Column: MLS could be big loser if Columbus moves to Austin
Congratulations, Major League Soccer.
You’re on the verge of becoming a real American sports league.
Playing one city off another to get a new stadium paid for at least in part with the public’s hard-earned tax dollars?
The Columbus Crew is one of MLS’ charter franchises. In fact, they’re the ones that set the gold standard in the league’s fledgling early years, becoming the first to build a soccer-specific stadium that also served as a second home for the U.S. national team. Yet that stadium is no longer good enough for the Crew’s owner, Anthony Precourt, who has made it abundantly clear he plans to move the team to Austin, Texas for the 2019 season.
In the end, MLS will be as big a loser in this affair as the good people of Columbus.
For the league’s growing fan base, who chant and sing and tell themselves that MLS is different than those other American leagues, this should be a clear sign that it’s not.
Money rules, not loyalty.
If Columbus can lose its team, who’s to say they won’t be next? Especially after MLS completes its next wave of expansion, awarding four more teams from among 12 contending cities. Rest assured, at least some of those that lose out will immediately begin their pursuit of existing franchises.
Columbus, in all likelihood, will only be the first victim.
There was a half-hearted meeting in New York on Wednesday, in which Precourt and his ally, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, sat down with Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther and the head of a local business group looking for ways to keep the Crew from moving.
Afterward, it was apparent these talks are going nowhere.
“Extremely disappointed” is how Precourt put it.
“We were united in putting all options on the table, with the expectation in return that the MLS and ownership would cease pursuing moving the team to Austin,” the mayor’s side said in a statement. “Great American cities do not get into bidding wars over sports teams to benefit private owners.”
Actually, they do.
Making this even more uncomfortable, the Crew are in the midst of a playoff run , having already pulled off upsets of Atlanta United and New York City FC to reach the Eastern Conference final against top-seeded Toronto FC. The teams open their two-leg series next at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus.
If the Crew pulls off another upset, they’ll head to the MLS Cup. That could set up the very uncomfortable scenario of Garber presenting the championship trophy to a carpet-bagging owner and his lame-duck team.
While MLS has tried to mold itself along the lines of soccer leagues around the world, it still has distinctly American flair — from playing out of season (spring to fall, instead of fall to spring like most major countries) to keeping a playoff system to decide its champion.
Now, we’re getting that most American touch of all.
The stadium flimflam.
When Precourt bought the Crew in 2013, he reportedly agreed to keep the team in Columbus for another decade but also made sure to give himself an exit strategy, and now it seems he was merely biding his time in Ohio’s capital city.
While Austin is similar in size to Columbus, it has a booming economy, a bunch of hip millennials and status as the largest municipality without a major league team. Austin officials are playing right along, taking steps toward giving Precourt the downtown stadium he wants with all the bells and whistles.
“Despite our investments and efforts, the current course is not sustainable,” Precourt said in October when news first broke that he was pondering a move, a statement that should sound all-too-familiar to other North American cities that lost teams. “We have no choice but to expand and explore all of our options.”
He went on to rave about Austin’s potential, hardly a way to keep the loyalty of fans in his current city.
“Soccer is the world’s game,” he said, “and with Austin’s growing presence as an international city, combined with its strong multicultural foundation, MLS in Austin could be an ideal fit.”
To its credit, MLS has largely avoided franchises bouncing around from one city to another. Sure, it’s played the stadium game as well as those more-established leagues, resulting in most teams having their own soccer-specific facilities, financed in part by millions of tax dollars.
But other than Tampa Bay, which folded during the league’s early years as MLS dealt with heavy financial losses, the remaining nine original teams are still around — a remarkable accomplishment as MLS approaches the end of its 22nd season .
For now, the San Jose Earthquakes are the only franchise to move to another city, becoming the Houston Dynamo in 2006, but they technically went on hiatus for two seasons. The Earthquakes returned in 2008, retaining all of their records and history, while the Dynamo were officially recognized as an expansion team.
If the Crew heads to the Lone Star State, they’ll take their history with them.
For Columbus, it will surely be the end of its run as a soccer city.
And with that, MLS becomes just another league.