Anthony Precourt & MLS’ Betrayal of Trust

by on 17 October 2017

The wound is still fresh from the U.S. Men’s national team’s precipitous fall out of next year’s World Cup. The pain and frustration from American fans burns ferociously. But in the week after the loss, the soccer community did what it does best, rallying the grassroots and pledging to be part of the solution. This wasn’t just the failure of eleven men, of Sunil Gulati or Bruce Arena. It was our failure. And then…

Less than a week after the loss, Grant Wahl broke the news that Anthony Precourt is working toward moving one of MLS’ founding clubs, the Columbus Crew, to Austin, Tex. Precourt’s move and MLS’ endorsement of it represents a breach of trust, a profound smack in the face to the American soccer community, and reveals the callous disregard of the spirit that continues to drive the American version of the sport and built MLS to what it is.

Anthony Precourt’s move and MLS’ endorsement of it represents a breach of trust, a profound smack in the face to American soccer, and reveals the callous disregard of the spirit that continues to drive American soccer and built MLS to what it is.

When MLS was on the brink of extinction at the beginning of the millennium, it was the rabid fanbases of Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia, Portland, and all the post-2007 expansion teams that saved it. MLS had chosen smart and well-monied owners, certainly, but the fans in those markets brought something that cannot be bottled (and believe me, MLS has tried). And this spirit then infected older club supporters, often revitalizing them.

The result is that the MLS of 2017 is a drastically different beast than it was a decade ago. And its current successes and growth are born out of a Faustian bargain of grassroots soccer wedded to billionaire financial interests. The unwritten deal is this: people without capital spend their volunteer hours and even pay money to support something they believe stands for something greater. It is not entertainment; it is not a $20 ticket for 90 minutes of fun.

American soccer is a community that people enter into not dissimilar from church. You come to know the strangers who sit or stand around you and the players on the field. You watch their kids grow up. You watch players who are still kids grow up. You sing with them, you sing for them. You gossip with them, you gossip about them. You cry with them, you cry for them. You represent them and they represent you.

It is, of course, a conceit that professional sports in general are community institutions, like the opera or the library system. That not only are they a channel by which people express pride in their community, but that they are of the community itself. This is why cities and states still spend exorbitant sums on professional sports, even though such outlays do not strictly make fiscal sense. Just as a city might contribute money to its flagship art museum, or pitch in to build a new building for the regional theater company, so too might it spend on the local eleven.

But it’s a conceit that, for the most part, everyone buys into. The billionaires who own these clubs, for their part, invest money and lose it for some time. Eventually, they make money and their investment grows, all of it based on the magical transformation of unbridled soccer passion into capital.

This is a symbiotic relationship. In Minnesota, for example, fans accepted that a group of billionaires would take this small, grassroots club (that wouldn’t exist at all but for a billionaire saving it) and turn it into a massive machine. Much of the intimacy was lost, but as long as the owners do not cross certain lines, it remains a relationship where fans can accept (even unconsciously) what is happening.

It is, of course, a conceit that professional sports in general are community institutions, like the opera or the library system. But it’s a conceit that, for the most part, everyone buys into.

One of the lines — the biggest, brightest, most glaring red line — is packaging up the club that fans have built up and moving it to another town. This is a betrayal of the trust and lays out the relationship pornographically bare for Columbus fans: everything you’ve done, every ounce of sweat, has been converted to capital. It makes those fans into suckers.

Maybe we’re all suckers. Maybe there are quarterly meetings where cartoonish villains get together, smoke cigars, and laugh at all these goddamned idiots cheering for teams.

MLS has long said it wants to grow soccer in the U.S. and I believe in this sincerity. MLS fans have largely accepted the contraction of the Miami, Tampa, and Chivas USA teams as the necessary culling of failed experiments. MLS fans tolerated the move of the San Jose team to Houston because San Jose was given a new team with the same name immediately after. However, if MLS sanctions Precourt moving the Crew to Austin, I am a sucker, too. There is absolutely, unequivocally no benefit to American soccer from this move. The Crew may not be filling every seat, but they are far from failing. Such a move can be explained by the greed of an owner, and that alone. MLS will be irrevocably damaging American soccer by demoralizing and alienating an entire city and region.

This decision affects more than just the Columbus fans, who deserve more than this ignominy, because it is a decision with MLS’ blessing. Soccer in the US and Canada—and MLS in particular—has been portrayed by some (myself included) as a sort of evangelical enterprise. We’re all building this thing together.

We’re building, alright, but someone else is selling the house for a tidy profit once we’re done. And we’re in a relationship alright, but it’s not symbiotic; it’s parasitic.

If relocation is now on the table for a club like Columbus, it is on the table for every club. We can only expect more of the same scavenging from the jilted losers of the latest MLS expansion sweepstakes.

The threat hardly needs to be explained to Minnesotans, who have lost a basketball team and a hockey team to relocation, gained a baseball team that was later almost contracted, and have had a football team threaten it. Minnesota is a stronger market than Columbus, but it is the second smallest American city with teams in five major leagues; few places are at greater risk of losing their teams. The Loons have local ownership now, but there is no guarantee of this in the future. The Loons are building a state-of-the-art stadium now, but there’s no guarantee that it won’t seem hopelessly antiquated in the future. Any Minnesota fan who does not see the threat of relocation as something to build defenses against is kidding themselves.

The cat is now out of the bag on MLS relocation, but the league can still put it back in. It ought to institute sensible reforms immediately. The first must be a rule that forbids relocation if a genuine offer is made to purchase the team from the existing market. Anthony Precourt no longer wants to own a soccer team in Columbus, Ohio (and I’m guessing the fans no longer want him to either). If, as reported, Columbus business leaders have made an offer to buy the club at a fair market value, then Precourt must be compelled to sell to them.

The second change must be to find a way to provide more resources to the league’s original clubs, most of whom continue to struggle to generate the kind of excitement that expansion clubs have created. Whether through marketing expertise, rebranding efforts, or simply contributing directly to the replacement of antiquated stadiums, the malaise of the MLS originals is quickly becoming a major problem for the league. That problem cannot be solved by relocating all of the originals to new cities.

MLS must also make a public statement against relocation. The statement by Commissioner Don Garber, which boiled down to “soccer is a business, and you all are suckers for believing differently” strikes precisely the wrong tone. He should apologize for it and commit the league to keeping its first team exactly where it belongs. The statement by Crew owner Anthony Precourt, which appears to blame the citizens of Columbus for the failures of his business are an embarrassment. He should send his team staff a few hours down the road to Cincinnati, where they will find a wildly successful USL team that they might be able to learn from. He should travel to Kansas City to learn how another MLS original was able to find success with a suburban stadium. For a team owner to slime his own fanbase and for the league to make an official statement next to that is a major black eye.

Anthony Precourt appears to be little more than a common pimp. MLS and all of its owners, on the other hand, have a chance to stand up to him, because their fans — fans in Portland, Minnesota, Houston, wherever — won’t look at them the same. I know Minnesota United’s owner Bill McGuire and I have always thought of him as someone very different from me, but someone who I genuinely believe cares about his community and trust that is foundational to the the symbiotic relationship between city and owner. That is probably still true, but in a new era of two-faced weasels like Anthony Precourt, I won’t be able to shake the feeling: we’re all just suckers.

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  • eboe thrasher

    Thank you. Sadly, he spent a lot of time in KC studying the rebrand success after he bought the team. And I’m sure he is aware about Cincy, given he is one of the 5 owners on the expansion board. Any wonder that Austin hasn’t submitted a bid? Cincy is all but in, now. It’s almost like a trade, but nobody here wants FCC.

    • Stephen Banks

      I want FCC, but not at the expense of Columbus.

      • SilverRey

        I definitely think CBus lost some fans to FCC this year. I truly want both to succeed for the local rivalry though.

  • reiddavis

    Fantastic piece. Thanks for taking the time. As an Atlanta United fan you’d think I’d be sitting pretty and not worrying about this stuff, but it worries me greatly for all of the reasons you lay out. What guarantee do we have that we’ll have a local owner and state-of-the-art stadium, forever and always? Zero. Please Garber, do not allow this dangerous precedent to be set.

  • Scherbs

    Norm Green Sucks! I’m still pissed that somehow Dallas has the rights to the North Stars legacy. Great Article.

    • nomadic loon

      am pissed too that we were norm’s suckwads… and honestly have been much less passionate about the Wild even though they play in a better arena. I’m very thankful the Loons have local ownership and consider this a bit of good insurance towards stability and longevity.

  • BobbyBarker

    Not only do Garber, Precourt, and the MLS sh*t on the people of Columbus, but they also do the same to the fans in San Antonio who have been doing a wonderful job supporting their USL SAFC the last two years and have a stadium that was built with MLS expansion in mind. Garber knows full well that San Antonio was in the running for a MLS franchise but he’s fixated on Austin despite the town’s indifference towards anything other than UT football and the Dallas Cowboys.

    Austin couldn’t even support the USL (D3 at the time) franchise it had, struggling to get 3,000 in the seats before the Aztex folded for good after the 2015 season. Precourt says he is looking for local investors to pay for a new stadium in Austin; the people here are already highly taxed and are unlikely to support a bond for a stadium. That it took two years to find someone (the F1 track owners) to agree to build a stadium for a new USL franchise – a joke of a facility seating maybe 3,000 so far in the boonies you’ll need a GPS to find it – speaks volumes about the lack of local interest in a franchise.

  • nickp91

    hopefully the Columbus Crew SC identity would stay in Columbus so a future owner can resurrect it in some form

    • SilverRey

      Just ‘Columbus Crew’, drop that SC crap – that was Precourt

    • Laverne Trumbo Dreamboat

      If he is allowed to take The Crew to Austin, as a season ticket holder, I will never support MLS again. I actually watch MLS matches in which The Crew aren’t playing. What a fool I’ve been. MLS will have lost me forever. I would only support a NASL or USE team.

  • Vinyl Haircut

    Great insight and passion, Wes. I wouldn’t say that fans are suckers, but I do think it’s just naive to think that MLS teams will stay put. After all, professional sports teams of all kinds have been relocating for almost as long as leagues have been in existence. That motion has made a lot of money for owners in other sports, and those leagues are still thriving. I’m not sure why we as soccer fans should expect anything else. Favorite players are traded away, or leave for more money elsewhere. Whole teams leave in search of a better deal for the owners. If we’re going to have private ownership, is anything else really realistic to expect?

  • don

    Its pretty clear to me that the teams with the best attendance are in or near their city’s downtown. Many of the older clubs have stadiums out in the burbs where the soccer mom experiment has largely failed in favor of the pub & tifo crows of the cities. I understand wanting a downtown stadium, but it should be downtown Columbus, not Austin.

    • Steve Cosner

      I’m not sure a downtown stadium would change things in Columbus.

    • MmattN

      I don’t know if that really is the answer though both KC and RSL stadiums aren’t downtown and appear to be doing fine. Houston’s downtown stadium has had moments where it seemed they have struggled to draw a crowd. Of course I am not talking about this year for the Dynamo.

      • don

        I guess I might just be speaking from my experience of living both in Colorado and in Oregon. Put the Rapids in downtown Denver and their attendance will go through the roof. They had higher attendance when they were at Mile High stadium. If the Timbers had built a stadium in Hillsboro, they would not be what they are regarding supporters. The pub & tifo crowd is big in the north west. As for KC & Salt Lake, their downtowns arent really hubs of the community like they are other places. Houston as well. So yea, I guess it depends on what the downtown is like. But Atlanta, Minnesota, Orlando & even Cincinnati have benefited from a centralized location. I guess all I know is that Portland Timbers (other than the artificial field) should be the prototype that others emulate if you want to get people who might not be big soccer fans to go to games and maybe drink the kool aid.

        • MmattN

          Well the successes of PDX require more than just a centrally located stadium. It’s public transit and culture of taking mass transit plays a huge role in their success. Does Columbus have those two things? I will agree on Denver though.

    • flipfriddle

      Crew stadium isn’t in the burbs. It’s in the city proper and only a few minutes drive from city center.

      • Dan Middleton

        Columbus transplant to Kansas City here… the Crew’s stadium is within sight of downtown. Sporting KC’s stadium is a half hour drive into farmland away from downtown KC (a half hour assuming no traffic), in the town of Bonner Springs, KS… which is also home to a NASCAR track and a quaint little agricultural museum.

        There is also no place in downtown Columbus to put a new stadium. Precourt knows this.

  • Alex Schieferdecker

    Don Garber: “Everyone go cheer for your club in the MLS Cup Playoffs!”

    Later Don Garber: “Also your team might go away at any moment.”

    • peejjones

      Don Garber is a terrible commissioner.

      • Steve Cosner

        Run Garber AND Gulati…..

  • MmattN

    I can’t help but think about your suggestion of the league helping the original clubs fight out of their “malaise”. That is a deep important subject actually and one that I think is a far greater warning sign of the health/stability of the league… No real easy answers for it either… Potentially there isn’t even one, not like MLS original clubs have a history like the original six of the NHL who hold strong ties to the sport and teams that predate the league’s formation.

    great write up, wes. love when the mind juices simply raise more questions than answers.

  • SilverRey

    Here’s the disconnect with Precourt. He came to Garber and said I’m ready to invest, how can I make money with MLS. It had nothing to do with soccer, it had nothing to do with the Crew, it had nothing to do with passion for the game.

    Unfortunately this was the same time that Lamar Hunt was trying to sell CBus. I think at this point Garber already had $$ in his eyes over the expansion fees coming in and the interest in getting into MLS and decided that the Crew was replaceable. Enter Precourt with his $$.

  • jeff_albertson

    First of all, I had little interest in the topic but my friend raved about the article and made me read it. Great writing. I am looking forwards to exploring your other work.
    The same friend says he read an article in SI that said something along the lines that Precourt got permission to move to Austin written into the 2013 purchase agreement. Is this true? if it is, then no should have been surprised. If its true, then shame on MLS for allowing it.
    They HAVE to stop the disease of relocation and since the league is a single entity, I would venture a guess that it would be easier for them to do it than in leagues of independently owned teams.

    >Soccer in the US and Canada—and MLS in particular—has been portrayed >by
    some (myself included) as a sort of evangelical enterprise.

    Not sure about US but your Puerto Rico of the north doesnt have a clue about enterprise and worse, lack the cojones to stop being a 4th world soccer country. Soccer overtook hockey as the most played team sport in Canada sometimes in the mid80s just as the real NASL folded (even in Quebec, there are twice as many soccer players as hockey). Once the MLS went to the three biggest cities starting in 2008 i believe, it killed any hope of pro soccer league succeeding in Canada because having a canadian league without MTL and VAN and TOR is ridiculous (not to mention those teams in USL/NASL/etc). And having a handful of canadians on each of those three teams warm the bench has done nothing for canadian soccer to the point that 3-4yrs ago 1/3 of the national team roster had no clubs to play in, the team couldnt keep up with the Trinidads (!!), Guadeloupe and Mauritius and was ranked 114th in the world and the NT backup goalie had played more games with the national team that as a pro.

    Soccer might be having some growing pains in the US in some spots (although the MLS attendance numbers looks very nice) like the NT but it is light years ahead of one of the only countries on the planet without a pro league. So cheer up american soccer fans, it could be worse: you could be canadian soccer fans!

  • Clint

    Late to the party on reading this, but it is truly the most sensible piece I have read on the Crew situation. The truth is MLS supporters (and soccer supporters in general) want the game and the community it forms to matter most of all. However, MLS owners by and large prioritize the investment. Interestingly, I think if MLS allows the Crew to leave, it could damage that individual investment as well as seriously diminish trust in the league among all supporters. That diminished trust could open MLS (ever so slightly) to competition in its own markets if competitors were able to be more organized.