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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