Are We sCREWed?

Buckle up, Crew fans. This season’s drama—a fascinating mix of monstrous greed, riveting play and plucky community spirit—seems headed for extra time.

Take a deep breath and take off your “Columbus Til I Die” scarf for a second. You can send that all caps YOU SUCK DONKEY BALLS, PRECOURT e-mail to the Columbus Crew owner in a minute. Clear your head with this thought: What a thoroughly entertaining moment in time to be a Columbus sports fan.

This Crew saga that has played out since mid-October has everything: A villainous billionaire holding the hearts of a community hostage. A fan base rallying against the odds to save their team as local politicians scramble to cover their ass. An oddball Scottish brewing conglomerate riding in on a white horse to save the day (and sell you beer.) Why there is even a judge in a faraway land who may have a legal ace up his sleeve few see coming that could scramble everything.

And caught in the middle of this maelstrom is a soccer team, riding a transcendent goalie to the storied franchise’s best-ever winning streak, and maybe, just maybe, an unlikely MLS Cup win.

Folks, this is our very own community soap opera, and even those unwittingly writing the script don’t know what’s coming next. Does Crew Owner Anthony Precourt get into a car wreck and wake up with amnesia and drop his dastardly plot to move the Crew? Was it all the workings of an evil twin brother who kept Precourt tied up in his mansion’s basement the last few months? OK, so we can rule those out, but just about everything else seems possible.

With our deadline fast approaching for our December issue, the black-and-gold were still alive as of this printing. (We’re assuming we won Nov. 30, duh…). From here, we thought we’d take a free kick at where this story might head next. Gaze into our Magic 8-Ball along with us as we join in this exciting edition of “As The Crew Turns…”

Scenario 1:

Crew wins the MLS Cup in front of crazed  home fans, and Precourt gets “greeted” by the crowd.

How badly we want this to happen: As much as anything in our entire lives. Oh please, Baby Jesus, we don’t ask for much!

How likely is it: Not probable but certainly possible

Step aside, Philadelphia Eagles fans booing Santa Claus—there’s a new sheriff in town.

After disposing of Toronto FC, the black and gold could face off with the No. 2 seed Seattle Sounders in the MLS CUP at Mapfre Stadium Dec. 9.

The improbable, thrilling ride would continue as the Crew score a late goal on an Ola Kamara header off a Federico Higuain corner putting the game into OT. After extra time fails to give us a winner, a thrilling shootout victory is notched when Crew goalie Zach Steffen makes a dramatic diving save. The Crew are MLS champions, and the crowd roars in delight!

But the jet-engine roar of the crowd pales in comparison to what follows the game on the pitch: The Universe’s Most Awkward Championship Presentation to Crew Owner Anthony Precourt.

As he’s is handed the cup, the Nordecke erupts with the burning fury of 1,000 suns and Crew’s public relations disaster takes on epic proportions. Frankly, even an MLS Cup loss in Mapfre would have its moments: Live pregame reports on how many anti-Precourt banners were confiscated, vile chants from the crowd and tailgating fans hanging the owner in effigy. All on national TV with soccer freaks from around the globe lapping it up and cheering for the scorned underdog and its fans.

Scenario 2:

Precourt sells team to new ownership group, Crew stays in Columbus and everyone lives happily ever after.

How bad do we want it to happen: Pretty bad

How likely is it to happen: Not very

With Precourt’s slide tackle of Mayor Andy Ginther following their Nov. 15th  meeting—his company’s press release cited the city’s “refusal to make a real offer” as market challenges “continue to mount”—the stage is set for the trust-fund rich kid to take his toy to Austin. But not so fast, my friends.

The #savetheCrew movement has so far done a masterful job of rallying the business community and counter-punching the Precourt narrative that Columbus doesn’t dig in for its club. A recent well-circulated Google doc states that the Crew see 40 percent more corporate support than the average club and played a worse home schedule in 2017 without the normal promotional support normally given throughout the year.

As the Columbus-ignores-the-Crew-storyline has been challenged, a disheveled white knight with beer on his breath has emerged in the form of BrewDog, a Scottish brewer who has dreamed up a plan to buy the team and sell half back to the community.

Less than coincidentally, BrewDog also launched a new golden ale Crew Brew, which went on sale just in the nick of time for the team’s late November playoff games. Why it’ll make a lovely Christmas gift for the black and gold fan in your life with a good reason to drink heavily. Is the BrewDog plan serious? Maybe not, but we applaud the marketing genius and conceded it could very well amp up the pressure a bit on Precourt.

But so could other developments happening on a far off-stage in the Lone Star State.

Meet Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. The San Antonio official is none too pleased with the Major League Soccer who encouraged local officials there to invest $18 million in taxpayer dollars to buy Toyota Field in 2015 as part of an MLS expansion team bid. In a strongly worded October 30 letter, Wolff implied that MLS officials mislead San Antonio backers because they weren’t told Precourt had secured the right to move the Crew to Austin in 2013 when he bought the team. (MLS officials have said they won’t put a team in Austin and San Antonio.) More importantly, Wolff has ordered Bexar County Criminal District Attorney Nico Lahood to thoroughly investigate whether any criminal charges could be brought against MLS officials. And with MLS League Commissioner Don Garber seemingly in cahoots with Precourt’s long-planned Austin move, it’s entirely possible that criminal or civil charges could be coming in the future. Would Precourt fold his tent and sell the Crew to save his pal Garber from landing in hot water in a Texas courtroom? It’s a plot twist that few can envision right now, but it’s one to tuck under your 10-gallon hat and watch for if legal briefs start flying in Texas.

Scenario 3:

The long, slow agonizing death of the Columbus Crew as the team plays a lame-duck season in town before being moved to Austin

How badly do we want it to happen: Please Lord, no.

How likely is it: Very. Sighs.

As Austin’s city manager scours their city for a possible location for their team and Precourt and Mayor Ginther in a war of words, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way this wind is likely to blow. You don’t build a one-city escape hatch into your deal to buy an MLS team, and then not use it.

It would rip the hearts out of Crew fans, and deal a long, slow agonizing death blow to one of soccer’s most storied franchises. But every cloud has a silver  lining, and the upside here is we would finally get our own Art Modell.

No more shade from your Cleveland friends, we would finally be a Big Boy city. It would etch forever in the pantheon of sports villains the name Anthony Precourt. If there is anyone who deserves that it’s that trust fund ding-dong. He’s like Mitt Romney, but without all of the charm and personality.

More importantly, though, it would give everyone in Columbus the opportunity to irrationally hate Austin. Part of the fun of being a sports fan is not liking somewhere else, right?

Let’s not kid ourselves, more than most, those indie rock posers in Austin have it coming to them. Oh, they’re somehow this super indie rock town, but yet there’s never been a good band from there. You want a good band from Columbus? How about Lydia Loveless? How about Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a blind jazz cat who played three saxophones at once? You probably can’t even manage to find a person who can play one saxophone in Austin. But I’ll betcha  you can’t swing a dead cat in that town without hitting a lame dubstep DJ.

Fun fact: One of the main tourist attractions in Austin is waiting for bats to come out from under a bridge at night. If that is considered a cultural experience in your city, you might want to thumb your way to a real city.

Austin sucks so bad it makes me want to break my “Keep Austin Weird” coffee cup made in China and purchased at the airport after the Buckeyes opened up a can of whoop-ass on the Longhorns in 2006.

Up yours, Austin. Losing the Crew would hurt, but hating you would be really fun.

Scenario 4:

Precourt gets his downtown stadium, and stays in Columbus. And everyone lives happily ever?

How badly do we want this to happen: Feels gross thinking about it but what are the other options?

How likely is it: Slim to none

Perhaps the most unthinkable scenario at this moment in time is that Precourt would somehow get what he wants from Columbus—a downtown stadium—and then he would not ride off into the sunset. He’d stay here, and be Anthony Precourt, respected Crew owner. Tally ho, old boy.

However, the unthinkable nudged a little closer to reality when Columbus Foundation honcho Doug Kridler splashed a stadium proposal onto the front page of the November 21 Dispatch. His pitch: Let’s build a 21,000-seat downtown stadium and pay for it with about $90 million in taxpayer funds from a sales tax renewal spread over three years. Under the plan, Precourt would also have skin in the game as he would have to kick in the rest of the tab. That brought an immediate red card out of the pocket of Democratic County Commissioner John O’Grady who told the daily paper giving public funds away from the sales tax just isn’t workable given other community needs. But is the plan really dead on arrival?

As Kridler’s trial balloon wafts over Columbus, it’s easy to forget this Downtown soccer stadium thing was supposed to have been taken care of two decades ago.

In the spring of 1997, the titans of Columbus’ business community with Lamar Hunt riding shotgun spent $1.2 million trying to convince Columbus voters to support a sales tax hike for a hockey arena AND a soccer stadium downtown.

Facing a ragtag bunch of stadium opponents with barely two nickels to rub together, the stadium plan was still spanked at the polls 56-44 percent.

Despite vows from the business titans that there was no Plan B, magically there was suddenly private money for Nationwide Arena from a cabal led by Worthington Steel’s John McConnell. Meanwhile, Hunt asked Dublin voters to approve a soccer stadium there in 1998 (they also said no) before fishing through his couch cushions long enough to find $28.5 million to build Crew Stadium.

The 1997 vote was actually just the latest in a long string of resounding “NO” votes from Central Ohio taxpayers on publicly-financed stadium plans dating back to the 1980s. Given that long anti-tax history in our town, it’s pretty hard to see how a thoroughly unloved charlatan like Precourt would manage to convince taxpayers to foot the bill for new digs. 

Yet, public officials in Austin don’t exactly seem eager to build a publicly-financed stadium for Precourt there either, so he may end up back here wheeling-and-dealing whether he likes or not.

It’s hard to imagine how Precourt could ever mend fences with Crew fans, but who ever thought they would see LeBron James again beloved in Cleveland after he bolted for Miami?

Scenario 5:

Crew fans rally to save the Crew team colors, and Columbus is awarded an expansion team.

How badly do we want it to happen: Thoroughly acceptable, but not preferable

How likely is it to happen: Nah, can’t see it

This scenario should seem pretty familiar if you’re one of those sports fans who tortures themselves on fall Sundays by rooting for the Factory of Sadness in Cuyahoga County. We’ve seen this movie before and it’s called the Cleveland Browns.

For the uninitiated, when Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore, the Cleveland fans and public officials were able to extract a promise from NFL HQ to keep the team’s colors in Cleveland (the lovely pumpkin and white) and grant an expansion team to the city.   

The harder you squint, the more you actually see some parallels here with the Browns. The Crew are a storied MLS team with a championship history, and ripping the team away from Columbus is already turning into a PR nightmare for the league.

However, there are some real problems here as well, chief among them Cincinnati’s thirsty-ass bid for an MLS expansion team. And then there’s the aforementioned issue of getting the public (or someone) to dig into their pocket for the inevitable new downtown stadium and the $175 million expansion fee.

But if the Browns fans can do it, there may just be hope. Oh god, Browns fans and hope were just used in the same sentence. That’s not good.

Food For Thought

Well, folks, our time in front of the cloudy crystal ball is up. As the clock counts down on the final matches of the Crew’s 2017 season, it seems fair to theorize that the off-the-field drama may just be warming up.

Depending on what’s transpired since this printing, Mapfre either is about to hoist another golden trophy, or sits eerily empty for another six months. You can Choose Your Own Adventure/Ignore Your Own Nightmare on this one.

We do know this: Columbus always steps up when it’s time to act—we’re just hoping it’s a massive enough effort to keep the black-and-gold flying high ’til we die.

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