Save the Crew: Why Professional Soccer Must Remain in Columbus

 

Fireworks light up the sky over Mapfre Stadium, formerly known as Columbus Crew Stadium. (Photo courtesy of Dan Keck on Flickr)

Earlier this week, the Columbus Crew soccer team played what could be their last home playoff game in front of their loyal fanbase. The owner of the Crew, Anthony Precourt, announced on Oct. 17 that if ownership cannot secure a new stadium deal in Columbus, the franchise will be relocated to Austin, Texas in 2019.

Precourt has also said that “dramatic changes” in attendance and other revenue streams will need to occur if the team wants to stay.

Precourt, leader of Precourt Sports Ventures, based in San Francisco, moved to Columbus and bought the team in 2013 from the Hunt Family, who had owned the club for their entire existence. Though there has been an increase in ticket sales since Precourt acquired the club, the Crew still ranks 20th of 22 teams this season for attendance, averaging about 16,000 fans per game over the last three years.

It must be understood that the MLS is ultimately a business and if the Crew is failing to bring in revenue then something must change. However, every resource should be spent first to try and keep the Crew in Columbus.

Columbus is a historic piece to the story of the MLS. The Crew was one of the original MLS teams, and before the current days of fanbases like Atlanta and Seattle packing the stands, they set the standard for a loyal fanbase. Crew Stadium (now Mapfre Stadium), was not only the first soccer specific stadium in the United States, but has also been a de-facto home field for the US Men’s National Team. Some of the most important matches in USMNT history have been played at Crew Stadium, including the four consecutive “Dos a Cero” victories over Mexico.

The MLS is growing and expanding, and while that is good for the league, it must be sure to not forget its roots. The city of Columbus was a trendsetter in the early days of American soccer and fanbases like Portland’s “Timbers Army” or Atlanta’s “Resurgence” took note from the Crew’s “Nordecke." Other franchises have also followed in the footsteps of Columbus, as cities like Chicago and Kansas City built soccer specific stadiums copying the layout of Crew Stadium. The Crew is integral to the history and foundation that built the current MLS, and Precourt shouldn’t destroy this foundation with a move to Austin.

The move would be heartbreaking for the city of Columbus and would destroy the integrity of the foundation the league was built on. It is also difficult to find the economic benefit from the change for both Precourt and the MLS.

While Precourt complains about the attendance and fan base in Columbus, nothing indicates he will do any better with the franchise in Austin. The MLS already has two franchises in Texas, FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo, and while both are fairly competitive teams, neither have brought in droves of fans. In fact, neither team has had above-average attendance over the past two seasons, and this year both finished in the bottom five of all teams in the league. Austin is a smaller market than Dallas or Houston, closer to the mid-major market blueprint that most MLS teams follow, but who is to say that the team could really thrive there? The Austin Astex, the only professional soccer team to call Austin home, last played in the United Soccer League (USL) in 2015, a league considered second-tier to the MLS, and had an average home attendance just over 3,000 people.

Nothing indicates that another team in Texas will do that well economically, so does it really make sense for the team to move to Austin?

On top of this, the move completely undermines the MLS's expansion goals. Currently, if a team wishes to join the MLS, they have to pay a heavy expansion fee, close to 150 million dollars. This huge cash infusion gets allocated across the league. These fund allocations have helped MLS rapidly improve quality of play, as teams are able to use this money to buy better players.

So, what sort of precedent would this move set? One who wanted to own an MLS team could get out of paying a large fee by buying buy a team that’s not performing economically and move them to a mid-size market like Austin. The process for expansion would be disincentivized by this move, which would hurt the MLS. It would decrease the cash invested in the league, and wouldn’t help the MLS expand their markets, but rather shuffle them around to different places.

MLS has a history, and has been extremely crucial to the development of American soccer in the past two decades. If the Columbus Crew is removed from the MLS, then the country will lose such a crucial piece of the MLS story. Without the Crew and the Hunt Family many of the thriving MLS clubs today would have no foundation to stand on. With that in mind, one must hope that there will be many more matches to be played in Columbus, Ohio.