One of the most difficult truths to accept about being a sports fan is that your teams care about you less than you care about them. Specifically, billionaire owners of sports franchises do not care about you. They will tell you they care and that they are “one of you.” They will try various tricks like “rebranding efforts” to try to make you believe that they care. They will even lie straight to your face to convince you they care.
Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt has done all of those things since he bought the MLS Original franchise from the Hunt family in 2013. And now after a few short years of putting up a facade of saying and doing the right things, he’s finally run out of time and patience. Now is the time to stab “his” fanbase in the heart.
The news broke Tuesday night that Precourt was considering moving Columbus Crew SC to Austin, Texas in 2019 if a new deal for a new downtown stadium could not be reached. No matter what will be said in the coming weeks and months, this is a done deal for numerous reasons. MLS’s first franchise is going to be relocated.
1) According to the Columbus Dispatch, Precourt turned down an offer from a group of local business leaders for 100% or 50% ownership to commit the team to staying in Columbus.
2) Maybe even more significantly, the paper also reported that Precourt had an escape clause specifically for Austin when he bought the team.
3) Precourt/MLS have already been having lengthy discussions with the city of Austin, which include temporary and permanent sites already identified, trademarks (Austin FC and Austin Athletic) and more.
4) Look at the statement released by the team. Precourt is already talking up the virtues of Austin and clearly has the support of MLS commissioner Don Garber.
For Anthony Precourt, buying the Crew in 2013 and then moving them to Austin is a cold-hearted, brilliant business move. It seems like the best business moves are always the most cold-hearted, aren’t they? Precourt bought the team in 2013 for a mere $68 million. The current expansion fee is $150 million for a new franchise. The California businessman basically gave himself a half price discount on what amounts to a new MLS franchise with a new stadium. All it took was breaking thousands upon thousands of hearts along the way. But what does that matter when there are millions of dollars to be made?
When he purchased the Crew, Precourt’s charm offensive was quick and effective. He wanted the Crew to be the “Green Bay Packers of MLS” in galvanizing support for the small market club. He initiated a snazzy rebranding effort that was a helpful distraction from the pain and misery he was eventually going to inflict. He also told a fantastic lie about committing to keeping the team in Columbus back in 2013, one that he couldn’t even keep going for five years.
On the eve of J. Anthony Precourt’s unveiling as the new chairman and operator-investor of the Crew and Crew Stadium, Columbus Mayor Michael B. Coleman had one question.
“My first question was, ‘Is the Crew staying in Columbus?’ He said, ‘Absolutely. The Crew is in Columbus to stay.’ ” Coleman said.
In 2016, Precourt said this to the Columbus Dispatch, still going all-in with the charade.
“I don’t really have a comment on that,” he said. “I’ve shown my commitment to Columbus. We wore the city’s colors this year on the pitch. We put Columbus back in our badge. I’m tired of the insecurities. We’re playing for Columbus.”
Former Crew player and broadcaster Dante Washington said what everyone has always been feeling in the deepest, darkest pit of their stomach for some time now, but been too scared to say out loud for fear of it coming to fruition.
Real talk. We all knew it from the day he bought the team. Every CREW fan’s worst nightmare. https://t.co/ap0QFgFxFt
— Dante Washington (@DanteWashington) October 17, 2017
As a Crew fan, and as a resident of Columbus, this was indeed our greatest fear when Precourt purchased the team four years ago. Precourt has no local connections to Columbus and fits the template for the new wave of owner the league is looking for as MLS moves into their super-expansion phase on the path to world domination. Optimistically, I was hoping we could keep the Crew in Columbus for another 20 years. Maybe another decade if we were lucky. But to lose the franchise before 2020 is a bitter pill to swallow.
And truth be told, there has been a lot of room to grow for Columbus in supporting the Crew. Attendance has been an issue. Making revenue has been an issue. The stadium has been an issue. Although Mapfre Stadium is only 20 years old and a historic site as the first major soccer-specific stadium in this country, it has its foibles. The Ohio State fairgrounds location is on the east side of town off of I-71 and there are very few places where anyone would actually want to hang out for a while before or after the game. That is, unless you count tailgating in a giant field or making a trip over to the Ohio Historical Society.
It’s not perfect, but it’s ours. And it’s exactly what Precourt bought into when he purchased the team in 2013. The situation is certainly not anywhere close to bad enough to justify this sudden move.
Any professional sports franchise in Columbus will always have to settle for playing second fiddle behind Ohio State. (That fact should make the move to Austin, which just so happens to be the home of the University of Texas, all the more ironic.) But by no means is the situation to the crisis point of threatening to move the team.
Does Columbus still fit in with the new era of MLS? Unfortunately, someone was going to get left behind in MLS’s expansion race. The thirst for new, downtown stadiums for expansion teams with high-priced Champions League stars was never a sign of assurance for the long-term future of the Columbus Crew given our current situation. Don Garber would put a team in Great Falls, Montana if they promised him a downtown stadium and the team could sign John O’Shea. Even worse, without those things there doesn’t look to be a path back into MLS in the new wave of expansion, meaning the league’s departure could be permanent.
Still, though. MLS couldn’t do this to Columbus, right? After all, this was the city that led the way when the league first opened for business. The city that is the spiritual home for the United States Men’s National Team. The city which built that first soccer-specific stadium, the one with the statue of Lamar Hunt himself on the premises. It would be like having the audacity to move the Cleveland Brow– well, Art Modell told the same lies to Cleveland that Precourt told Columbus.
There are young fans in central Ohio who grew up hearing myths and legends about Modell’s audacity to move the Browns. Now they’ll have their own bogeyman to pass down to the next generation. Garber will be 1A on that list because this move certainly doesn’t happen without his active approval. The MLS commissioner could have shown loyalty and appreciation for the Columbus market, he could encourage Precourt to sell the team to keep it local and award one of his 874 expansion franchises to Austin. But he is doing neither. He is willfully ripping out the heart of one of his original fanbases and stomping on it for the world to see.
For what it’s worth, Precourt’s mentions on this tweet about the USMNT’s failure to qualify for the World Cup, and his mentions as a whole, are going to be worth following for the near future. Even though he didn’t mean to and never will again, it’s this message that speaks for the fans he will callously leave behind.
GUTTED. ANGRY. PERPLEXED.
— Anthony Precourt (@APrecourt) October 11, 2017
No matter what Austin Athletic or Austin FC or whatever they want to call it do from here, Precourt will always have “the Art Modell of MLS”attached to his legacy. Perhaps it’s the greatest sign of all for the league’s growth that MLS has now confirmed they will be willing to do anything to any fanbase in any city in the name of increased revenue.
And really, that’s what this is all about. That’s what it’s always been about and always will be about. Because as much as you live and die with your favorite team, you’ll always be just a number with a dollar sign attached to it. At the end of the day, you — the fan — are replaceable. There will always be someone else out there. Someone who will make these billionaire owners more money. And if they don’t, then they can be replaced too. If it can happen to the Cleveland Browns, it can happen to anybody, even a franchise which has been there since MLS first came into existence.
That’s the uncomfortable reality of fandom. Business is rational. Fandom is not. Business is based on numbers and logic and not letting emotion get in the way. Fandom is about letting those emotions run wild. Being a sports fan can lead to some of the greatest moments and happiest days of your life, and some of the most vivid, painful memories you can imagine.
I can remember the pure unbridled joy of being in Crew Stadium when Jason Garey headed home a stoppage time winner to beat Toronto in 2009 or seeing the team lift the MLS Cup trophy in 2008. And I can remember the utter despair when Steve Clark bobbled a backpass in the opening minutes of the 2015 MLS Cup Final against the Portland Timbers. And so many moments in between. I may not have been there since the beginning since a lot of other fans in Columbus, but when I became a soccer fan in the mid-2000s it was the Crew that helped solidify and grow my newfound fandom. Now there are many in central Ohio who will grow up with no MLS team to call their own. That’s what is most depressing about it all.
The joy and the sorrow, the jubilation and the heartbreak — it’s all part of being a sports fan. And what makes it one of the best things in the world is that it mirror’s life’s journey with its unpredictable nature, peaks and valleys, twists and turns.
There is no more painful experience in being a fan than losing your team, though. Not because you won’t be able to go down to the stadium anymore or buy any more merchandise or root for your favorite players or celebrate any more championships. It’s because the journey is over. And there’s nowhere else to go.