“The current course is not sustainable.”
Six words that sent a city full of soccer fans into a fast lather.
In case they aren’t seared into your subconscious by now, or you were in a cave the last few weeks of October (btw, can I join you?), those words were part of a press release issued by Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV), owners of Columbus Crew SC, in the early morning hours of October 17.
It turns out that owner Anthony Precourt (“Little Lord Precourt” to some detractors), Crew SC’s Northern California-based owner needs/wants/demands a new downtown stadium, like, now. And—hey kick ‘em when they’re down—Precourt and the Major League Soccer (MLS) are already having an affair behind our backs with Austin, Texas to become the club’s new home in 2019 should a deal not be struck in Columbus.
Austin, as in “Keep Weird.” As in “City Limits.” As in “Live Music Capital.” As in biggest U.S. city without a major sports franchise. As in, now they’re going to steal our club. But really, it’s not their fault. This one lays solely on the gilded lap of the Mr. Precourt and the MLS.
A trip to grandma’s house
Crew Stadium opened May 15, 1999 as the first soccer-specific stadium in the MLS. Because of that, many have made the argument that the Crew, by creating a vision for the future, “saved” the fledgling league that was on very shaky ground at the time. Despite its no-man’s-land location, nestled between a Lowe’s, train tracks, muddy fairground parking lot, and I-71, it earned the rep as a friendly home pitch. In addition to hosting the hometown Crew, the site (now renamed “Mapfre Stadium”) became a go-to spot for many crucial U.S. men’s and women’s national team games (see: “Dos a Cero”).
Despite deep soccer cred, respect, and lore, 18 years is a lifetime in stadium years. In the interim, U.S. soccer fan numbers, IQs, and expectations have risen. Other MLS franchises with sparkling downtown stadiums have entered the fray. More and more, a trip to Mapfre Stadium feels akin to a trip to grandma’s house.
The Four-Year Con
According to league numbers, this year Crew SC ranked near the bottom of league in attendance and whatever other business metric you’d care to analyze. (Full disclosure: as a season ticket holder, I can attest to vast seas of empty seats.) For these reasons and more, Precourt is pressing for a new downtown stadium, which—no surprise—generate higher attendance, stronger corporate support, and larger cash impact from pre-and-postgame bar hops. Mayor Ginther and the Columbus Partnership intimate that, while public dollars aren’t part of the mix, Precourt hasn’t been fully collaborative and communicative about finding a solution. (Perhaps, from his office south of San Francisco, hasn’t heard of “The Columbus Way.”) It feels like we’re at an impasse, but really, it’s this: he never intended to stay. He worked an Austin relocation clause into the contract when he bought the team in 2013. He didn’t truly market the club well, didn’t improve parking, didn’t effectively reach out to the Hispanic or African communities, and a hundred other red herrings. If there is an MLS team in Ohio, the league would really rather it be Cincinnati, which has shown amazing support of their (lower level) USL team, and it doesn’t want two franchises 100 miles apart in the Midwest.
Stating the obvious here, but professional sports teams aren’t non-profit organizations created for the benefit of the community. No one begrudges Precourt from wanting to see a return on his $68 million investment. His actions have not been illegal, it’s just that they lack any empathy for the community. And a lot of people in “Columbus ‘til I die” t-shirts are going to have something taken away from them that they love.
All of which makes this feel like one big, premeditated, four-year con job.
Let them go
As I write this, thousands of black-and-gold supporters are gathered at Columbus City Hall to vent, chant, and voice their support of team, but distrust of owner.
I feel their pain. But the more present pain is this: we need to let them go.
This isn’t an indictment of the whole of the city, our collective passion for sport or soccer, or for that matter, our entrepreneurial spirit. It’s simply a case of an impatient owner with zero ties to the community looking to improve his failing balance sheet.
While I’m hopeful for solutions, it seems next year’s lame duck season is shaping up to be an eight-month-long funeral and wake. I hope I’m wrong. But right now, for our sanity, we need to let them go. Even though this is one of the original MLS franchises. Even though I love the sight of smoke bombs in the Nordecke. Even though this owner and league will likely take our team away from us. Even though we may not have a team for a few years, and if it a team returns, it may be in a lesser league.
At least it will be with owners who don’t burn us.
We need to let them go.
For Columbus. •