It is shaping up to be a real Texas showdown: the MLS and Precourt Sports taking on some factions of the residents in Austin who do not want a soccer stadium or team in their city. The original piece here on Frank’s Forum focused more on the mechanics around relocating a team, in this case, the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer (MLS) would move to Austin.
The capital city of Texas is an attractive destination for MLS because of the growing numbers of young professionals and young families, two key demographics for the league. The relocation to Austin is not without controversy, as the Crew are an original MLS franchise; causing factions in Ohio to attempt to keep the team, and factions in Texas who do not want a soccer team .
The stadium is the centerpiece for any MLS team, so the potential relocation to Austin hinges on the location and terms of that central component to the operation of a franchise. The executives at MLS league offices in New York and Precourt Sports have been working with officials in Austin for about nine months now on a stadium site.
The two sites that are on the table, so to speak, right now are the Circuit of the Americas or COTA site and the McKalla Place site. The two sites are very different and present various positives and negatives regarding being selected as the site of a soccer specific stadium.
The Circuit of the Americas is a racetrack just outside of downtown Austin which already has infrastructure in place such as adequate parking and space for a stadium. The soccer stadium would help keep the overall operation of the site busier, it would become essentially a year- round cycle of activity between the racetrack events and the MLS season
The entertainment and other options are somewhat limited at the COTA site. The site is reported to have a pastoral feel to it. The reports in local news out of Austin is that Anthony Precourt (operator of PSV which is the operator of the Crew franchise) has no interest in the COTA site even though some within the Austin political structure favored that location.
The more detailed reporting and some excellent journalism on this topic was done by The Austin Statesman so definitely check out their site as well.
The McKalla Place site is essentially the largest piece of city owned land remaining in the greater Austin city limits. It is located in North Austin but within the downtown core, which is preferable to MLS for a stadium site. That location has entertainment, dining, and hotel options nearby. It is not completely ideal, but it is the best location available within the downtown limits.
However, McKalla Place does not have any infrastructure at all, it is basically an open set of lots. It would need lighting, parking, and utilities to be installed from the ground up. The residents who oppose the soccer stadium have been ramping up the pressure and formulating alternate plans to the City Council.
These alternate plans have no stadium development in them and focus on other needs that the city has such as affordable housing, green space, retail space, a hotel, and buildings to support arts as well as music.
The political side to this scenario is that the city is divided over the land use and the vote will be very close. The Mayor of Austin is in favor of the MLS team coming to town and playing at McKalla Place. The council needs 6 of the 11 members to vote straight up or down on the proposal for the land to be used for a soccer stadium.
Those representing the North Austin district on the council are not in favor of the stadium construction. They are adding amendments to the measure that the Mayor, according to local news sources, has called “poison pill” amendments to try to derail the soccer stadium. The meeting Thursday night postponed the vote until August 15th.
The other proposals for the land have not gained much traction. In my experience covering sports business matters of this type, when a proposal has moved this far and the competing proposals have not been mentioned, it is pretty certain that a stadium is going to get approved in one way or another.
The bigger items around the actual reality if a stadium is voted onto the site are a bit murky. The plans for the site show a mass transit station hub there which is estimated to have a cost around $12 to $15 million. One of those amendments seeks to attach the cost of the transit station to have PSV be responsible for it.
The lease terms for the stadium and how much PSV will pay to rent the facility are on the original terms sheet. The rental fee that PSV will pay is in the range of $400 to $500,000 per year. The city officials put a significantly difficult clause in to block the team from relocating and leaving Austin in the future.
The dissenting members of the council are seeking amendments to the term sheet to double the rent the team would pay to around $900,000 per year and seeks other financial commitments from PSV. The meeting last week contained now debate on those amendments and made no changes to the original terms sheet.
The stark reality here is that Anthony Precourt is a billionaire “operator” of a franchise seeking a sweetheart lease deal without any willingness to commit other money toward infrastructure or mass transit improvements. He is going to end up looking bad in the court of public opinion and perception, but that is probably viewed by both he and MLS as collateral damage in getting the deal that they desire from Austin.
The impact of the vote on August 15th is going to resonate in two cities: it will shape the future of Austin and bring uncertainty to Columbus. The Ohio capital will certainly struggle to find a full-time tenant for that soccer stadium that they are still paying off debt on, and will most likely become a bargaining chip for other cities looking to leverage their current market into a better stadium deal.
In my view, I can understand some of the sentiment in Austin with the residents who are opposed to the soccer club relocating to their city. It will certainly impact the neighborhood in which McKalla Place sits in North Austin, in a way that can be perceived as negative: traffic, environmental impact, noise, and congestion on game dates.
Conversely, the clubs that constitute MLS conduct so much charitable and community service work. These types of efforts would benefit Austin greatly in the years to come, should they become a franchise host city within the league. It may be a “money grab” by Precourt, but I always look at the silver lining in how many jobs it will create and how many people will have positive changes to their lives through sports.
The vote on Wednesday will clarify a very complicated situation and set the course for two cities in the weeks and months ahead. Stay tuned.
(Some background information courtesy of The Austin Statesman, Fox 7 Austin, & Austin Business Journal)