Let’s run through a thought experiment. Given the subject matter, this could be very damaging to your psyche, but just work with me here and try to resist the temptation to turn your brain matter into a lava lamp.
You’re Anthony Precourt, “owner” of the Columbus Crew. You’ve taken the highly controversial step of making it publicly known that you want to move one of the original franchises of Major League Soccer out of their home city to Austin, Texas. In the process, you’ve become one of the most reviled men in American soccer. You’ve staked everything on this relocation – your reputation, your legacy. Everything.
You desperately want to prove to the people of Austin that you really, really mean it when you say how much you love the city and are committed to them… even though you said the same thing to Columbus and it turned out to be nothing but empty promises and lies. You totally love queso, what could be more authentic?
What’s the one thing you probably should not do if you are Anthony Precourt? Threaten the city of Austin with a totally unnecessary ultimatum.
What’s the one thing Anthony Precourt just did? Threaten the city of Austin with a totally unnecessary ultimatum.
Well, technically it wasn’t Precourt, who has been a ghost throughout this process. It’s the Official Lobbyist of PSV & MLS in Austin, Richard Suttle. With Austin City Council set to discuss the proposal for a new stadium next week and decide between opening up McKalla Place to other offers or beginning negotiations with Precourt, Suttle dropped a mind-boggling ultimatum that only opens more questions for both Precourt and Major League Soccer.
With four council members issuing a release in support of the resolution for an open and fair process, Suttle basically told the city of Austin if they don’t accept his “deal” now then PSV will leave Austin and all the #MLS2ATX scarves they paid for behind.
But that’s not all. What may even be more shocking is what Suttle said next. He intimated that Precourt may explore other cities around America that are interested in an MLS expansion franchise (!!!) and that the decision to relocate the Crew may be made for Precourt by the league itself. (???)
Via the Statesman:
“That is a minimum of a several-month process,” he said. “That means that site is off the table for an MLS stadium, because we don’t have several months to wait to see if it’ll work for a stadium or not.”
“There’s 10 other cities that would like to have a soccer team,” Suttle said. “They’re willing to put forward a lot of incentives to get one. If we have to wait for months to see if McKalla is going to work or not, then I think we have no other option but to look to other cities. The decision may not be made by Precourt. He wants to be in Austin. The decision may be made for him by the league.”
Wow. Wow. Wow.
This statement by itself opens up so many Pandora’s Boxes that it’s nearly impossible to keep track of at this point. But we’ll try with these four key questions.
1) How can Austin trust Anthony Precourt now?
Why can’t Anthony Precourt afford to have his stadium proposal to go through an open and fair process? Should that not send off all sorts of alarm bells? Precourt’s tactics were already compared to that of a used car salesman by one council member and this kind of threat should erase any kind of trust or faith the city of Austin had in him. Precourt is the embodiment of an Austin boondoggle.
This deal hitting majority of former City Council member Daryl Slusher’s Top Ten Ways to Spot a City Hall Boondoggle list. This one #8: “Deadline Set By Out of Town Investors” #MLS2ATX #SaveTheCrew pic.twitter.com/O8ftunpe73
— Mike Blizzard (@emblizario) June 20, 2018
If Precourt was fully committed to Austin and loved the city so much, why would he resist a fair and open process? Or is it all a charade, just like it was in Columbus?
2) What about the mysterious “Austin Clause”?
When the news of the potential relocation was first revealed, the soccer world was stunned to find out that a secret “Austin Clause” was given to Precourt when he purchased the Crew in 2013 that allowed him to try to move the team to Texas. MLS commissioner Don Garber revealed it publicly in January to Sports Illustrated.
“When he made that acquisition, all teams have the opportunity in all leagues to come to the league and say, ‘I can’t succeed. I need some help. Are there options for me in another market?’ In his case, when he said that, upon purchase, we said, ‘We’ll agree that all teams have that with league approval, but we’re going to limit you to only one market.’ And that one market was Austin. And that was because we had no expansion activity going on at that time. A lot has happened since then. That was five years ago. Things change. Times change. I don’t know how this ultimately gets resolved. But I will tell you that we are as focused on keeping the team there [in Columbus] as Anthony is working to try to see if there are any other alternatives.”
So if Precourt is “limited” to pursuing Austin by MLS itself, how can he pursue a deal in other cities in trying to relocate the Crew as Suttle suggests he can do? Or is the Austin clause as meaningless and bogus as “parallel paths“?
3) Can MLS really decide the fate of the Crew with or without Precourt?
The legal gymnastics being played by MLS to get around the Modell Law lawsuit in the state of Ohio have focused on arguing that Precourt really doesn’t own the Columbus Crew. Precourt even sheepishly changed his Twitter bio from “owner” to “investor/operator” because it flew in the face of what he and the league were trying to argue in court. Could the league really decide to move the Crew against his wishes to another city if Austin falls through, though? Could they decide to keep the team in Columbus? Could this become another Chivas USA situation? If MLS steps in and moves the Crew to another city other than Austin or Columbus, what’s to stop MLS from moving any team to any location because the league office feels like it’s what is best for business?
If the league forcibly extracts the Crew from Columbus and moves them to a desired expansion market of their choosing, it could be a “crossing the Rubicon” moment for the league that would fundamentally transform Major League Soccer forever. And not in a good way.
4) Is MLS really putting up one of its original franchises for sale to the highest bidder?
There are so many contradictions and conflicts within MLS expansion (look no further than how MLS has treated San Antonio) that are staggering, even considering the league’s single entity structure.
Could the threat to Austin be a sign that the next “expansion” bid is really one to win the rights to the Columbus Crew? Would MLS and Don Garber really be brazen enough to put their founding club up for sale to the highest bidder? Is this a “come and get me” plea to the other cities vying for an MLS expansion team to make their best offer for the Crew’s relocation?
The league clearly wants a franchise in Austin and is willing to circumvent their own process to get it. Austin hasn’t been on the league’s list of cities vying for an expansion franchise, but we know that MLS has been reaching out to Austin going back to the fall of 2016 at least and has their own lobbyist in Suttle trying to put a team there. There’s now also a signed letter from a different person in Austin who claims to have conversations with Garber dating back to 2013. That letter also states that another city outside the expansion process, Las Vegas, has had conversations with MLS and even more relocation may be on the table.
This needs to be shared with EVERY supporter's group in @MLS, see the part circled in purple, if relocation can happen to us in Columbus, it can happen to anyone!#SaveTheCrew pic.twitter.com/X2vYORTzFI
— Spencer Bownas (@SpencerBownas) June 21, 2018
How many cities is MLS willing to cast them aside just like they are the city of Columbus and maybe even Austin too? Austin and Columbus are both pawns in whatever game MLS is trying to play here. With so few questions and so few answers, with two cities simultaneously being held hostage, it should give pause to anyone who truly cares about the future of American professional soccer.