Creative Soccer Culture

Austin FC’s James Ruth Talks The Club, Unity, & That Inaugural Jersey

With Matthew McConaughey banging its drum, a striking new primary kit that’s gained mass approval, and a state-of-the-art soccer park and stadium nearing completion, Austin FC are making waves and gaining the attention of the world. So what do we need to know about the latest MLS franchise team ahead of their debut in 2021? To find out, we spoke with Senior Vice President, Marketing, James Ruth.

Shifting from his position with MLS to take focus back to his hometown club, Ruth was keen to stress the importance of Austin FC to the wider community. This isn’t just a new team joining MLS; this is the first top-division major professional sports team in the city, and it’s set to give Austinites something to really unite over – it’s a club for the people. They are the roots of the great oak. This is a city of passion, of diversity, of creative culture, and all of that is set to be reflected by this exciting new venture as it takes its maiden steps in the big wide world of professional sports. It’s been a long journey, but when the team take to the field in April in the striking visage of Verde and Black, it will have been well worth the wait.

Austin FC has been a club developing rapidly behind the scenes and more and more is becoming visible – how has the brand of the club and message developed over the past few months?

A lot has happened since I joined in March. Before that however, our leadership group and key stakeholders have been committed to this message of everything being about Austin. This isn’t a football club for the sake of creating a football club. This is a team that we want to be an institution of this city. With no other professional sports teams in the city, I feel this club can become an institution that takes the mantle of being the city’s flag bearer. It gives Austinites something to really rally behind.

Despite the fact that this is such a culturally orientated city with so many textures, so many sub-communities, there aren’t many things that allow everybody to cheer under one umbrella. You have things like South By South West, University of Texas and huge, fantastic parts of Austin like that but going to SXSW isn’t like going to a football match with 20,000 other people you can consider close friends. UT is someone we consider as a sister organisation but, we love them but their persona is different to us. They represent the whole of Texas. We’re specifically about Austin.

Austin is a place made up of so many different types of people. It’s a magnet city that attracts people. This club really gives all those people who have wanted to show their passion for the place, a chance to do so. It’s about football but it has become much more than that. It’s a huge opportunity for us. As well as that passion, it shows what soccer / football can provide people. I think this game is the most culturally orientated sport in the world and in a city like Austin, we’re the perfect medium for football to have a home. The diversity of Austin is so rich. You have people that come all over the planet to be here and make this place a home because of the legend of this place. Football then gives these people a place and an experience to celebrate that connection to a place.

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With that being the opportunity, we really wanted to be the club that reflects the creative culture of Austin and the texture of the people that live here. The ambition of this club is to really be for the people. I think we’re finally, after months in the making, that is happening. We’re making the relationships with the creatives of Austin, we know them and they now know us. We’re developing friendships with people and that really matters in Austin. It’s not a place where you’d hire an agency and get them to bring influencers to a shoot – we want real people to help create the culture of this club. You have to know these people for them to be in your orbit.

We’re also bringing on really exciting people to be part of the club – our designers, photographers, our creative resource is made up of people who know the sport but most importantly are passionate about how this club can be a conduit for Austin - that goes for soccer fans and for non soccer fans alike.

That has been a big consideration for us. How do we bring in that wider Austin community and convert them into being part of this club, supporting what we’re doing and making sure it reflects them. That was the thrust behind our first campaign, Verde Listas - we were taking people who were iconic for this city whether they’re well known or not. People like Neon Sign artist Evan Goldhart - he has made 80% of the neon signs in Austin. When you think about the aesthetic of this city, he’s the one creating it with his own hands. For us to make him part of the narrative speaks a great deal in saying, we want to be a catalyst for all those things that make Austin great.

The way the world is right now, you wouldn’t want to call it perfect timing but to offer people something that brings them together – football can be an escape. Can you feel excitement and energy building towards the club on a local level?

What I’ve been really encouraged by is the feedback from fans. Particularly those who have been with us and rooting for this club to be an established thing. I think what a lot of people don’t realise or know is that it has taken years to get this team here. So much work has gone in behind the scenes to make this idea a reality. There are a lot of fans in Austin who were fundamental to making that happen. This isn’t a months-of-excitement-building-thing for them, it’s a years-in-the-making level of excitement.

When you fight for a club to start in your city, you have a notion of what you want the club to be. To that point, the best feedback I have heard is that “you guys are doing what I hope you would be doing” - Making it about Austin. It’s not just about a club showing up or a team of big names. That’s really encouraging. We know that we’re not always going to get it right. We’ll take some hits along the way – this club is a living, growing organism but to hear that feedback now, it shows that the direction we’re heading in is right for the people here.

Do we think it’s unfortunate that the club is growing in Covid-19 times? Yeah, it’s unfortunate but it’s like everything – we’re finding a way. From Zoom calls with supporters, discussing what a match day must feel like and going into the detail of the Austin FC experience, we’re still having those conversations and creating those relationships. The silver lining to all this is that when we do finally get beyond this pandemic – and let’s hope that happens soon – this club is going to be one of the first opportunities for Austinites to get together and cheer for something.

This thing for us and the distance it’s meant we all need to keep may be just like we’re pulling the sling shot back even further where celebrations are concerned. When we have the opportunity to come together, it’s going to be that much more exciting. There will be this outpouring of emotion and release of excitement that comes with it. Nobody can predict the future but it should be a fantastic time to come together.

It’s another good success story in itself. To build a stadium during this time, do all the work behind the scenes and create all you have during this time, imagine what happens when it comes into reality and you can continue to build when not in a pandemic?

It may sound like a strange thing to say but I'm so indebted and the club as a whole is so indebted to all these people who have been working so hard to bring the club into reality over the past six months to a year. All the construction workers that have put in time, changed how they’ve worked, made it fit for Covid times and still doing all the work and still putting us on time, it’s meant that by Spring 21, we’re going to be absolutely ready to kick off. That’s huge and incredibly impressive to see.

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With Austin being such a culturally rich city, we’d almost expect a match day to be a new proposition. Is that fair to say? How will a game a the new stadium be bespoke to Austin?

Whether it’s different or not, we feel it’s fundamental to start with and build that experience with our supporters. The guys and girls who have been spending the time making this club happen, it’s their vision we need to make a reality. So in the conversations we’ve been having around game day experience, the conversation has all been flowing between us at the club and supporters. We’ve been making sure we pick up the ideas that they are emanating and are excited about. If those supporters are excited about a certain aspect then the 3500 who will be in that particular support section of the crowd will drive that noise and energy for the rest in the stadium to follow.

We’re not interested in getting into an arms race with all the ritual and all that stuff. While that stuff is hugely important and very much what we want to create, we want to make sure those nuances are a real symbol of what this club is about. Examples are Timber Joey in Portland or the ritual that LAFC have created - it’s all because it’s led by supporters - they have driven it while the club have enabled it. At the end of the day, they’re the ones who will be stood up, chanting, doing Tifo’s until 4am – all that kind of stuff. They are fundamental elements we want but it has to be true to Austin.

There will be another crowd who come to games who may or may not know soccer. We want to blow them away and get them saying “holy shit! What the hell is going on in this stadium – there’s people holding a 40ft banner, constantly chanting, making the atmosphere for the rest of the stadium”. That’s really cool that clubs have got there. We want that too and we want to create that connection and that place for passion like that to live.  We. Have a chance to deliver something totally new to this city - at the same time though, it will be something built entirely on Austin culture. It’s like we’re giving Austin a new medium and a new way to celebrate this city which is something that I think is really, really cool. It’s all going to emanate from our supporters groups.

We have some great tech facilities in the stadium too. The lighting, the use of LEDs which can create all kinds of colours, the sound system is going to be the best in the MLS. So we have the raw assets like that set a standard while also providing the blank canvas supporters need to really bring this club to life. 

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The biggest thing we wanted to do in how we released the kit, is to always remind people that this club is about Austin, it’s about this city"

When you think about the kit dropping, it’s such a strong visual representation as to what the club is about. How much is that a milestone moment for the club?

It’s a huge milestone. It’s an opportunity our whole team is hugely honoured by. To release a kit that looks to personify this place, this club and the whole movement, it’s a huge moment for us all. The biggest thing we wanted to do in how we released the kit, is to always remind people that this club is about Austin, it’s about this city, it’s about being a conduit to celebrating all those things that make this city be a legendary city, way before Austin FC was here. That really drove the creative concept for how we launch the kits. We took a step back and said “we want this club to be a flag bearer for Austin”. You then think about…”how do you translate that feeling into a kit launch?”

Our goal is to have all our fans wearing this kit when our team plays. We want it to be this feeling that when Austin FC is playing, everybody is putting on their Verde and Black because that’s just what you do as an Austinite. That’s our culture as people who live in this city. That then became a launch pad for us to say "what would the kit look like as a true uniform for a bus driver, for a pit master, a musician or a muralist". That then became the way to say, this kit is way more than our 11 that will be on a pitch on a match day. It’s an opportunity for everybody to present themselves with pride as an Austinite. That’s the creative idea that will underpin the visuals and the story telling that will go with our kit releases. We want to bring the elements of people, these characters into all the stories we tell. Other clubs may try to make themselves the beacon saying “we’re here, pray to this alter and look up to the club”. We want this to be a club that is on equal footing to the people of this city. We want it to be something that is seen as somewhere there is mutual appreciation. It’s not just “we’re this big thing and everything in Austin is at a different level”. We’re all equal here.

There is a lot of disconnect or at least there has been with clubs and their fans in Europe in the past. While there are Hollywood connections with this club, it sounds like you’re dedicated to keeping this connection real…

Austin is a place for the people. There is this “Keep Austin Weird” Monika that follows the city around and I’ve always felt like that’s been misinterpreted. It’s not about being weird for the sake of being weird. It’s more saying “come as you are”, do your thing, be who you are. The only pre-requisite about you being a resident of this city is to be true to yourself. You bring up the Hollywood reference because of the huge role that McConaughey has played in making this club happen. In a lot of ways though, he’s so emblematic of that way of thinking. He’s done things his own way. He’s broken rules in his own way and led his own path. In a Hollywood connected way, in a place with such glamour, he’s such a good personification of the Austin way. Austin has always been the place that has endeavoured to be it’s own place. Perhaps sometimes at the cost of things looking crisp and clean. It’s like there’s creativity here without the polish. The creativity that exists in Austin is so real, it’s not merely for the sake of looking good, it’s progressive and it’s honest and it’s truly artistic.

We’ve taken inspiration for that in the way we’ve built the creative elements around the club. We want things to feel organic though rich in quality. We’ve not gone by the traditional rules that go in a club launch playbook. Out of the gate we messed with our badge, played with the colours and tried to push things.

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So Austin is a healthy home for people with Individual character and a home for rebels at the same time…

Yeah exactly. Austin has always had that. If you were in Dallas or Houston or another city and you didn’t fit in to the box of those places, people would say “you belong in Austin”. That’s what people would say, and it’s true. We want to celebrate that. We wear that with a badge of pride. This is the land for people who want to zig when others want to zag. It’s really cool - it means we get this really great mix of culture and a really great feeling within the city. We’re almost like a bunch of misfits. You have all these awesome natives of the place and then all these other people who come to the city because they feel something special, they feel that magnet pull them to the city.

In the global landscape of football, people are always looking for that second team they can follow or an obscure jersey they can represent. Do you see the opportunity there on a global level as well as a local one?

Yeah there’s a huge opportunity for us there. It may sound up in the clouds but this is an ethos city. This is a state of mind kind of place. Austin is as much about the physical  place as it is the state of mind people have here. That’s why it has become a magnet city. I think if we can do the best job in addressing that state of mind and the ethos that is here, then we’ll pick up fans all over the world who are looking to a club that reflects people who think differently. Whether that’s the UK, Germany, Japan or wherever if we can present ourselves in a way that sparks excitement then we will have shown people what Austin is about. Much like the creative that will come with our kit drop - if you know nothing about Austin, if you’ve never heard of it or never been here, this message that comes in the way we present the kit will show you elements that makes the city. It’s obviously a really really ambitious thing to shoot for, in that we want people who have no idea about the place to have this story telling really resonate with them but we have to take a swing and aim for those highs.

What does the black and green colour palette give you to work with?

Well there’s nothing cooler than the colour black. So we’re off to a great start there. We’ve used that a ton in our stadium. Our seats are green but we have that black vibe running through a lot of the brick work and various parts of the stadium. I love the green too. It pops. It’s not a safe shade of green. When you see it on its own, that bright Verde, across a big sign - it jumps out. The calibration of something that’s really bold but also incredibly transferrable, I feel we’ve got that at the right level. I love the energy of it all. The juxtaposition of that black along side the popping green, it’s such a bold way to start what we have. We’re so progressed from the get go because of that colour choice. We’re cooking with gas from the off because of how wearable our colours are.

The Austin FC shirt is available to order through

Daniel Jones

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