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.