Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine thinks he has a way to save the Columbus Crew from moving to Austin, and it involves a 21-year-old piece of legislation known as the Art Modell Law, officially Ohio Revised Code 9.67:
9.67 Restrictions on owner of professional sports team that uses a tax-supported facility.
No owner of a professional sports team that uses a tax-supported facility for most of its home games and receives financial assistance from the state or a political subdivision thereof shall cease playing most of its home games at the facility and begin playing most of its home games elsewhere unless the owner either:
(A) Enters into an agreement with the political subdivision permitting the team to play most of its home games elsewhere;
(B) Gives the political subdivision in which the facility is located not less than six months’ advance notice of the owner’s intention to cease playing most of its home games at the facility and, during the six months after such notice, gives the political subdivision or any individual or group of individuals who reside in the area the opportunity to purchase the team.
This was passed in 1996 in the wake of Art Modell moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore and the city coughing up big money for a new stadium to get a new Browns franchise, though it’s the first I’m hearing about it. (Joanna Cagan researched and wrote the Cleveland section of the opening chapter of Field of Schemes, so my knowledge of that deal isn’t quite as encyclopedic as it might be.) DeWine says his office has reviewed the law and believes it applies to the Crew, and is “prepared to take the necessary legal action under this law” to enforce the provision that team owner Anthony Precourt give Columbus six months to either find a local buyer or buy the team itself.
The law applies, according to state representative Mike Duffey, who asked DeWine to look into it, because, as the Columbus Dispatch puts it, “it is paying a below-market rate to lease state land for parking, the stadium sits on land that is tax exempt, and the state in 2009 provided $5 million for parking upgrades at the Ohio Expo Center, where lots just south of the stadium and are used by Crew SC fans.” Which all sounds reasonable enough to me, though I am not a lawyer, and in any case “reasonable” isn’t going to stop Precourt from going to court to fight it.
Of course, if the state or city were to sue and win, they’d then have to find an owner willing to buy the Crew. That actually may not be so difficult — if all else fails, Franklin County already owns the Clippers, so it has some experience hiring a professional manager to run a publicly owned sports franchise — and might actually be cheaper than ponying up for a new stadium would be, especially since then they’d get whatever profits the Crew are currently earning. Except, uh, there’s nothing in that law that I can see that says a team owner has to agree to sell the team to local owners at any particular price, is there? So what’s to stop Precourt from saying, “Fine, you win, but despite expansion franchises going for $150 million and my only spending $63 million to get my team four years ago, it’s such a glorious franchise that I won’t take a penny less than $400 million”?
And also, the law doesn’t seem to specify penalties, so what happens if Precourt just picked up and leaves? Does Ohio just have to sue to get back its past subsidies? Can it seize the team by eminent domain? I still have not gotten my law degree since two paragraphs back, so maybe these aren’t really such big worries, but it sure seems like there are a lot of lawsuits ahead for this project. Might be easier if Austin voters just tell Precourt to take his MLS-stadium-in-a-public-park plans and go back to Ohio.