We end 2018 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Soccer Stadium Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #1: Plans for new Columbus and Austin MLS stadiums move forward.
For about a year, it appeared that ambitions for an MLS team in Austin, TX could come at the expense of Columbus, OH. Columbus Crew SC investor-operator Anthony Precourt announced in the fall of 2017 that he was seeking to move the club to Austin, and launched discussions there for a new stadium.
This fall, however, a scenario emerged that would allow Precourt to move forward with plans for a new Austin stadium and team while another group took over operating rights to Columbus. In October, it was announced that a group led by Jimmy and Dee Haslam–owners of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns–and the Columbus-based Edwards family were negotiating to buy into MLS and receive operating rights to Columbus. Meanwhile, current Crew investor-operator Precourt would remain an MLS investor and proceed with plans in Austin. (Remember: MLS is a membership league, not a franchise league).
Since that announcement, a series of events has allowed stadium plans in both cities to move forward. The aging condition of MAPFRE Stadium was one of Precourt’s reasons for exploring a move of the Crew to Austin, and it appeared that a new facility was needed in order for the Haslam-Edwards group to take over Columbus. Local leaders eventually pushed through with a plan that calls for a new stadium (rendering above) in the city’s Arena District, with the facility surrounded by a mixed-use development known as Confluence Village. The project would be financed as part of a private-public partnership that includes city, state, Franklin County, and private funding. Once the venue is complete, the MAPFRE Stadium site will be redeveloped into a sports park that includes community and tournament fields, as well as training space for the Crew.
As a sign of that progress, MLS announced Friday that the Haslam-Edwards group has reached an agreement in principal to “become MLS owners and take over operating rights of Columbus Crew SC beginning in January 2019.” The deal still has to be finalized, but it is part of a plan that will allow the Crew to remain in Columbus and move into a new stadium in the coming years.
In Austin, plans for a new stadium at the city-owned McKalla Place are still moving forward. The city and Precourt’s Precourt Sports Ventures reached an agreement earlier this month that allows him to proceed with plans to finance a $225 million, 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium for the upcoming Austin FC. After considerable debate, the city council voted in August to approve the term sheet for a land lease, clearing the way for city officials and PSV to negotiate the agreement.
The new Austin stadium will be owned by the city, and leased back to PSV. It is expected to open in 2021, though it has not been determined whether Austin FC will begin play then or in 2020.
With the Columbus and Austin MLS stadium plans moving forward, there could be a few interesting implications. MLS will now be the first major sports league to move into a growing Austin, while simultaneously maintaining its presence in a market that has fielded a team since the circuit’s inaugural 1996 season. It also removes a legal challenge for PSV and MLS, as it was also announced on Friday that Columbus and Ohio had filed a notice to dismiss a lawsuit intended to prevent the Crew from relocating.
There are also the implications these maneuvers have on expansion. By retaining a club in Columbus while adding another in Austin, MLS is effectively assuring that it will move to 27 teams in the coming years. That leaves one slot open if the league caps expansion at 28 teams, but the expansion process is one that is still very much evolving.
It took a series of twist and turns for it to happen, but ultimately the groundwork has been laid for new MLS stadiums in both Columbus and Austin to open in the coming years.
Here’s the rest of our Top Ten of 2018: