This is an update to an earlier piece on the potential relocation of the Columbus Crew franchise in Major League Soccer (MLS) to Austin, Texas. The whole situation has taken, over the past week, some dramatic twists and turns.
My earlier piece on this topic focused on the politics and business anglings of Crew “principle operator” Anthony Precourt and his company Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV). The article centered upon the process of getting a soccer stadium approved for the McKalla Place vacant plots of land in North Austin.
That measure passed the City Council and the plan was for Precourt to relocate the Crew to Austin and rename the club Austin FC to begin play in 2019. The plan calls for PSV to pay for the construction of the stadium which the city of Austin will take ownership of and then lease back the stadium to the team for games.
However, the Crew relocation is being held up by court litigation in Ohio which has certain laws on the books, one notably known as the “Modell Rule”. This was named for Art Modell, the owner who notoriously and ingloriously moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, where they became the Ravens. It was put in place to have a mechanism to protect professional sports franchises in Ohio from future similar circumstances.
The campaign started by the fans and other interested parties in Columbus was called #SaveTheCrew and it gained traction both in the courts and in the consciousness of the people of Ohio. Then, it gained national recognition because this attempted relocation by PSV of the Crew, which are an original MLS franchise, would have gone down as the most significant violation of fan loyalty in the history of American soccer. It could even be seen as one of the worst moves by an owner in American sports history.
The City of Columbus won the bid for an MLS franchise in the 1990s after being up against Cleveland for the rights to be the league entrant in the region. The tipping point in favor of Columbus at that time was the commitment by the city to build the first soccer specific stadium in the United States at that time.
Unfortunately, Crew Stadium as it was known then (MAPFRE Stadium as it has a corporate sponsored name now) was built on the outskirts of the city limits and has nothing else nearby. It lacks certain amenities for fans and does not have really any luxury boxes or other premium seating which could be used to increase revenue as well as provide a better fan experience.
The #SaveTheCrew movement attracted the attention of Jimmy Haslam, the owner of the Cleveland Browns of the NFL. Haslam assembled a group of investors from his network and they are deep in negotiations to keep the Crew in Columbus. They are actively working with a group called the Columbus Partnership on a new stadium proposal as part of retaining the team in the city.
The new stadium would most likely be located downtown with plenty of accessible public transit options and be close to other points of interest for fans and visitors attending a game. The future use for their current stadium is unknown, but it should be noted that many fans do not like the location of the current stadium.
The news that the Crew are most likely staying put in Ohio led to the inevitable question: what happens to the Austin FC proposal and all the work that people from the league office, Austin officials, and PSV put forth to get a stadium plan for McKalla Place done?
It appears likely that MLS will use an “investor transition” option in this situation. If you recall, in my earlier articles on this topic, I explained that the MLS franchises are not owned by individual men or women or ownership groups like the other sports leagues. MLS is structured as a single-entity meaning that the MLS owns the teams and they have interested investors assigned to each one.
That was the loophole that MLS tried to take with the Ohio lawsuit, arguing that Precourt did not “own” the Crew outright, so they could not sue him. The league is now looking to make the Haslam group the investor for the Columbus Crew, and then they will transition Precourt / PSV to be the investor of a new team in Austin.
That essentially means that Austin FC will still be joining the league in 2019 as an expansion franchise, and that the plans to build a stadium in McKalla Place will move forward as scheduled.
The MLS got what it wanted in the end, it kept an original franchise with a dedicated and established fan base in Columbus and will get a new downtown stadium for the Crew to increase revenue in that market. In addition, they will get access to Austin, the largest U.S. metro area without a major pro sports team, and they will gain that market with no competition for dollars.
In a pure business sense, it was all orchestrated well, but it has an effect on people in both cities as well as in the expansion process. This situation has both winners and losers, like any other situation of the type.
The winners here are MLS, Columbus, and Austin as well as the fans in those cities. The losers are those who are not in favor of building a stadium in that part of Austin, and the other entrants in the expansion process and their fans. The entry of Austin as an expansion team rather than a relocated team, means that only one spot remains in the expansion phase that the league identified to get to 28 teams.
The cities of Phoenix, Sacramento, Charlotte, Raleigh, San Antonio, Indianapolis, Detroit, and Tampa/St. Petersburg are all under consideration for what we all thought was going to be two expansion slots. Those bids each have issues which I have covered in past pieces here on this site.
The Sacramento bid stands out as having the most to lose by Austin now grabbing that other spot. Sacramento was once favored to get a team and is constructing a new stadium downtown but they had some partners leave the investor group. The league has stated that without a big financial investor they will not be awarded an expansion team.
San Antonio also likewise has a doomed bid because the league will never put another team that close to Austin and put a fourth team in Texas. They come out on the losing end due to these developments.
The Tampa/St. Petersburg bid just had an investor change to the group that owns the Tampa Bay Rays of MLB, which is a deeply resourced and financed group. It remains to be seen if that helps their bid for the last seat at the table.
In the end, the precedent set by the team and the league working together to keep the Crew in Columbus is a good one for MLS. The last situation they need as a league is for teams to start moving around the map. They need stability in their franchises. It is great for the fans and the Crew employees and staff to stay in the place they know as home.
The City of Austin gets a shot here to have a big league sports team and the impact that will have on the region and on the expansion process for MLS will be felt for years to come.
(some background courtesy of The Austin Statesman, The Columbus Dispatch, and America Soccer Now, MLS website)