I regret to inform you that MLS is at it again.
You’ll have heard by now that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt is considering moving the team to Austin, Texas:
“As attendance League-wide continues to grow on a record-setting pace, and markets across the country seek to join MLS, Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “Despite PSV’s significant investments and improvements on and off the field, Columbus Crew SC is near the bottom of the League in all business metrics and the club’s stadium is no longer competitive with other venues across MLS. The league is very reluctant to allow teams to relocate, but based on these factors, we support PSV’s efforts to explore options outside of Columbus, including Austin, provided they find a suitable stadium location.”
I’m not going to go into this too deeply, as others have already done so better than I could - I recommend this Sports Illustrated article by Brian Straus.
But this is an egregious case of MLS trying to have its cake and eat it and it deserves to be condemned and ridiculed from as many corners as possible, hence the addition of this one.
Sometimes, sports clubs die. The business model fails, they cease to become financially viable and there are no other avenues left to explore. It happens, and so those clubs either move to a new location or go under.
This is not one of those cases.
That’s not to say that Columbus are in a perfect situation. They are averaging crowds of around 15,000 this season, which is third-worst in MLS. Maybe securing corporate sponsorships has been difficult, as Precourt has claimed. There is no doubt that Mapfre Stadium does not compare to many venues around the league, both in condition and location (though it was judged good enough to host two U.S. men’s national team games as recently as last year).
But the idea that the Crew have exhausted their options and run their course is laughably premature. By stating himself that the club will continue to pursue a downtown stadium in Columbus, Precourt has acknowledged that.
The real problem here is that Precourt wants something that Columbus cannot offer. He has seen Atlanta United and Orlando City and wants a piece of it. He wants, as he said in a conference call held after the news broke, for the Crew to be a “standard-bearer” in MLS.
What is a standard-bearer? It’s evident it is not, in Precourt’s mind, an FC Dallas - a club sustained by its academy, an outstanding record of drafting and development and an ability to find cut-price talent.
“New teams that have come into the league have shown dramatic attendance,” Precourt said. “Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games. With Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game.”
If this is what Precourt desires, he should sell the Columbus Crew and start saving for the expansion fee.
That’s what’s happening here: a club that should have a future - one with some hurdles to jump, but a future nevertheless - is being shafted because it might be easier, bigger and more lucrative somewhere else.
(‘Might’ is a key word in there, because there is not actually much in the way of tangible evidence proving a deep desire in Austin for an MLS team.)
And the league seems willing to let this happen, which brings us back to the cake.
One of MLS’ key selling points, and a foundational reason for its success in recent years, is the uniqueness of the soccer supporters’ culture. The league plays on this at every possible opportunity, as it should do. It can’t live without it; there are games of higher quality a TV remote away.
But when one of the league’s charter clubs, with its first soccer-specific stadium, is in need of some help, patience and loyalty, Don Garber starts talking “business metrics”.
Oppose this loudly. Be one voice in making it clear to Toronto FC, whose owners will have a vote on the move to Austin should it ever come to be formally proposed, that it is not even close to acceptable.
And hope this latest chapter in an ugly year for American soccer is salvageable.