When Anthony Precourt bought the Columbus Crew in the summer of 2013, that’s what he gained stewardship over: the Columbus Crew. A Major League Soccer team called the Crew. In Columbus. That’s what he paid for and that’s what he got.
It is now abundantly obvious that Precourt would like to own an MLS team in a different city. But rather than sell the Crew and step into the bidding fracas for a new franchise, he’d sooner just move his current team out of Columbus.
And that’s where he’s betraying the city whose team he was entrusted with.
On Wednesday, Precourt released a statement through the holding company for his ownership of the Crew:
“Precourt Sports Ventures and Major League Soccer met this afternoon in New York City with [Columbus] Mayor Ginther and [Columbus business leader] Alex Fischer, at the request of the city, in anticipation of being presented an actionable plan and a legitimate offer that would advance efforts to improve Crew SC’s long-term ability to operate and compete in Columbus. Both PSV and the league entered the meeting with open minds, no demands and a complete willingness to listen and entertain concrete ideas or a meaningful proposal from the city’s representatives at the meeting.
We were extremely disappointed that no concrete offer or proposal was presented and that the City of Columbus then told us that it would not communicate with us past today.
Precourt Sports Ventures made a clear commitment to Columbus four years ago by purchasing 100 percent of Columbus Crew SC. In the meantime, despite successful efforts to reinvent the brand and improve the Club, market challenges for Crew SC in Columbus continue to mount.
Despite the city’s refusal to make a real offer and its decision to cease conversations, we remain open to a productive dialogue if the City of Columbus reconsiders. Columbus Crew SC remains focused on our quest to win MLS Cup.”
As best as anyone can tell, what Precourt is getting at here is the refusal by the City of Columbus to put up any public money to help the Crew build a new stadium. It also appears the city has closed the subject indefinitely. The Crew built the first soccer-specific stadium in the league, but MAPFRE Stadium is 18 years old now and feels a tad rickety by the standards set by the much fancier and shinier MLS stadiums that have come along since.
The Crew expects help from the city in paying for a new venue. Failing that, it’s been very obvious and public in its desire to move the team to Austin, Texas.
This, in other words, is a good old fashion team-public stadium funding hostage situation. The old trick. Give us money — or land, or tax breaks — for a new stadium or we’re leaving. Columbus, to its credit, isn’t playing along. And so Precourt wants to pick up his ball and leave.
While the Crew have reached the Eastern Conference Finals in the ongoing playoffs, a movement to #SaveTheCrew has sprouted up to help keep the team in Ohio.
The Columbus delegation of Mayor Ginther and Fischer, for their part, released a counter-statement. “We know this is heartbreaking for the dedicated fans in Columbus and across the country who have shown unwavering support for the Columbus Crew SC. We are disappointed and frustrated,” it read.
“We were united in putting all options on the table, with the expectation in return that the MLS and ownership would cease pursuing moving the team to Austin. Great American cities do not get into bidding wars over sports teams to benefit private owners. [Commissioner Don] Garber and Precourt were not willing to do that today. Once the league and owner are committed to Columbus, we stand ready, willing and able to support the team’s success.”
By this telling, Columbus sought assurances from Precourt that he wouldn’t move the team as a condition for opening discussions about a new stadium. Such assurances were not forthcoming, since the leverage Precourt seems to feel he needs is dependent on being able to leave for Austin, where local politicians might be more receptive to a possible land or stadium deal.
According to several reports, the Crew could move before the 2019 season and have their own stadium in Austin in time for the 2021 campaign. As soon as deals are struck for a stadium, MLS could sign off on a move. And the league appears inclined to help, considering the issues the Crew have had on the business side.
This seems to be Precourt’s primary concern. He cites “market challenges” and is quite possibly losing money on his team, which lags towards the bottom of the league in several revenue-generation metrics. That said, the real money to be made in professional sports isn’t in operating profits but appreciation from the time of the purchase of a club to its sale. MLS team values are skyrocketing, so even if the Crew cost Precourt money on a yearly basis, the club’s rising value will more than likely make up for it when he sells it.
Sports Illustrated reported, however, that Precourt has turned down offers to sell a 50 percent-stake or even the entire club.
But all of that kind of misses the point. Precourt knew very well what he was buying. He knew that Columbus wasn’t a major media market. And that it would likely never ascend to one of MLS’s top money-makers. If there were challenges in the market, he either knew about them or failed to do his due diligence when he bought the club. Either way, that’s on him.
He has no right to expect a stadium just for deigning to stick around. MAPFRE was built without a dime of public money, and you could well argue that no taxpayer funds should ever be used to buttress private enterprises that have only a modest impact on the local economy — in any sport.
Precourt was sold ownership of a team in Columbus with its own stadium. An original MLS franchise, no less. Now, both he and the league seem to have spotted greener pastures for it. Because, when it comes down to it, there’s no such thing as loyalty in professional sports, only marriages of convenience.
Columbus deserves to keep its team. Precourt is entitled to nothing. And if he can’t see that, there appear to be other owners willing to take what he merely views as an investment off his hands — surely sending him on his way with a tidy profit.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.