Columbus appears to face an uphill battle with Austin to retain Crew SC
Anyone who was a fan of the San Jose Earthquakes back in 2005 can tell their Columbus Crew SC counterparts how this story ends.
Back then it was the Anschutz Entertainment Group who insisted they were doing everything they could to keep the Earthquakes in San Jose. Never mind the years of rumors that the team would be moved, sold, or both. If only the local politicians would see fit to subsidize a new stadium, then the Quakes would remain in the South Bay.
It didn't happen. At the conclusion of the 2005 season -- a Supporters Shield-winning campaign at that -- a sense of dread permeated the fan base and, once the spiral started, there was no stopping it. The franchise moved to Houston shortly thereafter.
Twelve years later, history looks set to repeat itself. Now it is Anthony Precourt, CEO of Precourt Sports Ventures and chairman of Columbus Crew SC, who is issuing the "build me a stadium or else" edict.
In this case, he is pitting the cities of Columbus and Austin against each other, a tactic that is as contemptible as it is familiar in the world of sports ownership. The first to come up with a stadium plan gets the award of an MLS franchise.
Crew SC president Dave Greeley insisted that when it comes to a stadium: "We're just starting to have these conversations with Austin."
But this is one race that looks to be employing a staggered start, and one that isn't in favor of Columbus, as the city's mayor noted on Tuesday morning. A Columbus Dispatch report cites a source close to the team saying a deal to play temporarily at the University of Texas starting in 2019 is "all but done."
The Dispatch also revealed the juicy detail that, when PSV purchased the franchise from Hunt Sports Group in 2013, Precourt inserted an out clause allowing him to move the team to Austin and avoid keeping the team in Columbus for the otherwise contractually obligated 10 years.
Then there are Precourt's own words. He spoke of his talks with Columbus' political and business leaders as being "extensive, exhaustive." When asked if he thought the city of Columbus was standing behind him, Precourt spoke of the organization's subpar revenues from attendance, season ticket numbers, and sponsorship compared to other mid-market teams in MLS before concluding: "I think there's room for improvement."
Would having a new stadium in Columbus even be enough to turn things around? Precourt answered: "That's part of the conversation. As you develop a new stadium plan, you'll have conversations with founding sponsors, and a new stadium naming rights sponsor. Having sponsors in any market, they need to believe in the new stadium plan."
All told this is a man who seems tired of Columbus. On top of that, Precourt seems eager to embrace Austin. He spoke of a "long-standing affinity" for the Texas capital, though on some levels it seems odd. Both cities are comparable in size and have attention-hogging public universities in their midst: Ohio State in Columbus and the University of Texas in Austin. Columbus also is the bigger television market. But part of Precourt's calculus is gauging where Austin will be in 10 years as opposed to where it is now.
"Austin has a growing presence as a national and international city," he said. "With soccer being the world's game, I think this bodes well for Austin. Austin is consistently ranked as one of the country's most attractive cites to live and work in. It has a vibrant economy that is growing faster than any of the other major cities in the U.S., it's millennial, it's multicultural, it's a great soccer market. It's got an international reputation. I think it compares very favorably to some of our most successful markets in MLS, being Portland, Orlando, Kansas City."
It's Precourt's team to do with as he pleases, so long as his fellow owners are willing to go along. And you can bet they will for the same reasons owners in other sports rarely, if ever, stand in the way of a relocation.
Sure, the league is saying all the right things about how it's never good for a team to pull up stakes and move somewhere else. But owners are aware that some day it could be them trying to find a city willing to acquiesce to their stadium wishes. If Precourt decides to move, he should reach the necessary two-thirds majority on the MLS Board of Governors easily. It just seems disingenuous to suggest that this is a fair fight.
There will no doubt be ripple effects on the current expansion race. Crew SC leaving Ohio would certainly ease the path for Cincinnati to get one of the four slots, while simultaneously leaving San Antonio, which had touted its close proximity to Austin as a plus for its bid, with almost no shot; it looks like it has been upstaged by its neighbor to the northeast.
As for Columbus, maybe the only comfort it can take is that there are no absolutes in these kinds of situations. San Jose had to wait a mere two years to get its team back, though it meant starting at the bottom as an expansion franchise. That was a different time, however, and the San Francisco Bay Area is important in terms of the league's national footprint. Columbus, if it is indeed spurned, cannot count on anything remotely resembling a similar outcome.
Instead, Columbus will be left to engage in a mad sprint to beat Austin to the tape. A victory seems unlikely, though, as Precourt seems to already have taken two steps -- and then some -- in the direction of Texas.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.