With the start of the MLS regular season, Columbus Crew fans continue to wonder if they’ll have a home team to support in 2019
By Ally Melnik and Caroline Favret, ’18
When Mapfre Stadium was built in 1999 to house the then 5-year-old Columbus Crew, it became a staple to Ohio’s capital city. However, this may change in the future.
On Oct. 17, 2017, the owner of the Columbus Crew, Anthony Precourt, announced that he was considering relocating the Crew to Austin, Texas. Although Precourt hasn’t officially made up his mind, it seems as though he’s dedicated to the move unless Columbus constructs a new soccer stadium to fit with the other stadiums in the Arena District downtown.
With the recent proposal of the Crew finding a new home in Austin, fans have risen up to protest. The “Save the Crew” movement has spread across the city and the country. The proposal has also affected students at UA who have grown up with the Crew and believe that it’s an integral part of Columbus.
When Precourt announced that he was thinking about relocating the Crew, the initial reason was because he wanted a new soccer stadium. Although Crew fans weren’t against a new stadium, the threat of relocation scared them enough that the Columbus Partnership, a group of Columbus CEOs whose goal is “to improve the economic vitality of the Columbus Region,” offered to buy 50 to 100 percent of the Crew to keep them in Columbus. Precourt not only refused the offer, he also denied that the Partnership made any offers in the first place.
In addition to wanting a new stadium, Precourt argued that he wanted to move due to struggling business. The Crew has ranked near the bottom of MLS average attendance, according to sports news website SB Nation. However, in their 2017 season, they still made roughly $12 million off of tickets and parking. They also pay a significantly lower rent to play in Mapfre stadium, about $50,000 regularly adjusted for inflation, and don’t have to pay property taxes to stay.
Another factor that’s risen from the situation is a threat from the Ohio Attorney General, Mike DeWine, to use Ohio Revised Code 9.67 against Precourt. The code states that an owner of a professional sports team that uses a tax-supported facility for most of their home games can’t relocate without giving six months’ notice.
Although the Crew doesn’t pay property taxes, the stadium and parking lot did receive several renovations that were paid through tax funds, meaning the code would affect the Crew’s possible relocation. This law hasn’t been used since 1996 when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore.
Despite all the problems arising from Precourt’s proposition, MLS commissioner Don Garber described the situation as Precourt trying to find the location that would provide the most successful outcome for the team.
“What [the Crew is] doing is evaluating what their options are to determine whether or not it makes sense to move to Austin, or whether or not it makes sense for them to have factors that will improve their performance and stay in the city of Columbus,” Garber said in an interview with ESPN.
IF THEY STAY
If the Crew does in fact stay in Columbus, Precourt will most likely still fight for a new stadium to be built downtown. There have been multiple project ideas, but none have been approved.
The Columbus Foundation suggested a 21,000-seat stadium called the “Spirit of Columbus” that would be built between 5th and 6th Street in the Arena District. Besides the stadium, there would also be a parking garage and a children’s theatre. The Foundation’s CEO, Doug Kridler, said in an interview with NBC4 that not only would everything fit, but it would fit in with its surroundings.
“All of our downtown sporting facilities would be lined up in one road-sharing infrastructure of restaurants and parking,” Kridler said.
In addition to the “Spirit of Columbus,” there have been proposed stadiums in Berliner Park, at the Dodge Recreation Center, or in a renovated Expo Center where Mapfre is currently located.
Fans also had the opportunity to voice their opinions in a survey conducted by the Crew. The survey founds that fans 1) would like a downtown stadium, 2) would pay more for tickets in order to help finance the stadium and 3) didn’t want to use public funds to build a new stadium, contrary to Precourt’s vision.
If the team does leave, however, it’s most likely an MLS team will not replace the Crew, according to Don Garber.
IF THEY GO
Austin, Texas is currently the largest city in the United States without a major professional sports league; they have an American Hockey League team, an NBA developmental team and rugby team.
Because of this, the push for MLS soccer is even stronger, and the AustinCity Council believes there is limited time to act.
“This is a logical and critically important step in Austin’s evolution to being a worldclass city that embraces world heritage, health and wellness, inclusivity, the outdoors, diversity, family values, the burgeoning impact of the millennial generation and economic prosperity,” the Greater Austin Chamber said in a statement.
For the past four years, a supporters group under the temporary name “MLS in Austin” has been working with soccer fans, city officials and the league to lobby for a professional team. Now, the opportunity is there for them to have a team, yet they also respect and understand the goals of the Columbus-based support.
To sum it up, “We’re not anti-Columbus, we’re pro-Austin,” MLS in Austin said.
As for an Austin-based stadium, multiple sites have been considered and the seating is expected to be around 20,000, but there is no definite choice yet.
Precourt Sports Ventures, or PSV’s, preferred site at Butler Shores Metropolitan Park is now off the list, following concern for the community surrounding the area.
“Based on this feedback, we are no longer exploring this location and are continuing our due diligence on other possible locations in the urban core,” PSV president Dave Greeley said.
Now, efforts are focused at protecting Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park, the other remaining park on the location shortlist. It’s a mere two miles from downtown Austin and surrounded by neighborhoods and new restaurants, making it an attractive prospective location. Fifteen acres of the western edge away from the Colorado River would be used, and the softball fields currently on the site would be replaced by the team.
The other site still in the running is McKalla Place, a city-owned public property. PSV officials have mentioned that undisclosed private sites could come into play as well.
For now, deliberations will be suspended until there is consensus between Precourt and Austin city officials on a location, according to a memorandum from acting Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeely.
THE FANS’ REACTION
In response to Precourt’s relocation announcement, #SaveTheCrew has spread across Twitter. From this, a support movement formed with the same name.
Save the Crew began with Morgan Hughes, a UA alum, reaching out to his friends and family to find more information about the relocation. It then became hundreds of people all supporting his movement to fight for the same cause.
“We all got hit by this, and we had no time to plan organizationally or set rules,” Hughes said. “It just kind of happened.”
So far, over 300 Columbus-area businesses have allied with Save the Crew in support of remaining in Columbus. Thousands of fans have also pledged their support through a change.org petition.
Hughes also added that in the early days of Save the Crew, spreading awareness came easily.
“We made the website, we got in front of people, we never said no,” Hughes said.
On Oct. 22, 2017, Save the Crew made its first public appearance, traveling to City Hall downtown and protesting. Hughes was there to represent the movement and lead the rally.
During the rally, several local entrepreneurs and celebrities spoke in favor of keeping the Crew in Columbus, including Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Ice Creams, former Crew players Dante Washington and Mike Clark, and former Ohio State basketball player Mark Titus.
With the Crew’s regular season starting soon, Hughes expresses the anticipation as 50 percent excitement and 50 percent dread. “It definitely puts more on our plate, but it’s not something we’ve done before,” Hughes said. “[We’re ready to] get back to doing what the hell we love to do.”
THE EFFECT ON UA
Many central Ohio soccer players start playing club soccer from a young age. These players maysimply want to play for their high school, or may be thinking beyond to college soccer or MLS.
The Crew program specifically hopes to provide young athletes a route to professional soccer. So far, over 30 players have been called into U.S. Youth National Team camps and competitions, seven players have been part of the U.S. U17 Residency Program and 13 former CSCA players have signed professional contracts.
Will Trapp, who is from Columbus and a current midfielder for the crew, is one such example. He was named an MLS All-Star in 2016, making him the first homegrown Crew player to receive this honor.
“To look back in 20 years and to not be able to bring my son or daughter to a game and say, ‘Hey, look, your dad was the captain of Columbus Crew SC’ would be interesting, because it’s been such a paramount and integral part of my life growing up,” Trapp said in an interview with Columbus Alive. “I think I was 3 years old [when I went to my first Crew game] . . . From an upbringing standpoint, I always expected [the team] to be here because it has been here since I was old enough to remember.”
UA senior Richard Coons has also been involved from a young age, as he’s been playing soccer for the past seven years. He currently is a goalkeeper for the U19 Crew Academy team. While the relocation won’t affect him directly, it will affect younger kids in the program, as this may be the final academy season, and the players not graduating could be left without a club.
Coons is also a long-time fan of the MLS team and doesn’t want the native team to leave.
“Once I saw the website [Save the Crew] go up, I purchased scarves and a sign that we have up in our front yard. Everyone on my team feels the same way: They don’t want the Crew to leave Columbus. This organization has given so much to these kids and it would truly be devastating to have it ripped away from them because of ‘business metrics,’” Coons said.
Despite the threat of the club moving, opportunities are still available for young players. During the preseason, four academy players have trained with the team and subbed in to professional Crew games. This is the first time coach Gregg Berhalter has brought up players to this extent, but it may potentially be the last.
While the Crew’s future is uncertain, it hasn’t stopped fans from all around the world to speak up about the relocation. Columbus fans are still hosting rallies and trying to persuade Precourt otherwise, whereas Austin officials are holding city council meetings to determine where a new stadium would be if the Crew does move.
Although no final decision has been made as of now, there have also been no major decision-altering updates in the past few weeks. The Crew plans to start its regular MLS season on time, with their first home game on March 10 against Montreal.