watch parties for game days. At the pregame parties, La Murga de Austin and other supporters groups will prepare fans for the energy inside Q2 Stadium with sustained chanting and music.
“It’s just such a part of Austin culture to be outdoors, have a cold beverage and listen to music. Now we just want to add soccer to that,” Clark said.
Though Clark said nothing is yet set in concrete, early plans for game days include holding pregame parties at different venues. Eventually, La Murga de Austin will lead fans from different sites to the stadium, playing songs and holding chants throughout the entire parade.
“There will be some kind of procession and then some kind of march into the match. We’re working on logistics on what that looks like,” Clark said.
La Murga de Austin will work with the team and city to establish a safe route for the procession into the stadium, Clark said. As of publishing time, a traffic plan for game days has not yet been shared with stakeholders, such as surrounding neighborhoods.
In a March 15 post on Austin FC’s website, Loughnane said the team is holding meetings with stakeholders through May.
“We remain hopeful to begin publicly communicating our initial transit options in mid-to-late April,” Loughnane wrote.
BREWING UP BUSINESS
Circle Brewing Co., the closest brewery to Q2 Stadium off Braker Lane, will be one of several breweries to host game day parties for both home and away games. Ben Sabel, president and brewer at Circle Brewing, said the company coordinated early on with Austin Anthem, the oldest Austin FC supporters group, to be the home for its game day activities.
To prepare for the festivities, Sabel and his team are extending the brewery taproom to triple the number of seats, while also investing in upgrades in Circle Brewing’s large parking lot area. The brewery has bought new TVs and projectors, invested in interior renovations and will bring in food trucks to service the flood of fans Sabel expects this season. Circle Brewing will further have to hire extra staff specifically for Austin FC matches, Sabel said.
“We’re planning for a rush, obviously. The Austin Anthem supporters group has over 1,000 members, and I expect a good portion of them are going to be there,” Sabel said
Half a mile east of Q2 Stadium, 4th Tap Brewing Co-Op has similarly invested in new staff and infrastructure in anticipation of large crowds, according to President John Stecker.
The brewery is keeping its current safety measures in place ahead of the season, including masking and social distancing mandates. When everything is in full swing, Stecker said 4th Tap will host a tailgate in its parking lot ahead of every game, complete with a temporary outdoor bar and the game playing on several screens.
“We have already brought on a few part-time beer slingers to pick up extra shifts now so that they are completely up to speed by the time Austin FC starts playing,” Stecker said in an email to Community Impact Newspaper.
In 2018, advisory firm Brailsford & Dunlavey published a report for the city of Austin that studied the anticipated economic impact that an MLS stadium at McKalla Place would provide.
The report forecast that, during a regular season, Austin FC matches and other events at Q2 Stadium will bring in approximately 426,000 annual visitors. Half of those visitors will come from outside of the city of Austin, and the report anticipates they will spend $6.56 million on retail and food and beverage purchases on a recurring annual basis.
“When people come to a game or come to see the team practice, they’ll explore that area [around Q2 Stadium],” said Laura Huffman, president and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce. “The businesses surrounding the stadium will see benefits as people come in to see the game, stop and get a bite to eat. I think that sort of regional impact will be really significant.”
For Circle Brewing, the stadium provided a chance to stay in its original North Austin home, Sabel said.
All of the preparations at Circle Brewing are specifically in response to the anticipated influx of revenue generated by match days, according to Sabel. The brewer said he may not have even renewed its lease in North Austin—the brewery in 2020 began an expansion in Elgin—but chose to stay because of the anticipated surge in business the nearby stadium may generate.
“We were probably going to completely relocate to Elgin if the taproom wasn’t located right next to the stadium,” Sabel said.
Fans, North Austin businesses gearing up for first Austin FC game day
A member of Austin FC supporters group band La Murga de Austin plays at a soccer game ahead of the MLS team's inaugural season. (Photo courtesy Alex Rubio Photography)