American football: Austin's obsession with college game

It’s play-off time in college football in the States and that means the fans are out in force – and nowhere more so than Austin, Texas, where their beloved Longhorns play. Matt Gatward pays a visit to witness the devotion

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The Independent Online

When the Formula One roadshow rolled into Austin, Texas, last month the casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that it was the city’s biggest sporting event of the year. True, it attracted a healthy turn-out and stole a headline for a day or two but nothing, nothing, pulls an Austinite in like college football. Or, more specifically, the University of Texas Longhorns college football team.

And especially at this time of year. In the States it’s Bowl time – the end-of-season university play-offs – and that means it’s business time, big business. The Grand Prix is but a distant memory.

Austin, with its population of 850,000, is an unusual American city in that it has no professional team in the big four of American football, basketball, hockey or baseball. So the focus in this very un-Texan University city is the Longhorns. “It’s the only show in town,” explains the man who sells me a Longhorns cap on game day, “with no pro teams to support we’re mad for the Longhorns... That and Downton Abbey,” he adds, after placing my accent.

The Longhorns have an on-campus stadium that accommodates 101,000 spectators and it’s only the sixth largest in college football across the States, yet bigger than any NFL stadium. There are plans to extend to 120,000 in the not-too-distant future, and the stadium is used for only six or seven games per season. It’s not used for anything else, bar training sessions. No need for pop concerts and the like to bring in the additional dollar. Everton, Liverpool, Spurs and the likes can only dream.

The cash comes from university fees but, on top of that, UT makes an incredible $140m (£90m) per year through television deals, sponsorship, bums on seats (it’s never anything but a sell-out, hence the planned extension) and corporate hospitality. A private box at the Longhorns stadium (of which there are 113) costs up to $70,000 for a season, so $10,000 per game, and that doesn’t include the seat or food on game day. And the Texans like to eat so that’s going to add up. Pricey, yep, but not steep enough to put people off: there’s a waiting list. And this is to watch teenagers play gridiron.

One reason the punters are happy to pay top dollar is that they feel part of the gang. There is a weekly lunch for Longhorns members where one of the coaches speaks and talks fans through tactical decisions and plays from the last game. The crowd then get to ask questions, which is all very well if you’ve won... Imagine Arsène Wenger holding a weekly Q&A with Arsenal supporters.

The whole show must be some grounding for the NFL where, of course, the kids hope to move on to. “Oh yeah,” says Ricky Williams, who played for UT before going on to have a successful NFL career with the Miami Dolphins and the New Orleans Saints, “whether it’s the stadium, the media, the scrutiny, playing here really prepared me very well for the NFL. It’s almost like the NFL is a step down after this. You make more money in the NFL but as far the hype goes, this is big. I was given media training and taught to use the media to help me instead of creating issues with them. It was great for me when I moved to the NFL.”

You cannot ignore the Longhorns in Austin. If you don’t like football in this State capital you might as well leave town. It’s like a cult. Merchandise, in the unique burnt orange kit colour, is everywhere and easily one in three people going about their daily business wears some form of nod to the team. On game day that one in three becomes one in one. The town comes to a standstill, the tailgating parties start hours before kick-off and there’s only one subject on anyone’s lips. As Mason Walters, a 20-year-old offensive linesman in the current team, says: “By the time you leave here you’re bleeding burnt orange.”

You could host the whole F1 season in Austin and football would still be king. As Williams puts it: “If you want to be an actor you go to LA, if you want to be in fashion you go to Paris or New York if you want to play football you come to Texas.”

And specifically, Austin. The Longhorns are so popular in town they have a TV station dedicated to them on which Williams is now a pundit. Run by ESPN, the Longhorn Network broadcasts live matches, pre- and post-match shows, player interviews, a programme where the coach (Mack Brown, who earns $5m per year, that’s roughly the same as Sir Alex Ferguson’s annual salary) discusses the games and the like. It is the first TV network to work exclusively with a university. The team dominate the local media, written and broadcast. At a post-game press conference I count 10 TV camera crews and at least 50 newspaper reporters.

That’s a lot of scrutiny for an  18-year-old. “Yeah but when you choose to come here you know what you’re in for,” says Williams. “That’s what I was looking for because I knew if there was a high standard and high expectation it would feed and support the high expectations I had of myself. It takes a special athlete to choose UT.”

“You can get some jeers when you’re out of an evening if you’ve had a bad game,” says Walters of the thought of a night out in Austin, “but I’m usually smart enough to stay home when that’s happened. It’s tough here but the scrutiny and pressure of playing for UT will make what comes after easier.”

So how do you keep an 18-year-old kid who is the centre of everyone’s attention from getting way too big for his boots? “That can be a trick!” says the Longhorns assistant coach Duane Akina. “You constantly gotta work with these kids and let them know that staying grounded could be an issue. Competition helps. Then the kids know if they are not performing or doing the right things away from the field then there is somebody behind them that can take their spot. But it’s one of the tricks – to keep a teenager, mind you, focused at a place like this, where it gains such national media attention.

“We educate them during recruitment, to let them know what this place can do for you. We get the parents involved if we have to. There’s a fine line between letting these guys grow up and... But ultimately, what I know and they know is that I got what they want. I depends [choose] if they play and they all wanna play. The ones that it’s really important to, they understand that.”

“There was a lot of attention from the ladies,” says Williams. “That was my favourite part! But I had a beautiful girlfriend at the time – she kept the girls away.”

But nothing, it seems, can keep the people of Austin away.

ESPN America provides live and exclusive coverage of NCAA College Football to sports fans in Europe, including the end-of-season Bowl games and the Bowl Championship Series in December and January. Comprehensive on-demand coverage is also available via