The news that the Columbus Crew could be relocating to Austin, Texas came as a shock to many MLS fans. The Crew are a founding team in the league and MAPFRE Stadium was the first soccer specific venue in MLS. The team has a storied history and since 2001, its stadium was the chosen venue for matches played against Mexico in Men’s World Cup qualification.*
That all may change as of 2018. Crew owner Anthony Precourt said that he would be moving the team to Austin if a new stadium in downtown Columbus were not built. MAPHRE Stadium is not the most advanced in MLS. It is seemingly ridiculous that the notion of moving from a stadium that is not even 20 years old is even being entertained. Yet, that is exactly the situation Crew fans find themselves in.
Precourt, who bought the team in 2013, knew full well the status of the stadium then and yet was still willing to purchase the Crew despite this. That may be because, according to reports, he purchased the team for $68 million at above its market value because he always planned to relocate it. With an MLS franchise fee going for well over $100 million, he may have actually saved money by buying an existing club and moving it to the city of his choice.
One of the more perplexing things about Precourt’s motivations for moving the team is his focus on revenue and the profitability of the club. MLS teams are relatively unprofitable, in 2015 half of the teams in the leagues lost money, for example. What makes the league so attractive it not only its growth, but the fact that its marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, is driving the profits for the league. This severely undermines the “it’s a business” reasoning that could justify the decision. Add to it that Austin is a smaller market than Columbus and that Dallas and Houston have struggled to find support in the state, and the decision to move the team seems all the more strange.
A gamble for Precourt
Of course, Precourt is also assuming that he will be able to get public funding for a new stadium in Austin. Voters recently rejected plans for a stadium in St. Louis, a proposed soccer venue in San Diego is in limbo, and even Minnesota United’s approved stadium took years to get final approval. The later stadium is also in St. Paul, far from the center of Minneapolis because approval for a venue there could not be arranged.
There is little doubt that Precourt has been in touch with policymakers in Austin given that the city is set to have votes before the end of 2017 and in early 2018 to possibly approve a soccer stadium. However, votes have uncertain outcomes and Precourt may have backed himself into a situation where he has alienated fans, showed the city of Columbus that he has acted in bad faith, and even acted against the wishes of the league.
The notion that this is a purely business decision is a lazy and uncritical one. One of the great myths, at worse, or misnomers, at best, about MLS is that it is a league made up of clubs. The Columbus Crew Soccer Club, Orlando City Soccer Club, New York City Football Club, even Atlanta United Football Club, all reflect the idealized version of something that MLS does not have: real soccer clubs. These are franchises owned by extremely rich people or groups of extremely rich people. They contrast to true football clubs that are partly controlled by fans, as is the situation in the Bundesliga, for example.
While supporters may not have an ownership stake in MLS teams that could influence the decisions that franchises make, in the end they are the ones providing value to the owners. Precourt is committing one of the great sins of professional sports by acting as if the Columbus Crew has value and is worth moving because he owns it. The team’s value is a direct result of the support from fans.
This is a lesson that Liverpool’s American owners’ group learned early last year when they sought to increase ticket prices and faced harsh criticism for their proposal. In addition to the product on the field, what soccer sells is passion, tradition, and atmosphere. None of that exists without the fans who have significantly invested time, money, and effort into creating the product that soccer sells. This is a fact that goes unnoticed in purely business terms that reduce the sport to a number at the bottom of a spreadsheet.
It seems obvious that Precourt does not care about soccer and does not care about Columbus as much as he does the perceived economic incentive he has for moving the team. The risk between needing a buyer for the Columbus Crew in 2013 and having one that would betray the fans of the team is one that is inherent in the franchise system that MLS uses. It is another devil’s bargain that MLS constantly asks fans to make along with not having promotion and relegation in favor of protecting owners, basing its model on a franchise system in order to get enough investment to compete in a crowded American sports marketplace rather than developing grassroots led clubs, having a collective bargaining agreement that heavily favors owners to encourage investment while restricting the type of talent that could come to MLS, or refusing to allow youth club teams to accept solidarity payments in order to protect MLS from paying training compensation.
Precourt may not end up moving the team, he might not get the stadium he wants in downtown Columbus, and there are still a lot of steps between an announcement that is more than tinged with a hint of hostage taking to executing his threats, but no matter how this ends up this is a bad look for Precourt and MLS. He’s essentially leveraging something that the team’s supporters built for his own gain and the league has enabled him to do it.
*edited for typo, thank you to those who pointed this out.