After over a year of suspense, fans in Columbus finally received official confirmation this week that their club was being coaxed from the vulturous grasp of former owner-operator Anthony Precourt. Instead, a new ownership group led by the Haslams, who own the Cleveland Browns, and the Edwards family of Columbus, will assume operation of the team. Precourt, who had connived to move the team to Austin, will get an expansion club to launch in that city in the coming years.
This is how one of the most shameful developments in the league’s short history comes to an end, with the only rational, self-interested solution, the long-obvious solution, the solution that changes nothing for good or ill.
Hard to discern who lost in the Crew deal: Columbus and its fans keep their team, MLS gets a new investor and stays out of court with angry people on every side, and Precourt lands an expansion team without having to pay for it. https://t.co/BxHF2B9naf
— Andrew Das (@AndrewDasNYT) December 28, 2018
We should cheer this resolution because ultimately the greatest harm has been averted. The Crew will stay in Columbus, where they’ve remained since the league’s inaugural season. The bond between one club and its community will endure, and the bonds between all other clubs and all of their communities will not suffer an irreparable break. On this site, we have previous argued, more than once, that MLS teams enter into a bargain with their cities that is structurally unfair. The teams encourage, celebrate, and profit from a feeling that they are civic institutions. Yet they refuse to make the kind of long-term commitments to their homes that such treatment necessitates. All American professional sports teams attempt to have this both ways; the right to be venerated (and subsidized) like the local orchestra, and the right to move operations like a local corporation.
This relationship is sustained by an implicit trust between the league, its teams, and the fans who support them, that while this favored status may exist for professional sports, it should not be abused. That trust was nearly broken in Columbus. Being of the same substance as the trust that lies between every other club and community, that trust was consequently nearly broken everywhere. We can all celebrate a resolution that helps repair the breach.
Specifically in Columbus, there is much to be proud of. Supporters there marshaled successfully on every front to save their club. They put public pressure on their team ownership, the league, and their political leaders, but they also worked aggressively behind the scenes to put forth solutions for the apparent business concerns that were contributing to the team’s departure. As a result of their efforts, the team will remain and ultimately play in a new stadium up to the league’s current standards, under ownership that is committed to the city.
The league office should also be satisfied with the result. While officially they gave no preference for either side, it was obvious that MLS’ leaders were deeply uncomfortable in the position that they were in, and were genuinely interested in achieving a detente. On some level, it must have been obvious how damaging the Crew’s potential departure could be to a small league that cannot afford to run roughshod over their fans like the NFL.
Finally, Anthony Precourt comes out a winner in the fiasco of his own making—though the cost of his mortal soul can not be said to have been insignificant. He will get his team in Austin, and he may get it on the cheap, without having to have gone through the normal expansion process. There is a blessing-in-disguise to the delay, which gives him and his staff a chance to properly boot up an expansion team, and one which will be less universally loathed than before.
Yet if the saving of the Crew is a victory, it is a Pyrrhic one. The entire story has been exhausting. A lot of people got angry, a lot of people got frustrated, and to revert to the status quo antePrecourt is unsatisfying.
Columbus saved their team, but it should never have needed saving. The club’s poor attendance and inadequate stadium were substantially the result of bad management and a lack of investment. The issue will be remedied through new ownership, and a significant infusion of taxpayer money.
Even still, there was nothing so broken in Columbus that necessitated relocation. The trust between club and community should be inviolate. Columbus demanded it be so, the league disagreed, and the argument will remain unfinished. Supporters everywhere can take heart that Columbus was not ultimately relocated, but real damage was done simply in the attempt.
Also untested is Ohio’s state law aimed at preventing a team from moving. That law, which formed the basis of a legal challenge brought by then Ohio AG, now governor-elect Mike DeWine, will not be adjudicated in court, which is something of a loss for anyone hoping see a potential model for other states to copy, or to learn from and potentially amend.
The league lost a bit here. They gambled not just with their best marketing tool (the passion of the supporters), but with their own history by not defending an MLS original. Ultimately, they may lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in a future expansion fee, which goes up yearly, by letting the new Columbus ownership group and the Precourt group complete their shuffle. Additionally, did the league deeply want to be in Austin? It’s an untested market for professional sports. The population is young and fast growing, and the only competition is at the college level. But it’s also a city with a blistering summer, a dysfunctional transportation system, and the proposed stadium is somewhat distant from the center of town. Like Columbus, Austin is a college town and state capitol grown tall, it’ll be interesting to see if the club finds success, or whether the league will regret not using a space on St. Louis, Sacramento, Phoenix, Detroit, or another city.
Finally, Anthony Precourt and the city of Austin lost. They get a team through the second lowest of the possible avenues. No longer will they come by professional soccer through theft, now they come by it through extortion. Is this ultimately a good match? Does Anthony Precourt have an affinity for the city of Austin, or is it just his next mark? Can he and his staff run a club better than they operated the Crew? If so, it only adds evidence to the allegations that Precourt deliberately ran his Columbus operation into the ground, if not, then his success in Austin will be similarly impaired. The most successful MLS clubs have a strong connection between club and community. In Austin, that ingredient is not obviously at hand.
Ultimately what happened in Columbus was a bad situation for nearly everyone involved. The resolution satisfies all parties, and extracts costs from all. It was the least bad option.
But what happened in Columbus isn’t a fairy tale. It was the result of a decision characterized by bad faith, greed, and shamelessness. Hopefully the one true positive to emerge from the affair is a strong feeling on all sides that it should not be repeated.