Austin FC Pop-Ups: More Than Merch
It’s Friday, September 21 in Austin, and fall is definitely not in the air.
Yet despite the muggy weather seemingly on loan from Houston, Austin FC brand ambassadors Kelan Robinson and Gissela SantaCruz are driving to an iconic Austin location, to do what they’ve been doing in the 30 days since the team unveiled its name and logo.
Today, they’ve chosen the Daniel Johnston-painted “Hi, How Are You” mural on 21st and Guadalupe, across the street from the University of Texas campus. The mural harkens back to the 1990s Austin that inspired a young Richard Linklater to film Slacker, a cinematic love letter to what was then still a laid-back college town. Though Austin’s changed remarkably since “Hi, How Are You” first went up, it remains an iconic reminder of its roots as a town that, to borrow from the city’s unofficial motto, keeps it weird.
Robinson takes to social media to let followers know they’ve arrived and will be there for the next half hour. Within minutes, people start arriving, looking to grab a shirt or a hat or a sticker bearing the new distinctive Austin FC tree logo. For most of those coming to the rendezvous point, it’s their first chance to truly celebrate the Major League Soccer team coming to Austin, and let other people know they’re excited.
19-year-old Blake Skaggs, the first to arrive on this Friday, notes, “I’m a really big sports enthusiast, and having a major league team come to Austin means a lot to me.” Though he’s followed MLS in recent years, he’s become especially excited this year as the prospect of having a team in his city became more and more real.
“Soccer’s a perfect fit for the demographic and culture of Austin, and I think it will pull Austin together” says Moe Salas, a 22-year-old marketing student at UT who muses that the new team might even unite the Longhorns and Aggies who keep one of Texas’s fiercest rivalries going.
“I’m already talking to my boyfriend and brothers about season tickets,” adds Roma Desai, 35, who is a relatively new arrival to Austin, but a lifelong soccer fan happy to see the sport arrive in her new adopted home.
Though these pop-up events bring people from all across Austin, gloriously diverse in their ages and ethnicities and occupations, they all have one thing in common: They’re all happy, and even ecstatic, that Austin FC is coming.
Robinson and SantaCruz are still amazed at how quickly soccer fans mobilize upon seeing a social media post, and this Friday is no exception. Construction workers and cable repairmen drive by, pull over, and get Robinson to hook them up. One soccer fan already driving around with an Austin FC sticker on her Mini Cooper gathers up a few more stickers. Students and neighborhood residents out walking their dogs converge on the mural, spending a few minutes to share their excitement over their team.
And then, a half hour after they started, the shirts and hats have been scooped up, with only a small stash of stickers remaining. They’ll wait a couple of days, gather up more swag, pick another iconic location, and set out again to meet more fans.
The rollout is by design, according to Robinson. Rather than flood Austin with hats and shirts and stickers, they’re using this initial post-announcement phase to connect one-on-one with fans, looking to broader outreach as plans for Austin FC’s inaugural season take a more defined shape.
“We are creating opportunities to connect with supporters in all corners of this community,” Robinson says. “Smaller events allow us to meet and talk with people in a way that a big merchandise giveaway event wouldn’t.”
Robinson, born and raised in East Austin, and SantaCruz, who came to Austin to attend UT more than 20 years ago, both became involved in the MLS2ATX movement created to rally public support for soccer in Austin. They were instrumental in convincing the City of Austin to partner with Precourt Sports Ventures on the plan to complete a soccer-specific stadium on the McKalla Place site by 2021, speaking at a series of public meetings that revealed considerable public support for bringing MLS to Austin.
Now, with the City Council’s approval secured and the new brand launched, they’re helping to spread the news that Austin FC’s coming. They began the pop-up events just two days after the brand reveal event, selecting Austin’s historic Treaty Oak as the first location to meet fans and hand out merch.
They’ve also gone to statues celebrating two of the city’s most notable music legends, Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughn, a beloved East Austin mural on 12th and Chicon celebrating myriad African-American cultural influencers, and famed local restaurants throughout the city.
Along the way, they’ve included City Council members Greg Casar and Pio Renteria as part of their ongoing campaign to connect with fans. One of Robinson’s favorite memories involves Renteria meeting a fan who wanted a shirt just as the team ran out; as he remembers, “Pio took off the Austin FC shirt he was wearing and handed it to the fan; he literally took the shirt off his back.”
“We’re riding a wave that was organically created on the night of the brand reveal,” SantaCruz notes. “As soon as people at the brand reveal who got merch started posting on social media, there was such a positive reaction, with people wanting to get their hands on it, it clicked. We knew there was a wave here, and we knew we’d be able to reach out to the fan base forming. We knew we wanted to go to the people.”
The social media outreach has definitely been a two-way street; Robinson is especially amazed at how many people have requested he come out to their particular neighborhoods, and has been buoyed by the responses when the team has taken some of their suggestions. That feedback has led them to reach beyond the Austin city limits — one of their most successful pop-ups was a trek out to Round Rock, where fans braved a rainstorm to meet the team.
“Some of my favorite moments in this have been seeing fans of different teams coming together,” recalls SantaCruz, picking up on allegiances to Premier League teams, La Liga teams, and even different national teams that define Austin’s diverse and large soccer-watching community. “There was one father and son who talked about being fans of different teams, and the son said, ‘Now we can finally root for the same team.’”
Both Robinson and SantaCruz have marveled most at how excited people are to get involved, wanting to know how they can volunteer or otherwise work with Austin FC as the team gets closer to arrival.
“They’re not just following us for free stuff,” SantaCruz assesses. “They’re following us to become part of a community.”
To find the Austin FC pop-ups, follow the MLS2ATX Twitter account at https://twitter.com/mls2atx and the Instagram account at https://www.instagram.com/mls2atx/. (And be sure to attend our MLS in Austin Supporter Celebration at Jack and Ginger’s, 11500B Rock Rose, on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 4 p.m., for a chance at the latest supporter group-branded gear.)
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