|R.I.P. 2008 - 2010|
On Friday, upon returning home from work, I was reading up on soccer news from my Twitter feed when I started reading frantic "tweets" from many of my Austin soccer friends. Inside Minnesota Soccer had broken the news that my local club, the Austin Aztex, were packing up and moving to Orlando, Florida. Today, the news was confirmed in a press conference held by the Aztex's owner, Phil Rawlins.
The news, seemingly out of nowhere, was, need-less-to-say, a complete shock to me.
Near the end of September I attended, along with a few thousand of my closest friends, the home finale of the Aztex as they defeated AC St. Louis, 4-2. It's with bitter irony that, at the time, we members of the Austin supporters group, Chantico's Army, chanted "Happy trails to you, we'll never meet again" to the AC players, mocking their clubs' endless financial problems and the possibility that their club would fail in the off-season.
How tragic that the pie was actually on our faces.
This is the frailty of soccer in America.
To see a franchise in American soccer fail is not surprising. In Major League Soccer, the domestic top-flight went through a series of painful contractions shedding teams in weak markets (two in Florida interestingly enough) in order to save the rest of the ship. In the second division of U.S. soccer club failures are more common, even expected, as 75% of teams have failed. The story of the Aztex is not one of failure, though.
The Austin soccer community is vibrant. The metropolitan area is home to nearly 1.75 million people, the 35th largest metro-area in the nation and nearly 40,000 youth soccer players. The population boasts countless young professionals, college students, families, and Latinos all demographically strong soccer fans. In fact, Austin had the seventh largest television audience for the 2010 World Cup. A recent article in the Austin Business Journal said that the economic climate in the city was suitable for a "tier 1" sports franchise.
The support for the Aztex has been nothing short of stable and growing. The team played only two years in the second division and averaged 3,733 people per game (sixth out of twelve teams) during the 2010 season. But the real surprise was that attendance figures rose 25% from 2009 making it the team with the greatest growth in the league. The supporters group, Chantico's Army, was one of the better organized, rowdy, and sizeable in the league.
If soccer can't succeed in a city like Austin and an atmosphere of support like what was seen at House Park then is anywhere in America safe for soccer?
The truth of the matter is that owner Phil Rawlins (a man who I've met, talked to, had many beers with, and enjoyed as a human being and a great fan of the game) and the next set of partners in this Orlando endeavor made a cold, economic decision about the fate of soccer in Austin for 2011 and maybe forever. It just didn't work.
Speaking today at a press conference in Orlando Rawlins said:
“I know the new investors very well -- they are football people and have been interested in working with us for some time. They like what we have achieved on the field and in the community,” he continued. “However, they made it very clear that their investment was contingent upon the team relocating, citing Austin’s lack of a soccer specific stadium with any corporate facilities, the inability to sell alcohol at games and the geographical isolation of the team within the new USL-Pro League. In short, they didn’t see Central Texas as the right market for the team and their future plans.”
It didn't make enough money. Now anyone who's getting into the "soccer in America" business today should know that this isn't a profit-making enterprise. Even in MLS only two of the 16 clubs finished in the black. Mr. Rawlins knew that for sure. And he knew this: investing in soccer in America isn't a get-rich-quick-scheme, it is a down payment on the future of the sport.
At the founding of the team, back in 2008, he even stated he was in it for the long-haul, "My goal is to make the Aztex a community-based club that the Austin area can be proud of."
Their website stated: "The Austin Aztex mission is to help grow the beautiful game of soccer in the greater Austin area."
So where did everything go wrong? How did signing a renewing a three-year lease at House Park (the Austin school district football field the Aztex played at) turn into a jump to Orlando? How did a rumored search to build a modest soccer specific stadium lead to packing up the moving truck? How did one owner's commitment to soccer in Austin, for the long-term, end up as hollow words?
So soccer in America hangs by a thread. Major League Soccer sports many sizable and stable teams in its league. Now in it's 16th season it looks as though MLS will survive and not go the way of the original North American Soccer League and the dodo bird. But several teams hang on through the benevolence of their owners. FC Dallas and New England Revolution, despite the successes of today and yesterday, respectively, throw up pathetic attendance numbers and are most certainly hemorrhaging cash for their owners Clark Hunt and Robert Kraft. How long will they continue to lose money?
The loss of countless numbers of soccer teams and leagues in the United States throughout the sport's history in this country continued to re-enforce the idea that American soccer continues to live on the razor's edge.
If there's one silver lining to this whole debacle it's that it makes what we do here at the Free Beer Movement all the more important. Do I consider the failure of the Aztex and indictment of our efforts here in Austin? Certainly not, but it re-enforces the idea that if we're not careful and out there constantly fighting for this sport that we all love and want to see grow in our backyards then other fans may suffer the same fate as we have.
This frailty of American soccer makes it certain that if you truly love soccer and are living in the United States YOU HAVE AN ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATION TO SUPPORT IT IN ANY FORM, ANYWHERE. If you're in a city that sports a professional franchise, a semi-pro team, or even a college squad what's you excuse, as a soccer fan in America for not supporting the game that is LIVE and LOCAL?
Buy some tickets. Drag a few friends. Make it an event. And why not follow the "Free Beer Movement philosophy" while you're at it?
We cannot sit by idle as our local clubs either fold up or pack up for (supposed) greener pastures. We cannot allow the naysayers to be proven right; that this isn't a soccer nation or that your city isn't a soccer city.
Because it is. Because it is a nation that is captivated by European soccer and Mexican soccer and South American soccer and World Cup soccer, and, over time, increasingly, American soccer.
It may be too late for Austin, but this doesn't have to be the fate of any more soccer teams in the United States.
And as much as it pains me to say this, given what transpired yesterday, for the sake of American soccer, I hope that the newly minted Orlando City Soccer Club is successful. I want Orlando and its soccer fans to prove that the game can be supported there.
Support the Movement. Get the Free Beer Movement T-Shirt. Only from Objectivo.com