MLS is not and for the foreseeable future will not be one of this country’s so-called Big Four, but let no one say the scrappy upstart doesn’t extort American cities like a big-boy league. The league’s rapid expansion—someone without a stake in the matter would say too rapid—has cities from Cincinnati to St. Louis to Charlotte viciously competing against each other to attract a franchise, and that starts by promisingly a publicly funded stadium. But those are all relatively hypothetical. This is the Crew.
The owner of Columbus Crew SC, one of the league’s original teams, three-time Supporters’ Shield winners and 2008 MLS Cup Champions, will announce today his threat to move the team to Austin, Texas, for the 2019 season if the taxpayers of Columbus do not build him a new, downtown stadium to replace the current one, which is just 18 years old.
Anthony Precourt, the San Francisco-based money man who bought the club in 2013, claims to be in the red, and he’s blaming it on Columbus Crew Stadium, the league’s oldest soccer-specific building. But this is a young league; the stadium only opened in 1999. As a place to watch a game, it is entirely fine. It’s not downtown, but it’s not far: About six miles, or 20 or so minutes in rush-hour traffic. The Crew does not need a new stadium.
And yet, Precourt demands the city buy him one. Alex Fischer, head of a group of Columbus business leaders, said they learned of Precourt’s flirtation with Austin a month ago.
When asked if he thought Precourt was seeking public financing or support for the stadiums in Columbus and Austin, Fischer was clear. “I think there’s no question he expects public financing and or support for any stadium in either city,” he said.
Fischer said he was shocked to discover that relocation plans were already so far along. The Columbus Dispatch reports that MLS registered “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic” as trademarks earlier this year, and that Precourt’s plan goes back even further. You can safely read this “source” as speaking directly for Precourt himself:
One source close to the team said a deal to host home games at the University of Texas is “all but done” for 2019. The source also said Precourt paid $68 million — above market value — for the team in 2013 because he long entertained plans to move it.
The purchase agreement contained a promise to keep the team in Columbus for at least 10 years; it also included an escape clause in the case Precourt wanted to move it to Austin.
It’s hard to read whether this move is a fait accompli, or a genuine hardline bargaining tactic. Either is supremely fucked up. Even setting aside the sentiment—the Crew are the league’s “first franchise,” and keepers of Fortress Columbus, long the USMNT’s go-to venue for must-win matches—it is reckless and senseless for a league undergoing questionably sustainable expansion to extort or abandon its heart, and for a city that isn’t even an expansion candidate.
But this is the way of pro sports in America: Passion has nothing to do with it, not beyond what passion can be translated into revenue. I would like to be able to tell Columbus to stand firm, to tell the rich man to build his own damn stadium, but that very well may lose them the Crew, because Austin seems willing to give him what he wants. The stadium grift will work until every single city tells sports owners to fuck off. Sentiment won’t save you.