Manuel Veth –
Major League Soccer is nearing its final week of the regular season. Labelled decision day both the Eastern and the Western Conference could still see some significant movement in the standings determining the final playoff rankings in the league. In the West, for example, four teams could still finish first, and San Jose, Dallas and Salt Lake are battling it out for the final playoff spot. In the Eastern Conference New York City, Chicago Fire, Atlanta United and Columbus Crew still have a shot at the second place, which will send a club straight through to the Eastern Conference semi-finals.
Although Columbus Crew still have a shot at the second spot, thanks to the fact that the first tiebreaker is overall wins rather than the goal differential, the headlines have not been about the playoffs, but rather about potential relocation to Austin, Texas. The news that owner Anthony Precourt could move the franchise south broke this week and is another blow to the fabric of US soccer just days after the US Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. ESPN reported on Tuesday that the Columbus Crew—one of the founding members of Major League Soccer and MLS Cup champions in 2008—ownership group is eyeing a move to Austin should the city of Columbus not approve a new downtown stadium. ESPN further pointed out that the plan of exploiting downtown stadium options in both Columbus and Austin also had the backing of Major League Soccer.
ESPN reported on Tuesday that the Columbus Crew—one of the founding members of Major League Soccer and MLS Cup champions in 2008—ownership group is eyeing a move to Austin should the city of Columbus not approve a new downtown stadium. ESPN further pointed out that the plan of exploiting downtown stadium options in both Columbus and Austin also had the backing of Major League Soccer.
Speaking to the media owner, Precourt said: “MLS is enjoying unprecedented growth, and our league peers are improving on and off the field, year over year. So that high-water mark keeps getting higher and higher, and we have an ambition as a club. We want to be one of the standard bearers in MLS; we want to be a successful club on and off the field.”
Columbus Crew to Austin – A Ploy for a Better Stadium Deal
Officially, the big issue for the Columbus Crew and their ownership has been attendance. The club has averaged 15,439 throughout the season, which ranks the Crew 20th out of the 22 teams in the league and far below the average attendance of 21,918. Precourt has therefore identified the need for a new stadium for the club to grow: “It’s really about keeping up with our peers, having strong ambitions, and getting to a world-class, state-of-the-art new soccer stadium.”
The reality, however, is that the Crew already have a relatively new stadium. Opened in 1999 the MAPFRE Stadium was the first ever soccer-specific stadium opened in in the country. Precourt believes that a lack of entertainment options and “antiquated infrastructure” has hurt the club in growing its attendance. Furthermore, Columbus’ attendance is not too far behind the rest of the league when one takes out the likes of Atlanta and Seattle, who average more than 40,000 a game and therefore heavily skew attendance figures.
Bottom four MLS teams in avg. attendance are all originals:
D.C. United 16,434
FC Dallas 15,106
— Paul Kennedy (@pkedit) October 17, 2017
As for sponsorship and business support, investors were shocked by the news that the club could move shortly. Furthermore, the recent naming rights deal for the stadium with MAPFRE, as well as a new sponsorship deal with Acura, for example, shows that the club can attract sponsors. Furthermore, the stadium is located just six miles outside the city core and as far as soccer stadiums go a fantastic place to watch games and the design of the stadium also would allow for an easy upgrade of the facility.
Furthermore, Precourt has received offers from local investors that wanted to invest in the team to keep the franchise in Columbus. The Columbus Dispatcher, for example, reported that Alex Fischer of the Columbus Partnership said that a group of business leaders had approached Precourt with offers to buy the club outright or to go into a 50-50 partnership. Precourt rejected both approaches.
Furthermore, a few stakeholders in Columbus appeared to be caught off-guard by the nature of Tuesday’s announcement, including Mayor Andrew Ginther. “I have met with the owner and business partners of Crew SC, and shared our thoughts on ways to find the best solutions to keep the team in Columbus. Unfortunately, we did not receive full engagement from the team’s ownership,” Ginther said in a statement. “We were surprised to learn of their decision in this way. Losing the Crew to another city would be a huge disappointment to their loyal and growing fan base in Columbus.”
Instead, everything points towards Precourt flirting with a move to Austin to get a stadium financed through public money. Precourt bought the club in 2013, and although a clause in the sales contract stated that he would not be able to move the organisation for ten years, there was an escape clause put in place that exempted the city of Austin. According to the Columbus Dispatcher MLS had already registered the Austin FC and Austin Athletics as trademarks earlier this year—an odd move given that Austin was taken off a potential list of future MLS expansion franchises that could join the league in 2020.
Finally, the Dispatcher also reported that Precourt already had a deal in place to play at the University of Texas starting in 2019. All of this is terrible news for one of the most historic MLS markets. Even if the Crew have one of the smallest markets in MLS the club is an integral part of MLS history and the stadium and the franchise are closely intertwined with the city of Columbus as Sports Illustrated writer Brian Straus has recently pointed out.
The Example of Columbus Shows that the Current US Soccer Model is Flawed
Straus writes that Precourt “should sell the club not move it” if he has not understood the cultural importance of the franchise. Straus is of course right MLS has now been around long enough for clubs to have become part of the social fabric. But as long as MLS teams are franchises rather than clubs teams will remain movable pieces on a chest board guided by super wealthy owners, who are looking at financial gains first and at the on-field product second.
Furthermore, fans of the club, however, have quickly pointed out that the organisation has indeed been able to garner investment and new sponsorship deals. Following the AskFans recent report interactions on Twitter, for example, one gets a feeling that the club is tightly interwoven with the city’s community.
In the days following the elimination of the USA from the World Cup and now the looming relocation of the Crew US soccer, and with it attached its little brother in Canada, finds itself at cross roads. MLS has undoubtedly done a big part of growing the game in North America, but as the sport is building the league in its current form will be an obstacle to further growth rather than a catalyst.
The reason for this is simple: there will never be enough MLS teams to cover all the soccer needs on the continent. MLS commissioner Don Garber has recently pointed out that the league will likely cap out at 28 franchises. This will make MLS one of the most significant first divisions on the planet, but at the same time still, leave out plenty of potential markets.
What should not be forgotten in this mess that has been created by the Columbus Crew potentially relocating is the fact that Austin in the long-term would be a great candidate for a first division team. But perhaps that should not be achieved via relocation, at the expense of another suitable candidate, but rather through promotion and relegation.
All of the recent problems in US soccer, in fact, point out that North America is not special when it comes to soccer and that they have to copy the European and South American model rather than going with what has been put in place by the other major sports in North America. Sure promotion might mean Columbus could disappear from MLS one day as well, but at least the club would have a fighting chance to rectify relegation on the pitch, whereas in the current model the franchise now is in danger of simply disappearing.
Manuel Veth is a freelance journalist and social media junior editor at Bundesliga.com. He is also a holder of a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which will be available in print soon. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.