An MLS original is threatening to destroy itself

Columbus Crew Stadium was built in 1999, the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS. (Getty)

Major League Soccer is littered with unique quirks. Among the many is its age. MLS is one of the youngest professional soccer leagues in the world. And its history, therefore, doesn’t protect it from the gut-wrenching news that broke Monday night: Columbus Crew ownership is considering relocating the club to Austin, Texas.

The news hit home like a stake to the heart of a club, a stadium and a soccer city that do have history. The Crew, Mapfre Stadium and Columbus are MLS outliers. They were – they are – MLS originals in more ways than one. The Crew were the league’s first charter member back in 1996. They built the league’s first soccer-specific stadium in 1999. The stadium has hosted every U.S. men’s home World Cup qualifier against Mexico since.

And now, in 2018, the club might perish. Or relocate. For Columbus, the two are one and the same.

Crew owner Anthony Precourt took his fight for a downtown stadium public on Tuesday morning, 12 hours after Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl and others broke the news that Precourt was contemplating a move to Austin. It’s a classic leverage play for a new, partially taxpayer-funded stadium. But the intent also seems somewhat real.

“Despite our investments and efforts, the current course is not sustainable,” Precourt said Tuesday of the club he bought in 2013. “This Club has ambition to be a standard bearer in MLS, therefore we have no choice but to expand and explore all of our options. This includes a possible move to Austin, which is the largest metropolitan area in North America without a major league sports franchise.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber, quite remarkably, also heaped pressure on the city of Columbus and backed Precourt’s efforts. “Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning,” he said. “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 [ownership]’s efforts to explore options outside of Columbus, including Austin, provided they find a suitable stadium location.”

Precourt said Tuesday that it was “premature” to talk about specific locations in Austin, but did say the Austin stadium would be privately funded. Austin’s mayor told the AP Monday night that the club would not receive public funding. The University of Texas said it was aware of the Crew’s interest, and that it had “no opposition to exploring possible collaborative opportunities.” A Columbus Dispatch report said a deal to play games at the university in 2019 was “all but done,” through Precourt said no deal is in place.

As anything other than a leverage play, the potential move is as baffling as it is heartbreaking. It would be a move from the 32nd biggest market in the U.S. to the 39th. From a small market with soccer history to a small market without it – without the one thing that made the Crew attractive and relevant.

It is born of a thirst for something fresh and new, whether that’s in Austin – Precourt noted its “vibrant economy,” its multicultural makeup and its millenials – or in Columbus. Precourt, a Bay Area-based businessman, took over the Crew in July 2013. Later that summer, the club sent a delegation to Kansas City to soak up Sporting KC‘s success. Kansas City, also an MLS original, also in a mid-sized Midwestern market, had grown stale toward the end of last decade. A plush new stadium catalyzed its rebrand and rebirth in 2011. Six years later, it has sold out over 100 consecutive games.

The Crew, meanwhile, sit 20th out of 22 MLS teams in per-game attendance this season. Mapfre Stadium’s location is inconvenient. Its infrastructure is “antiquated,” according to Precourt. He has explored the possibility of a downtown stadium for over a year – three possible sites have been recommended – and clearly sees it as a necessary centerpiece for a Sporting KC-style rebuild.

But it’s easy for Crew fans to see something else: Precourt’s hypocrisy. On the day he was unveiled as majority owner, he spoke of the club’s “tremendous history,” its “culture,” and its “consistency, the familiar, family-like atmosphere.” After all the ceremonial optimism subsided, the Dispatch’s Adam Jardy approached Precourt and asked if there were any clauses in the deal that required him to keep the club in Columbus. According to Jardy, Precourt scoffed at the question.

Four years and three months later, the Dispatch reports that the original deal did come with a promise to keep the club in Columbus for 10 years, but also with an out clause that allowed Precourt to bolt for Austin. The same story cited a source who said Precourt “long entertained plans” to move. He has reportedly turned down an offer from a group of local business owners and community leaders to buy the club off him.

Precourt’s purchase of the Crew was not about history, or culture, or a family-like atmosphere. It was about money. And it’s now a deflating reminder that MLS, first and foremost, cares about money. The commissioner is backing an owner who wants to gut his league of a significant amount of the scant history and tradition it has. Whatever he says publicly, that history and that tradition are afterthoughts. It’s a move straight out of the NFL’s playbook, from a commissioner plucked straight out of the NFL.

MLS, first and foremost, cares about money, which is why young investors like Precourt are buying into it. The league is up to 24 teams, expansion fees have reached nine figures, and 12 cities are bidding for spots 25-28. Precourt essentially spent $68 million four years ago to circumvent the bidding process, save tens of millions of dollars and start anew in a city he apparently always had his eyes on. Never mind the tens of thousands of hearts he could break back in Columbus.

And if this is in fact only a leverage play? It’s a slimy move to get taxpayers to foot a wealthy owner’s bill. That’s all it is. The downtown Columbus stadium would be a “public-private partnership,” according to Precourt. He is stumping for the public side of the partnership to up its ante. He is holding the city to his sword: Spend money on my stadium – rather than on public schools or for other rational purposes – or lose the team that a small portion of your citizens love. It’s a lose-lose situation for local politicians. It’s a disgusting ploy from a businessman who lives 2,400 miles away.

And if the club does leave? It’s a loss for a league that should be clinging to every speck of history it has. Instead, it’s clinging to money, and it’s perfectly comfortable leaving enraged fans in its wake.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.