A group of investors that includes the Haslam family, owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, and the Columbus-based Edwards family is negotiating to keep Columbus Crew SC in Ohio, with current Crew owner Anthony Precourt allowed to launch a new MLS team in Austin.
The deal keeps Precourt as an MLS investor, moving forward with his plan for a new Austin stadium but essentially launching a new team no later than the 2021 season with a new front office and players. The Crew name, records, front office and players would remain at MAPFRE Stadium under the new ownership. (Remember: MLS is a membership league, not a franchise league, so the Haslams and Edwards would buy into the league and have operating rights to Columbus.) MLS has been in the middle of negotiations between the potential new Crew owners and Precourt, and here’s the statement issued by the league today:
“Major League Soccer and the Columbus Partnership have been working together for several months on a plan to keep Crew SC in Columbus and we have made significant progress.
“Recently, the Haslam Family – along with the Columbus-based Edwards Family, have joined the effort to keep Crew SC in Columbus.
“MLS, the Columbus Partnership and the investor group all agree that for the club to be successful in Columbus, it requires strong local partners, long-term corporate support, a strong season ticket base and long-term plans for a stadium, practice facilities and associated sites.
“MLS is committed to keeping Crew SC in Columbus should we continue to make progress on these critical components and agree to key terms with the investor group.
“MLS recognizes the cooperation Precourt Sports Ventures has demonstrated throughout the process to date.
“MLS also remains very committed to PSV’s plan to launch an MLS club in Austin and is excited for Austin to become a great addition to MLS. We will continue to work with PSV and the City of Austin on the timing around the launch of Austin FC.”
Speaking of Austin FC: the league seems committed to Precourt’s vision for a new facility and team:
“Major League Soccer is excited to move forward in Austin with Precourt Sports Ventures and their vision for Austin FC. Regardless of any scenario in Columbus, there is a clear path forward for PSV to operate Austin FC as a Major League Soccer club.
“The strong support from Austin’s corporate community, government officials and passionate soccer fans is impressive. Austin is a flourishing, dynamic city that presents a great opportunity for MLS, and we look forward to finalizing plans to become the first major league team in the capital of Texas.
“While timing for Austin FC is still to be finalized, we are confident that the team will begin play no later than 2021 at the new, privately financed stadium and soccer park at McKalla Place. We applaud the Austin community, city leaders and Precourt Sports Ventures for their commitment to making this happen.”
On the one hand, this solution solves the potential legal issues facing Precourt’s attempt to move the Crew. The team and the league have been sued by the state under Ohio’s Modell Law, which requires an effort to sell a professional team to local investors at a reasonable price before it is moved. No move, no lawsuit. And it give Precourt full clearance to pursue an Austin team and a $200-million MLS stadium at the city-owned McKalla Place with no baggage.
But the move does raise some issues. Will the new Columbus owners be happy with MAPFRE Stadium or pursue a new downtown stadium? Would the new Austin team be considered an expansion franchise, which changes the formula for future MLS expansion? It’s bad news for San Antonio, as it removes all doubt about an MLS team in Austin. It’s also potentially bad news for the potential ownership groups in other cities preparing expansion bids — Phoenix, St. Louis, Detroit, Charlotte — unless MLS expands the expansion queue (which certainly will not be out of the realm of possibility given the number of strong ownership groups and markets in the queue).
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