Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “a sports franchise owner in Ohio threatens to move team unless new stadium is built.” Before you break into a cold sweat, I am not talking about any clubs in Cleveland. This time the axe hangs over Columbus Crew SC, the state’s lone Major League Soccer outpost. On Tuesday, majority owner Anthony Precourt announced that unless the club and city can get a deal in place for a new downtown arena, he will relocate the team to Austin, Texas following the 2018 season. There are a number of factors influencing his decision and a couple ways this could go.
When Major League Soccer formed in 1994, Columbus received the first franchise. Two years later the Crew (the “SC” suffix came in 2014) took the field at Ohio Stadium. In 1999, Columbus Crew Stadium (now Mapfre Stadium) opened east of Ohio State’s campus near I-71. The Crew enjoyed a run of success in the 2000s, winning the MLS Cup in 2008. Some up-and-down seasons followed before the Crew SC returned to the championship match in 2015, a 2-1 game they embarrassingly lost at home to the Portland Timbers. The 2017 Crew have qualified for the postseason and will know their playoff seed after Sunday’s regular season finale.
“Attendance” has always been a dirty word at Crew/Mapfre Stadium. In its standard soccer configuration, the building holds 19,968 fans though you’ll rarely see that many for a game. From 2005-2012 for example the Crew averaged 13,933 fans per game (69.8%). The average ticked up last year to 17,125 but when the Crew failed to reach the postseason the 2017 numbers slouched down to 15,439 per game. The figures aren’t historically terrible (Chivas USA averaged 7,063 fans in 2014 before folding), but are a clear outlier in the larger MLS narrative of wild growth. New clubs such as Atlanta United are selling out NFL stadiums; the Five Stripes pulled in 70,425 for a game against Orlando City last month. Regions such as the Pacific Northwest have adopted soccer as part of their unique, bearded, flannel-wearing, pierced, tattooed subculture to great effect. Meanwhile the Crew SC are the third team in a two-sport city. Despite being newer, the Blue Jackets have more fully grown in the city’s consciousness. It doesn’t help the Crew’s case that anything Ohio State is the city’s One True God.
I think there is something else going on here. Let’s briefly abandon the facts for Corey’s Conspiracy Corner.1 The following is some semi-reasoned speculation. Major League Soccer wants to expand from their current 22-team lineup to 28 teams. They want to be taken seriously as a major sports league in this country, which means they need to distance themselves from missteps like the Miami Fusion or Tampa Bay Mutiny. As a result, they’re taking fewer risks. Five of the last seven expansion teams have come from cities that already showed support for a lower-tier team in the NASL (North American Soccer League) or USL (United Soccer League). Lower-tier soccer is confusing so for now think of it as minor league baseball without the affiliation to a big league unit.
Enter FC Cincinnati. Established in 2016 and playing in the USL (roughly equivalent to AAA baseball), Cincinnati plays in Nippert Stadium and has quickly gained the Queen City’s love and adoration. Last season the club averaged 17,296 patrons for regular season games with several jumps beyond 30,000 for playoffs and US Open Cup play. This season they are packing in 21,199 per game, and have qualified for the postseason for the second straight year. Last year MLS commissioner Don Garber visited Cincinnati and met with owners and management while being toured around town. I believe that he and MLS want a team in Cincinnati, but they cannot justify it while the Crew is just a few miles up the road. However, if the Crew were to vacate, then FCC could jump up from USL to MLS and help him reach the “magical” 28 club threshold. I’m not saying Garber orchestrated this situation, but Precourt’s statement today did include a quote from the commissioner reading, “Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning… we support PSV’s efforts to explore options outside of Columbus, including Austin, provided they find a suitable stadium location.” In other words, Crew fans will find no allies in the Commissioner’s office in their quest to to keep the Black and Gold. You are now leaving Corey’s Conspiracy Corner.2 Please watch your head as you exit.
It goes without saying attendance is not the only indicator or a sports team’s financial health. The Crew’s books are closed so it is difficult to definitively say how they fare with merchandise sales and the like though did report losses earlier in the decade. The club’s TV situation is likely not helping. For the past several years Crew games have exclusively broadcasted on TWC Sports Channel which means if you don’t have Time Warner Cable then you don’t get the local soccer team. While the club has expanded the simulcast options this season it feels remarkably foolish to make a struggling team’s product more exclusive. MLS enjoys a national broadcast deal with ESPN and Fox Sports, but the money involved hardly compares with the record breaking deals the NBA or NFL utilize. A strong local TV presence is key.
In reviewing Precourt’s decision, it is hard to disagree with one aspect – the stadium is a problem. Mapfre Stadium lies adjacent to the Ohio Fairgrounds with limited entrance and egress points. Traffic surrounds the stadium before and after games. Since the Hudson Street Hooligan’s pub closed in 2011 there are no real options to get a bite to eat or something to drink within walking distance of the stadium. Plenty of fans tailgate, but a more downtown location would quickly address the issues of parking, traffic, and post-game activities. Selling that idea to the city council may prove more difficult.
If I had to put money on it right now I would bet that the Crew SC leaves after next season. It’s disconcerting to read that Alex Fischer of the Columbus Partnership offered to buy the club from Precourt, but the latter rejected the offer. Precourt is playing nice and assuring fans that this announcement is in the interest of transparency and all options remain on the table. He bought the team in 2013, and per this Columbus Dispatch article, the purchase agreement includes an escape clause in case he wanted to move the team to Austin. Precourt has also trademarked the phrases “Austin Athletic” and “Austin FC.” Those details feel pretty damning. It remains to be seen how the Columbus City Council responds. The conversation may very well turn to spending public funds on stadium construction which tends to divide people on the best use of that money. Fans and a city will talk, but it’s the owner who holds all the cards right now. If you’ve never been to Mapfre Stadium for a Crew SC game I highly suggest you go. The atmosphere is fun, and the soccer quality on the field may impress you. I would recommend that you move the game up a little higher on your sports bucket list. Just in case.