The domestic soccer world learned on Tuesday that Cincinnati has been granted admission into MLS (Major League Soccer) as the 26th franchise in the top circuit in North America. The “race to 28” which is the expansion plan by the league to get to 28 franchises by the year 2020, has long been detailed here on Frank’s Forum.
The Cincinnati club will begin play in 2019 and will fill a void in that area of the map for MLS as they look to expand their reach into new markets for soccer. The bid was successful based on a variety of factors: they have an established fan base as the current USL team there has shattered attendance records averaging over 24,000 fans per game and frequently selling over 30,000 tickets to home matches, they have a stable investment group of local business leaders, and they have plans for a new stadium with government support.
However, in my view, the Cincinnati bid for expansion was fast-tracked because of the uncertainty surrounding a current MLS franchise (an original franchise no less) the Columbus Crew SC. Some fans of MLS may already be aware, but for those who are unaware, the situation in Columbus is this: the franchise operator Anthony Precourt wants to move the team to Austin, TX and they are in the middle of a lawsuit in Ohio with a group that aims to keep the team from relocating.
The desire to relocate to Austin was not pulled out of the ether, the impetus for the move was due to a common theme in pro sports in America: a dispute over a new stadium. The Crew play in the first soccer specific stadium to be built in MLS in Columbus, which was a key component of their bid back in the mid-1990s to get one of the original bids for franchise ahead of Cleveland, which had no plan for a dedicated stadium for a soccer team.
However, that facility in Columbus is now viewed as outdated compared to other state of the art facilities that have been constructed by other MLS franchises in the two decades since the Crew SC were born into the league. The plan hatched by Mr. Precourt was to use Austin as leverage against Columbus and see which city gave him the best deal on a new stadium; which is a move that has been used by other owners in other sports for years.
Columbus officials felt that the residents would not approve any measure allocating public funds (tax revenue) towards the construction of a new soccer facility for the team. They countered with a plan to renovate the existing stadium to make some enhancements that would benefit both the players and the fans.
Mr. Precourt balked at the renovation, and according to reliable news outlets, began privately ratcheting up his negotiations with Austin public officials stating that he intends to move the team to the Texas capital city. This brought about the court action which has taken several twists and turns in the past few months. It also angered the investment groups bidding for expansion teams in other markets because they were seen to be ahead of Austin in the running for a spot and saw this maneuver as Austin trying to “cut the line” and gain a team without going through the full expansion process.
In my perspective, the circumstances surrounding Crew SC provided the conditions for Cincinnati to gain an expansion bid ahead of other cities because MLS was looking at the prospect of having no franchise presence in Ohio. The population demographics and the geographic location of Ohio makes it a critical market for any professional league from a business standpoint.
The Cincinnati entry into MLS next year “covers their bases” if Precourt moves Crew SC to Texas. The bid for Cincinnati had a leg up on other bids because they do not have to wait for a stadium to be built – they are going to play in their current home, Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati for a few years. This enables the club to join and begin play seamlessly in 2019 because they are not rebranding the USL club colors.
This is to take nothing away from the investment group in Cincinnati or the Mayor or other public officials there who put together a very organized bid compared to other cities who have struggled (Sacramento, Detroit, and St. Louis jump to mind). The plan for the West End stadium is very bold and innovative and will seek to achieve what so many other MLS stadiums have been commissioned to do in the past: turn around a blighted neighborhood of a major American city.
The league now will have a presence in Ohio regardless of what happens in Columbus which will appease the major national sponsors and the league’s TV partners: ESPN, Fox Sports, and Univision. FC Cincinnati will have a natural rival with the new Nashville expansion team which will be joining MLS soon as well, so if Columbus does lose the Crew, the regional rivalry can be easily ramped up with Nashville.
The demographics for Cincinnati and Austin are similar, both are attracting young professionals starting their careers or under 35 years old: MLS targets this demographic and covets it. The officials in Austin have big plans for a stadium there for soccer and they would have built-in rivals with FC Dallas and Houston Dynamo both playing in the Lone Star State currently for MLS.
The court action has damaged the business for Crew SC this season, with bad weather and fan apathy playing a part in dwindling home crowds for the matches held there so far this season. I was watching past games via the ESPN+ app which has the streaming rights to all the MLS games, and the home match I saw with Crew SC had camera angles showing an nearly empty stadium.
The court proceeding has played out very publicly in Ohio throughout the media. The latest tactic by the group in Columbus was to attempt a court injunction using the “Modell rule” which was adopted after Art Modell moved the Baltimore Colts NFL franchise in the middle of the night to Indianapolis. The rule seeks to prevent a current team owner from relocating a team without first providing another group in the team’s current local area from putting together a competing proposal to purchase the team.
The counterpoint argument by Mr. Precourt’s attorneys was very smart. I have written in the past that MLS is a single entity model structure which means that MLS owns all of the teams and the local groups are “operators” of the franchises. The legal argument was that MLS was the owner of Crew FC, not Precourt Sports Group, and MLS owns many teams in many states, so as operator of a franchise Mr. Precourt was essentially just following orders.
In the end the court will decide and that ruling could be appealed to a federal court because it is considered interstate commerce and a bunch of other legal jargon being thrown around will serve as a distraction. It will serve as a distraction from the fact that MLS wants to be in Austin because they think it provides a better long- term demographics forecast in the future than Columbus. The translation: they can make more money in Austin and play in a new facility with better revenue controls than the deal they have in Columbus.
Those factors all benefitted a Cincinnati group which was a little late to the expansion table, to get a seat ahead of other entrants who have been working for many years to put all the pieces together for a successful bid. The MLS walks away a winner because the Cincinnati team will be very successful at drawing fans because they have proven that already, they potentially gain access to the untapped Austin marketplace without giving up an expansion spot to another city, which means the league will still be able to add two more teams to get to 28 franchises.
The situation in Columbus is fluid as are the developments in Detroit with the land swap deal with the site of the jail, Sacramento and their quest for a stable “operator” to join the investment group, Phoenix trying to get their act together overall, and St. Petersburg trying to convince MLS that a third Florida franchise makes long-term business sense.
The league is growing, my own view is that I hope it does not grow too large that it collapses due to over expansion, only time will tell.