Columbus to keep Crew, send Anthony Precourt to Austin, this has gotta be a win-win

I posted the week-ending news roundup late on Friday, but still not apparently late enough for the stadium news cycle, which promptly exploded in the afternoon, starting with the news that Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was finalizing a deal to buy the Columbus Crew from owner Anthony Precourt so that it can stay in Columbus in a new stadium and Precourt can get an expansion team to move to Austin, Texas.

A bit of a recap for anyone new to this story: The Crew owners have been griping about wanting a new stadium to replace their current one (which was built all the way back in 1999) since they were the old Crew owners back in 2013; Precourt upped the ante last year by saying if Columbus wouldn’t build him a new stadium, he’d move the team to Austin. Precourt subsequently got Austin to approve a stadium deal there that included a $100 million tax break, but meanwhile Columbus sued under the “Art Modell Law” passed after the Browns moved to Baltimore to force Precourt to offer the team to local buyers first, and a fan group called Save the Crew issued proposals for a new downtown stadium in Columbus, to be paid for … somehow.

That takes us up to Friday, when it was revealed that Haslam — plus some local investors — had negotiated with Precourt and MLS to instead buy the Crew and have them stay put; Precourt will still get an expansion franchise in Austin, and everybody is happy. At least, maybe everybody is happy? There are still a bunch of unanswered questions here, like:

  • Who’s paying what to whom for what here? MLS is a “single-entity” structure, meaning that the league owns the actual teams, and the team “owners” only control operating rights. The Columbus Dispatch reports that the deal likely involves “the local investors purchasing the Columbus MLS rights from the league and current Crew operator Precourt Sports Ventures transferring its equity interest in the league to an Austin franchise, presumably an expansion team” — presumably this means Haslam and friends are paying something close to the $150 million expansion fee price that the league won’t be getting from Precourt. Unless maybe Precourt is paying the difference? This is all rich dudes shuffling money around themselves, so whatever, but it’d still be interesting to know.
  • What happens with the other cities looking for expansion teams? MLS already had a long list of cities angling to get the next two expansion franchises set to be announced, but it appears that Precourt and Austin have jumped the line. Media outlets in Sacramento, thought to be one of the expansion frontrunners, are already wringing their hands over the prospect of now only having one expansion slot to compete for. Assuming MLS doesn’t decide to keep both of next year’s expansion slots and make Austin its 29th team, or throw David Beckham back under the bus, or really anything, because MLS can decide whatever it wants here. (My bet would be on making the remaining cities compete for one slot, but if multiple cities come up with viable ownership groups and lucrative stadium subsidies, announce, “We changed our mind — everybody gets bees!”
  • Who’s going to pay for this new Columbus stadium, anyway? The Columbus Dispatch reports that there’s no deadline for a new Crew stadium to be in place, and that the team will continue to play in its old stadium until then, which would seem to reduce Haslam’s leverage if he wants to get public cash to help with his stadium plans. But it’s always possible Haslam has already been working things out along these lines with Columbus officials — news reporting on all this is fairly lousy so far, as to be expected when news drops on a Friday afternoon.

So what’s the upshot here? That MLS was more scared of moving the Crew to Austin than we’d been led to believe, either because of the Modell Law or because they didn’t want to be seen pissing off an established fan group or just because they saw the opportunity to get another NFL owner on board, and they just love those guys. Regardless, that Columbus will apparently get to keep its MLS team without having to pony up huge subsidies for a stadium for an expansion team has got to be seen as at least tentatively good news, and a sign that public mobilization can impact the battles of elephants. There are still many, many more shoes to drop, however, so glass-half-empty advocates, keep hope alive that this will still suck for someone! Anything is possible in the topsy-turvy world of MLS!


9 comments on “Columbus to keep Crew, send Anthony Precourt to Austin, this has gotta be a win-win

  1. MLS looks like a pyramid scheme. No real sources of revenue except expansion fees which u assume have to end eventually and are gonna get divided by more and more teams.

    The big MLS sponsors are Advocare and Herbalife two of the biggest pyramid schemes around.

    • Soccer United Marketing, which essentially owns and operates MLS, makes a proverbial bank due to the fact that it owns the rights to TV broadcasts of the US Mens National Team, and the US Women’s National Team, and the World Cup. And while several of the franchises lag in terms of attendance, others are routinely selling out, so they lift the slackers, since it’s all single-entity. Yes of course the expansion fees help, and yes, MLS claims poverty right around the time the contract needs to be renegotiated every couple/few years year.

      I don’t know exactly how well-off the league is financially, but they certainly have a diversified income stream. It’s not “just expansion fees.”

      • That is not correct on SUM. SUM is the marketing arm of the MLS and as such is a wholly owned subsidiary of the MLS not the other way around.

        Also, while USSF uses SUM to market the rights to the USMNT US Hosted games, and Mexico uses them for the rights to the US Hosted Mexican National team games, they do not control the most lucrative rights, to the World Cup itself. The World Cup rights are still owned and managed by FIFA directly.

        • Yes I may have been off on the details there – but SUM DOES make MLS a considerable amount of money. The overall point that it’s not just expansion fees keeping MLS afloat remains.

    • Herbalife isn’t a league sponsor ! However Adidas, All-state, AT&T, Audi, Coke, Heineken, Home Depot, Post, Kellogg, Makita, Johnson and Johnson, EA sports, SeatGeek and many others. BTW those sponsorships are a source of income greater than an expansion fee.

  2. First of all Precourt was willing to build stadium himself in Columbus, but wanted downtown land for cheap or free. MLS was scared of fan groups backlash which was already taking roots. The local investors are window dressing, the money is Haslam ! Haslam is related to Tennessee governor who just worked on Nashville expansion deal.

    • “Build stadium himself” and “free land” aren’t exactly consistent. Unless he built the stadium in Cloud City.

  3. The Modell law is a joke, but MLS saves face and at least buy time for Haslam to get arena district location. Fans are happy and if Haslam gets Nationwide on board the taxpayers will probably end up paying for the land or stadium or both. A win-win ???? Let’s see. I for one would prefer relocation over the Crew becoming the bluejackets of MLS !

    • I was skeptical of the law too, but at least in this case the law seems to have made the risk of losing pricey enough for Precourt to dump the team. That’s the thing about going to court, I guess.