Columbus Crew: Without public stadium funds, we’ll go demand public stadium funds in Austin

MLS has seen a ton of attempts to extract public money in exchange for granting expansion teams of late, but not so much in the way of existing teams threatening to move if they don’t get cash for new homes. That’s about to change in a big way, as Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt is reportedly set to announce today that if he doesn’t get money for a new stadium in Columbus, he’ll instead demand money for a new stadium in Austin, Texas:

Columbus owner Anthony Precourt is set to announce in a press conference on Tuesday that he will move his team to Austin in 2019 if a downtown soccer stadium for the Crew cannot be finalized in the next year…

Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a group of 60 Columbus business leaders and CEOs, said Precourt had rejected offers to buy 100 percent and 50 percent of the Crew by a group of local business and community leaders in Columbus…

Fischer continued: “We’ve received notice from the ownership that at a press conference [Tuesday] they are going to announce they are jointly pursuing that plan in Austin as well as continuing conversations about a possible new stadium in Columbus.”

When asked if he thought Precourt was seeking public financing or support for the stadiums in Columbus and Austin, Fischer was clear. “I think there’s no question he expects public financing and or support for any stadium in either city,” he said.

This does not come entirely out of the blue — right after Precourt bought the team in 2013, his ownership group started talking about the need to replace their then-14-year-old stadium, and they hired a consultant to start looking into it last fall. Still, jumping straight from “we’d like a new stadium, we haven’t figured out how to pay for it” to “if we don’t get a new stadium, we’re out the door after next year” is an unusual tactic, to say the least. And Austin is an unusual target, given that it’s not one of the 12 cities bidding for an expansion team, though who knows, maybe city leaders figured they could skip that whole process if they thought they could get the Crew instead.

The Columbus Dispatch, meanwhile, seems to think this is less a leverage threat on the team’s current home than an all-but-finalized plan to relocate the team, coupled with keeping the door open in Columbus in order to keep ticket sales from going through the floor:

One source close to the team said a deal to host home games at the University of Texas is “all but done” for 2019. The source also said Precourt paid $68 million — above market value — for the team in 2013 because he long entertained plans to move it. Another source said plans for a “pristine, waterfront development” in Austin are gaining steam.

The sources spoke off the record because negotiations to keep the team in Columbus are not officially dead. It is standard practice for team owners who might want to move to keep hope alive for the purposes of selling tickets for a lame-duck season. The late Art Modell, for instance, made a public promise to keep his NFL team in Cleveland before he moved it to Baltimore.

Unlike in other major pro sports — or maybe “more major pro sports” is a better way of putting it — it’s really tough to tell whether MLS move threats make sense just based on such things as market size, since the league’s finances are so screwy. (For the record, Austin is a slightly smaller media market than Columbus.) Would it make sense for Precourt to pull the trigger on a move to Austin, depending on how lucrative a deal he got there? Would he stay put in Columbus for the right level of cash subsidies? This isn’t hockey, so it’s hard to dismiss the threat as saber-rattling — but it’s also hard to say that it isn’t. Hopefully we’ll have more tea leaves to read after Precourt makes his announcement later today.

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60 comments on “Columbus Crew: Without public stadium funds, we’ll go demand public stadium funds in Austin

  1. Guess what? Austin has utterly no desire to foot the bill for a stadium for MLS. It had a D3 USL team (USL was D3 at the time), the Aztex, which it could not support and went dormant for several years. The owner of the F1 track decided it would be great to build a tiny (2K) facility for USL out in the middle of nowhere next to the track, but as far as I know there hasn’t been any dirt moved on that project which is supposed to open in 2019.

    You betcha Precourt is trying to play you. Property taxes in ATX are already through the roof and the people here aren’t going to approve a couple hundred million more for a boondoggle like this.

    I’m not even going to go into how dirty this would be to San Antonio, who have done it the right way, building support for their USL franchise, drawing well for USL (7-8K), and have a stadium that was designed to be expanded to support MLS.

  2. Native (but now displaced) Austinite…

    Can’t imagine where they think a waterfront stadium is going if it’s in the downtown area. The only land that’s not already developed or parkland is west of MoPac and that’s all owned by the University. If they are thinking Zilker Park, I kinda doubt the city would tear up any piece of that for fear of a) taking space away from ACL Fest and b) possible harm to Barton Springs.

    Always thought you could rehab House Park and it would be near perfect and it’s already a sports facility and close to downtown. Traffic would be a nightmare and there’s the risk of Shoal Creek flooding and now I’m starting to sound way too provincial for most people to care.

    Anyway, the only time I can ever recall sports subsidies being an issue was for the Austin Swing, a minor league baseball team that never was. Although I can’t recall if it was something that was defeated in a general election or just on a council vote. There was a Austin American-Statesman story this morning with the mayor basically saying, ‘Yeah, we’d love MLS and it’d be great here, but we’re not putting together a bond package.’

    1. As a former resident and frequent visitor to Austin TX, I can tell you that there is no way that the taxpayers of Austin would pay for a boondoggle like this. Too many other things to do in Austin. Austinites have much better things to do than sit around watching what is essentially minor league soccer, since the real major league soccer is played in Europe.

      1. “since the real major league soccer is played in Europe”

        This is entirely unfair. There also is South America.

  3. I saw this coming for years , actually mentioned it to a Crew fan and he got verbally stupid. A Wall Street guy buys the team and is going to sit silent while every other team in that rust belt city gets whatever they want. He’ll move the team , not 100% it will be Austin , but that team will relocate ! This owner might build a stadium with his own money but not in Columbus.

  4. Dangerous dealings for MLS on several fronts. Not only was Columbus basically their first franchise–so they’d literally be abandoning their birthplace–but Austin isn’t even one of the (numerous) cities fighting for an expansion team.

    For some time I’ve seen them headed towards eventual contraction because they simply won’t be able to sustain the sized league they’re creating–shortage of quality players and the resultant decline in play is one issue they have no solution for unless they totally abandon the salary controls that have made them profitable to this point–but they’ll only hasten that if they start sticking teams in markets that don’t have a major interest in having a team.

      1. But in all seriousness, feel free to explain how a 30+ team league isn’t going to see a drastic drop in quality of play. (Particularly since level of play is already a frequent complaint now.) The clear fix is to bring in more out-of-country talent but how does that happen without a large increase in payroll? And if salaries go up significantly that’s a major change to the recipe that has made MLS profitable up until now.

        The only other option is that fans will be so rabid about the MLS they won’t notice or care the quality has slipped allowing MLS to keep their current salary structure and fill in with more and more lower tier players. But that can’t really be what the league is banking on, can it?

        1. Simple Steven #2, level of play has increased every year since 2007 and with each round of expansion . That’s a fact ! Also payroll is much higher than advertised, MLS uses Tam , allocation & DP money to secure players and not counted towards payroll. Those money’s increase as necessary and not tied to C.B.A.

          1. Got it. More talent magically appears instantly with every new team and they somehow can increase payroll “as necessary” forever. Makes you wonder they don’t already have 50 teams if all that is true.

          2. Google expansion team Atlanta United , and read up on how that team was built from international talent not currently in MLS.

    1. My guess is that those who would want a team in Austin have know for a bit that this was in the works so they passed on the whole expansion deal since this was more of a sure thing.

  5. This sure looks like a done deal. Austin has the “cool” factor that Columbus doesn’t and I’m sure that the Crew owner thinks that he’ll be able to sell high end tickets and suites to the growing corporate base in the suburbs. I don’t think stadium subsidies matter one bit in this deal.

    1. I agree. This is about being the first pro team in a top 3 growing market and demo’s that generally support the sport. Now that FCC has become Ohio’s team the league will allow the move and figure out when not if Cincinnati gets in.

      1. Are you the person that always posts on here about the great future MLS has in store?

        If not, my apologies. But, you are certainly not familiar with Columbus’s demographics or Cincinnati’s situation.

        FC Cincinnati will be the MLS team in Ohio, but it won’t be supported beyond the South West corner of the state (if even that, depends on where they play).

        And, let’s see what happens if FCC moves away from the on-campus site. Those college kids buying those discounted tickets, walking to the game, may indeed suffer “sticker shock” going elsewhere, like N. Kentucky, to see a MLS game.

        Precourt had this move in mind from the day be bought the team, that out clause to Austin wasn’t a mistake. He has lied to numerous fans, media and business leaders in Columbus every day as owner.

        1. I am that smart guy and no need to apologise, you have some good points. I agree the ownership was planning a move from day one if Columbus didn’t deliver like they have every year for the others sport products in town. Unfortunately the Indianapolis, New Orleans etc of the world have to pick what league they plan on subsidizing. Columbus made their choice and a business man made his. It sucks but the city had 4 years to give the guy a bone and gave him the finger instead. That worked with a great man like Lamar Hunt but not on a shark like Precourt.

          1. Are you a paid MLS troll? Serious question.

            Because there are serious inaccuracies with what you posted. As there have been with many other of your previous posts.

            The city did not “give Precourt the finger.”

            He lied. And lied. And lied. And, cut down on promoting the team to ease the path out of town.

            Do I need to post Precourt’s quote, almost a year ago to the day, that Columbus was being “insecure” even thinking that the Crew would leave town? Or, the “no chance we’re moving” from years past?

            He cut back on season-ticket holder perks from the first day he bought the team, signed a (much) lesser TV deal and ended a Buck-A-Brat promotion (silly as this reads), that was a gold mine for paid attendance. And there is much more.

            You do not know the situation. At all.

            (And quit lauding Hunt. He accepted Precourt’s overbid for the Crew, with the clause in it. Now we all know why the overpay occurred. Hunt wanted the money, keeping the team in town be hanged.)

          2. Let me guess, you work for the mayor or Columbus dispatch. Don’t know or care about rumors or hot dog sales. Other teams in town receive new taxpayer arenas & parks along with yearly operating subsidies. The Crew got nothing. I am sure Mr Hunt lost money on that sale for 68 mil and all those early cash calls he & A.E.G. had to make. Now you not only owe me an apology but also the great honor of Lamar Hunt. R.I.P.

          3. Other teams in town? The Blue Jackets? Ohio State?

            I don’t understand the case for a new stadium when the stadium was still basically new when he bought the team (even considering the absurdity of other situations detailed on this site). are the citizens of Columbus just supposed to do this like he’s a visiting Emperor?

            Running a team into the ground by ruining the fan experience is a familiar story for owners who want to leave. Then its the “fans fault”.

            Although both are good cities with big universities and good tech sectors, can’t really criticize wanting to have a team in Austin. Would just say overall that MLS’s “strategy” in how it picks cities or what market it wants to appeal too appears to be shifting like sand.

            In the end, anyone who wants to watch good soccer in the US can always find it on TV. The World Cup will be a great place to start.

          4. Columbus Clippers also received 100% new taxpayer park & yearly subsidies from Franklin County.

          5. What can I say—they looked at the Clips and MLS and figured sponsoring one minor league team was enough.

            To be fair, Baseball has been part of Columbus for over a century, and somehow the County-owned model seems to work. They bought at the right time.

          6. Actually they didn’t look at MLS. What they did was bail out a failing business and use taxpayer money to build a new park and funnel tax dollars to offset losses. Just as was done for Wall Street.

          7. BTW the team is in the playoffs, and consider one of best attacking teams in the league. How is that running team into the ground ?

          8. They bought a “failing business” (really?) for 250K and probably own a 10 million dollar asset now.

            Would you describe the Green Bay Packers in the same terms?

            don’t really get the model, but if it works for Columbus, not sure why they have to do anything for anyone else?

          9. Government is in place for essential services only ! If it were up to you the government would still own AIG & half the banks. Yes privatize profits and socialize losses. You probably think eminent domain is just fine.

          10. They invested at least 100 million into that purchase to get to 10 million , real smart. 80 million construction & land and years of losses along with soft costs at another 30 million. Yes government is much better at turning a profit over the private market. Good investment LMFAO.

    2. “I don’t think stadium subsidies matter one bit in this deal.”
      If he believes he can come out ahead building his own stadium in Austin I guess we should wish him well. But that’d require LOTS and LOTS of extra tickets sold to get that investment back–all the while hoping the league never, ever expands into the much larger TV market 90 miles down the road in San Antonio which would almost certainly hurt attendance in Austin. Maybe the Austin mayor saying they aren’t into selling bonds is just a ploy but he was pretty unequivocal in his statement about that.

      1. From what I’ve read Precourt claims to build stadium himself in both cities. So he must be looking for best location and infrastructure.

  6. Why pay $150 million for an expansion team when the league would allow an existing team to be purchased for less than half that amount and moved shortly thereafter?

    Austin and San Antonio are separated by 80 miles. Austin is a state capital and college town, just like Columbus. Just as the NHL and MLS have seen in Columbus, adding a pro team to a college town doesn’t alter allegiances as to where the local entertainment dollar goes. San Antonio is a larger city, and its bidding group is headed by the Spurs ownership. It already has the lay of the land, and is the closest thing to a gold standard for sports management in the country. Anthony Precourt comes off as though he has been mentored by Dean Spanos.

    I’m looking for good news in what is happening. This makes MLS appear even weaker at a time where it is trying to make a power play in expansion. It ticks off the Columbus fans as their team heads to the playoffs, and will probably lead to even more empty seats next year. It would kill a San Antonio bid as they probably would not put two new teams within 80 miles of one another, though in a metro of 2 million with half the population being Hispanic there might be a case it could still work in San Antonio. All I can come up with is that it opens up Mapfre Stadium for the Chargers.

    1. Could we maybe put a rest to the “Hispanics like soccer” meme?

      I realize in the clumsy marketing world of MLS, this passes for sophisticated thinking. But other than that Univision shows the Mexican League games, what is it that tells the world that having “Hispanics” around is a guarantor of soccer marketing success?

      Seems to me Texas’s success that there is broad support for a number of sports within the state–baseball, basketball, football, and soccer–even hockey with the Stars. So MLS could do a great thing by not speaking in a patronizing tone about one single “group.”

      1. It is not that Univision shows Liga LX games. It is that Liga MX tv ratings dwarf all other soccer leagues in the US. The Mexican national soccer team is either as popular or more popular than the US team, and regularly schedule friendly games in San Antonio. I’m even willing to take a guess that many of the 44,000 who watched Mexico play Curacao at the Alamodome were Mexican-American. It also stands to reason given the first two points and that the growth of the sport in this country corresponds directly with the massive demographic shift that has seen the number of Hispanics in the US go from 22 million in 1990 to 50 million in 2010, with Hispanic immigration from Mexico making up the largest group, that Mexican-Americans have played a large role in fueling the growth of the sport in the US. As far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong with noting that Mexican-Americans make up a considerable portion of soccer fandom in the US, or this controversial hot take that an existing soccer fan is more likely to go to a soccer game than a non-soccer fan.

        1. “Hispanics” is too broad of a term to be useful. A Mexican-American in Texas has lots of choices.

          The same garbage analysis was used for two failed soccer teams in Florida and one in California. Plenty of other factors at play, but the geniuses who figured the Mutiny were a sure thing due to the “Hispanic market” lost a few bucks.

  7. Really shocked if the other owners have actually signed off on it, one of the advantages of single entity would seem to have been wring the expansion money out, and then do a relocation, and even then, relocate to a market that adds to the TV pie rather than just redistributes it.

    Unless, of course, this is a “forgiveness instead of permission” announcement to create a fait accompli.

    1. It was in the contract he negotiated when it bought the team five years ago that he could move to Austin, and only Austin, scot free (more or less). This was likely signed off back then and they’ve been waiting for the right moment to announce it.

      Yea, though, MLS should put a stop to this stuff, even if to not undermine the price for a expansion team.

  8. Since the stadium in which the Crew play is owned by the team’s owne,r Precourt sports ventures (and was built by Lamar Hunt when he owned the Crew… as well as half the rest of the league…), does he plan to try to sell it to a local who doesn’t have a team to play in it, or maybe give it away as a public park or ???

    I imagine that as a shrewd businessman, Mr Precourt has set the facility up as a standalone business precisely so it can be bankrupted when he feels it advantegous to do so. Perhaps this will form the basis of a “gift” to the city. It’s hard to imagine anyone bidding on it should it be sold for tax arrears or debts owing.

    The stadium (like PHP in Frisco) was privately funded by Hunt Sports Group. I do not recall whether Crew stadium has a tax treaty in place, but if not it should be subject to property tax like most other privately owned facilities.

    It has hosted other events (rugby, concerts, lacrosse etc), but it’s main use has been MLS and occasional international games.

  9. Not that surprised by the Austin site selection.

    If the owner were to try to “use up” a current expansion site for his own relocation, he would face opposition from the other owners (keen to share in $150m in expansion fees, and also able to vote on any relocation fee imposed).

    If he picks a destination that is not on MLS’ expansion radar, it costs the league no potential expansion fee (at least until they get to 50 or 60 teams).

    This doesn’t mean it will happen (Columbus might cave and agree to pay for upgrades, as well as reimburse Precourt for the construction cost of the stadium… even though he didn’t pay that cost, of course). But there is at least some rational for choosing a smaller market not presently on MLS’ expansion radar.

    1. It may not be on the radar since “everyone” knew this was in the cards already so don’t even bother trying to get an expansion team for Austin. Also it sounds like that Precourt just wanted a team in Austin and buying the Crew, waiting for a bit, then moving it was the easiest way to do it.

      Why the other owners don’t try to get an expansion type fee, maybe discounted by the purchase price, beats me, considering the expansion fees are a lot of what is keeping the league afloat at the moment.

  10. Not familiar with Columbus metro area, but Austin has a significant suburban area and incredible soccer interest in those suburbs.

  11. Guess what folks. If the city hadn’t bailed out the Bluejackets & Clippers , the Crew would be the only ticket in town outside Ohio State. Would we be having this conversation at all.

      1. If your going to argue the Bluejackets weren’t bailed out by the city & county you haven’t read anything on this site before. BTW the local Casino funnels 10-12 million a year to the Bluejackets as part of that bail out ! Dude

        1. I’m asking about the baseball team. For whatever strange reason, the city bought a team. The citizens of Green Bay bought a team too. Odd and not what I’d want, but they can sell it if they want. Can you give a little more deal on the supposed baseball bailout.

          The Blue Jacket deal is terrible and has been covered in detail on this site. No need for Columbus to repeat that mistake with MLS.

  12. I live in Austin by Zilker. No one is allowed to build on the water or disrupt Barton Springs which is in Zilker and I’m not sure where they would put the stadium. We are kind of full. No tax deal would happen. The citizens would throw the city council out. We are proud to not have a pro team here. Somehow people just keep moving here. We do however have the most acerage per person of park land in the US. That’s what we are proud of. Go somewhere else.

  13. In that case can you wave your magic wand and drop it downtown next to Clippers park or Yellow jacket arena. If you don’t mind add seats as oppose to metal benches.

      1. Good enough for the cost. Plus metal benches bring fans closer to the action. Ever go to a European game? That’s what folks WANT!

        #FauxSoccerFans #VirtueSignaling

  14. Mr. Fisher the spokesperson representing the local businesses looking on keeping the Crew in town said they feel it necessary to do it because the Crew & US Soccer have put Columbus on the international map. Not the Bluejackets or minor league baseball or even that famous concussion free college football team. The smart guys see and the blind don’t.

    1. I think Ohio State has put Columbus on the map that matters for over a century. Excellent school with a great research tradition. Who cares about the football team.

      I have lived in Europe for a long time and the only people who really follow what is going on in MLS are people who get a little over the top on soccer or who are fascinated to see what happened to some midfielder who got too slow for the 2nd Division at home. Certainly not business leaders.

      Data please!

      1. International Map !!!!!! International players bring international eyeballs ! It’s way half the baseball teams want a Japanese player. It’s why the NBA was able to penetrate China because of one freak of nature Chinese man. A player like Scolotto brought huge numbers South America eyeballs to Crew games.

        1. BTW those hardcore fans would visit from Argentina following their over the hill hero. Actual money from outside the state being spent on hotels & other Columbus establishments. Hell I even met some at a Chicago home game when Columbus was visiting.

          1. If you note, what I’m commenting on is the idea that the Columbus Crew is somehow more important than Ohio State in bringing international corporate interest to central Ohio.

            I don’t doubt that the games attract a few groundhoppers from different parts of the world–I do the same thing myself–but I doubt the economic impact is particularly significant in the short or long term.

            I maintain my high doubt that the presence of a German midfielder in Chicago brings Volkswagen to build a plant.

  15. Perhaps you should inform a Columbus native and successful local business man that the Crew didn’t help put Columbus on the international Map. I am sure someone who lives in Columbus wouldn’t have a clue.

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