2018: The city achieves peak Columbus Way.
At the end of 2017, it was glaringly obvious to most observers that the Columbus Crew was moving to Austin. In the final days of 2018, the Edwards and Haslam families signed paperwork to take over the team and keep it in Columbus, with plans to build a flashy new Arena District stadium and convert the team's existing venue into a training facility and community sports park.
A lot can change in a year, but pro sports teams almost never stay put once the people in charge start agitating about relocation. This was an extraordinary turn of events, one that will send ripple effects through Columbus for many years.
Those who worked tirelessly to keep the Crew here will tell you this was David slaying Goliath: fans, business leaders and politicians in a midsize market banding together to prevent a deceptive interloper from ripping away a beloved but in some ways beleaguered sports franchise. To those who flinch at all the public money being funneled toward the new stadium district, or who question whether the Crew actually has legal grounds to convert the Mapfre Stadium site at the Ohio Expo Center, it feels more like Goliath flexing hard. Either way, it was nearly unprecedented.Read the rest of Columbus Monthly's Defining Decade series.
Anthony Precourt, the San Francisco investment manager who took over the team in 2013, seemed gung-ho about moving it to Austin. MLS commissioner Don Garber agreed with Precourt that Columbus was an under-performing market and supported his October 2017 announcement about pursuing “parallel paths” in Texas and Ohio.
But Columbus had more weapons in this fight than anyone realized. An increasingly loud and organized fan movement called Save The Crew helped rally public support, repeatedly insisting: “This is not over. Tell everyone you know.” Then-Attorney General Mike DeWine and City Attorney Zach Klein jointly sued Precourt, citing an obscure state law preventing teams that accepted public funds from moving out of state without first fielding offers from local buyers. Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer hustled to identify potential investors, eventually linking Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam—his old pals from his native Tennessee—with the Crew's longtime team doctor Pete Edwards and his family.
Still, keeping the Crew in Columbus was contingent on a new Downtown stadium deal by year's end. There was little to no progress on that front on Oct. 12, 2018, when MLS confirmed negotiations to save the Crew were underway, setting off widespread celebrations. Perhaps the craziest plot twist of all was how many businesspeople, lawyers and governing bodies worked together to eke out an agreement before the deadline—perhaps the quintessential example of the Columbus Way, the city's celebrated cooperative ethos. That unselfish spirit is the force behind public-private partnerships like the Scioto Mile and the Columbus 2020 economic development effort (and its successor initiative, One Columbus), and was an essential ingredient in saving the Crew.
In the end, Precourt, who got an Austin expansion franchise out of the ordeal, praised the “elegant solution.” At a ceremony introducing the new Crew regime, a sheepish Garber proclaimed, “Something unprecedented in our industry and something very meaningful was accomplished.” And the Save The Crew brigade adjusted their mantra ever so slightly, from resilient to triumphant: “This is over. Tell everyone you know.”***
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