October 19 – One of the MLS’s founding clubs, Columbus Crew, looks set to leave its Columbus, Ohio, home and relocate to Austin, Texas, and a new purpose-built stadium.
Columbus Crew began play in 1996 as one the MLS’s ten charter clubs, playing at the MLS’s first purpose-built soccer stadium, the 19,968 capacity
The club was sold in July 2013 to Precourt Sports Ventures, led by Anthony Precourt. He has now decided that the stadium is not big or sophisticated enough for the modern-day MLS, and that there is not enough local and business support for the club.
“The club historically and presently has challenges with match day attendance, with growing our season ticket base, with demand for corporate sponsorship, and with relevance,” said Precourt. “The stadium and site are challenges in Columbus.”
Moving franchises are a controversial if not uncommon business in US major league sports, with owners frequently holding local governments to ransom over the provision and upgrading of stadia. If one city fails to stump up the cash and infrastructure, there is always another willing to do so. But this is the first time an MLS franchise has been set to move.
Precourt says he is losing money and that the franchise will move to Austin by 2019 unless Columbus builds a new stadium downtown. While he says he’s not asking for public tax dollars, Precourt says he hasn’t heard any serious investment offers.
“The key thing for us is that we need to have confidence in the market in order to feel comfortable building a new world-class soccer specific stadium,” he said.
Although he initially said otherwise, Precourt has met with local investors who made an offer. Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a group of 60 Columbus business leaders and CEOs, to Sports Illustrated that Precourt had rejected offers to buy 100% and 50% of the Crew.
The feeling in Columbus is that Precourt had always planned to move the franchise and rumours are that a deal to play at the University of Texas is already done for 2019.
For the moment it looks like Precourt is keeping both move and stay options open with negotiations on both sides ongoing.
The Columbus Crew have won five major trophies: the MLS Cup in 2008, the Supporters’ Shields in 2004, 2008 and 2009, and the 2002 US Open Cup. None of them have been under Precourt’s ownership.
This season has been a better one for the Crew who are undefeated in their last nine matches, are fifth in the Eastern conference with one game left, and have qualified for the play-offs. But average attendance has dropped to 15,439 per match.
Columbus Crew may be a founding member of the MLS with a comparably rich history for a US soccer franchise, but legacy and loyalty are still developing concepts in US professional club soccer. And sentimentality will likely always be second to commercial opportunity.
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