Why the Austin MLS Decision Matters

Austin MLS stadium McKalla Place rendering 1

In one of the most-scrutinized negotiations in all of professional sports, the city of Austin and Precourt Sports Ventures continue to work on a lease for a new McKalla Place MLS stadium, with a decision expected this week. A lot is riding on the decision, both in Texas and the rest of the league.

MLS teams don’t move that often, so the potential shift of the Columbus Crew is a huge deal. With a business structure that calls for owners to invest in the league to obtain operating rights for a specific area, the assumption is that owners will be closely tied to their homes while at the same time looking out for league interests as a whole. But the decision by Anthony Precourt to seek a new Austin MLS stadium upends that model: he is in effect impacting three markets — Austin, San Antonio and Columbus — and bringing into question MLS’s reputation for stability. Here’s a look at how all three markets are affected:

Austin The obvious hope from PSV officials is that Austin will turn into a Portland-style market, where MLS game attendance is a lifestyle choice and the team can be a big fish in a medium pond. Indeed, Portland is a pretty good model, continually selling out Providence Park and expanding the stadium to accommodate more in the future. Ironically, there are many similarities between Columbus and Austin: both are state capitals with major universities, and both are in MSAs of roughly 2 million. But Columbus has more competition for the local sports-marketing dollar from the NHL’s Blue Jackets and MiLB’s Clippers, while an Austin MLS team faces much less competition. Remember: Any poor financial results will reflect poorly on MLS, so a reasonable deal with the city is vital for Precourt.

San Antonio City officials have played by all the rules when it comes to landing an MLS expansion team, but the move of the Crew to Austin would preclude MLS there. Needless to say, San Antonio officials aren’t happy about this. And while there’s probably not enough to launch a lawsuit, it will be a stain on the MLS’s reputation to have laid out the path for an expansion team only to end discussions.

Columbus In truth, Columbus has been a pretty decent MLS market over the years, and many in the industry say interest in the sport could be easily revived with a new downtown stadium and engaged ownership. But once (or if) the Crew leaves and FC Cincinnati launches play in 2019, it will be very hard for Columbus to land an MLS expansion team. Could MAPFRE Stadium end up being the long-term home to a USL team? Financially, that may not be the worst outcome.

The Austin City Council will take another run at a stadium deal this Wednesday. Right now political insiders say there’s support for the plan, though there will be discussions on amendments to the current proposal — some serious, some designed to kill the deal. With 2019 scheduling at stake, a decision needs to be made shortly. And with elected officials saying it’s time to fish or cut bait, Wednesday’s vote could bring an end to uncertainty not only in Austin, but Columbus and San Antonio as well.

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August Publications