Sports: Columbus Crew SC supporters battle to keep their team

Chris DeVille
Crew SC supporters march into Mapfre Stadium before the MLS Eastern Conference semifinal playoff game against NYCFC

On the night of Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, Alex Fischer was at home drinking wine with his wife when his phone began buzzing. Several people wanted Fischer's comment on breaking news that Anthony Precourt, owner of the Columbus Crew soccer club, was about to announce his intent to take the team to Austin in 2019.

The news wasn't surprising to Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the most powerful civic organization in the city, which counts 64 Columbus executives among its membership. A month prior, Precourt, a San Francisco-based hedge-fund manager and son of oil billionaire Jay Precourt, had privately informed the business community that he wasn't happy. He had a laundry list of complaints, and oh, by the way, Austin sure seemed nice. Never mind that he'd promised not to relocate the team ever since his company, Precourt Sports Ventures, bought the Crew and its stadium from the Hunt family in 2013. (Technically Major League Soccer owns all its teams due to its single-entity structure, hence Precourt's official “investor-operator” title.)

What did catch Fischer off guard was the timing of Precourt's announcement—via a Columbus Dispatch interview and a teleconference slated for the next day—because Precourt had agreed to alert him before telling the world. Fischer would quickly learn to expect the unexpected with Precourt.

A year to the day before Precourt publicly revealed the potential move, the Crew emailed a survey to Columbus residents, explaining the team had “retained Barrett Sports Group, a nationally recognized sports management consulting firm, to evaluate the potential demand for a new multipurpose soccer stadium in Columbus.” Neither the Columbus Partnership nor Mayor Andy Ginther's office knew anything about the survey beforehand. They chose to see it as an encouraging sign.

“What we now know,” Fischer says, “is during that same time period, he and ostensibly the commissioner of the MLS were off in Austin having all sorts of conversations about potentially moving the team there.” In fact, in December 2016, the league hired Barrett to evaluate Austin as a potential MLS market.

Then, last May, Fischer says a fellow member of the Columbus Partnership coincidentally attended a dinner party in Austin, where he heard rumblings about the Crew owner courting Texas. But when the unnamed CEO called Precourt to ask about it, the team owner denied any such plans, suggesting that something must have gotten lost in translation regarding his role on the MLS expansion committee. Then Precourt stepped down from that committee sometime in 2017, and last summer, MLS and PSV officials quietly opened a dialogue with Austin's civic leaders to gauge the Texas city's interest in acquiring the Crew, a spokesman for Austin Mayor Steve Adler told Columbus Business First. (Precourt declined interview requests for this story.)

Then there was PSV's meeting with the Columbus Partnership last September, scheduled under the pretense of presenting the stadium study results. “That turned into an ‘everything that is wrong with soccer in Columbus' conversation,” Fischer says. “‘We need a Downtown stadium, we need to increase our sponsorships, we gotta do this, we gotta do that.' It was like, ‘Have you ever even had a conversation with the mayor?'” (In fact, Precourt did meet with city officials to discuss stadium options last summer, though according to a statement Mayor Ginther released on the day of Precourt's Austin announcement, the city “did not receive full engagement from the team's ownership.”)

In that September meeting with the partnership and in statements to the media in October, Precourt argued that a new Downtown stadium and a major uptick in corporate investment were necessary to make the Crew a vanguard MLS franchise. He said operational costs had tripled since he took over and support for soccer in Columbus was lukewarm both from the business

community and fans (the Crew's average attendance of 15,439 ranked 20th of 22 MLS clubs last year). For instance, he said, no one bit on a letter he'd sent to 22 local companies seeking a new jersey sponsor after Barbasol opted not to renew for 2017. Only after a three-month scramble did the Columbus Partnership help secure a deal with Acura last February, just weeks before the season started.

For Fischer, Precourt's allegations against Columbus were jarring, and his claims about the Crew's financial health were suspect. He saw the Acura contract, which allegedly was twice what Barbasol had paid, as an example of Columbus coming through for the Crew. The survey to explore Downtown stadium options and the addition of other sponsors, like Wendy's, seemed to be good signs. Precourt joined the Columbus Partnership shortly after acquiring the Crew and had regularly imparted his vision for the team, a plan Fischer says involved elevating the product on the field, improving the fan experience, selling stadium naming rights and eventually upgrading to a state-of-the-art facility via construction or renovation. He made progress on all those fronts, but along the way he had ignored Fischer's calls to form a local advisory board and generally seemed disinterested in counsel from locals. In Fischer's opinion, it was no wonder the 22 local businesses had not responded to Precourt's call because he hadn't put in the work to nurture his relationships here.

Thus, when a subset of business leaders began meeting daily last fall to brainstorm about the Precourt situation, they concluded the solution was to establish local ownership, tethering the team to Columbus and infusing it with homegrown perspective. Fischer says he and a coalition of local buyers first offered to purchase the Crew outright for a price that was “believe me, more than fair” (he wouldn't confirm the $150 million figure reported by Crew fan website Massive Report). Precourt rebuffed their offer, saying he wanted to pass the team on to his children someday, so Fischer's group came back offering to buy a 50-percent stake. A week later, Precourt declined that one too because he didn't want to concede decision-making power.

Less obvious were Precourt's specific demands for keeping the Crew in Columbus. Although a Downtown stadium and a significant increase in corporate backing were Precourt's dual mantras, Fischer says it was difficult to pin him down on specifics. From Precourt's perspective, Columbus leaders were just as noncommittal. “No investor in Columbus has ever given me a formal, serious offer,” he said in the Oct. 17 teleconference, “and they all expressed they would not have an interest in investing in the team until we had a stadium plan.”

After behind-the-scenes negotiations stalled, Precourt agreed to alert Fischer before taking his Austin idea public. Instead, hours before news was set to break, Fischer was hearing about it from third parties. So around 8:30 p.m. on Oct. 16, Fischer put down his wine glass and called Precourt. Fischer says the Crew owner apologized, assuring him he was on a list of people to call that night, at which point a perturbed Fischer wondered aloud how long Precourt had intended to wait before tipping him off.

“It was just very evident the game that he was playing,” Fischer recalls. “And now all the shitshow has unfolded—100 percent of his making, by the way.”

Morgan Hughes was at home that night when he, too, got wind of Precourt's imminent announcement. Hughes grew up in Upper Arlington supporting every Columbus sports franchise available, even now-defunct minor-league enterprises like the Glory, Chill and Xoggz. He's been a Crew fan since the team was founded in 1996 and has been active in supporters' culture for years. He'd always defended Precourt against critics because of the owner's stated commitment to Columbus.

Unlike Fischer, the night of Oct. 16 was Hughes's first time hearing about the Austin plan. So when he read Sports Illustrated soccer guru Grant Wahl's tweet confirming the story, his first reaction was not anger but despair. “I don't think I was even breathing,” he remembers. “My girlfriend had gone to bed, and I walked upstairs and just held the iPad out at her.”

Thousands of others responded the same way. For those who'd poured time, money and emotion into the Crew, the prospect of losing their favorite club hurt like a death in the family.

“The Crew, at least with the supporters, has become the one constant family I have,” explains lifelong fan Scarlette Katherine Mutter. She says she burst into tears when her roommates told her the Crew might be moving to Texas. And then, “I went downstairs, I got a couple of 40s out of the fridge, and I just drank 'em all, did a couple shots and just listened to ‘Africa' by Toto for probably close to five hours on a loop.” (In recent years “Africa” has somehow become a Crew supporters' anthem.)

As details about Precourt's dealings emerged, sorrow gave way to outrage and defiance. It turned out PSV had registered two months prior, and the MLS had already trademarked the names “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic,” all while the Crew sales team eagerly collected 2018 season ticket money in Columbus. For the first time, the club auto-renewed season ticket subscriptions unless account holders specified otherwise, which in hindsight created the impression PSV was squeezing Columbus for profit before turning its back on the city. (The team quickly reversed its initial refusal to grant refunds to disgruntled fans.)

Combined with his caginess toward Columbus leaders, and what some fans perceived as reduced promotional efforts, Precourt's bullish quotes about Austin made relocation seem inevitable. Fans also began to wonder if relocation had always been his endgame after the Dispatch reported that his purchase agreement with the Hunts required him to keep the Crew in Columbus for 10 years with one exception: He could move to Austin whenever he pleased.

“At first I thought he was just trying to do a power move on City Council,” says Travis Irvine, a Bexley native who has been attending Crew games with his family since the first match at Ohio Stadium. “I thought he was still on the fans' side, because he always had that aura that he was here to improve the team. He did invest more money and got better players. They had the whole rebranding thing. He used to hang out with the fans. He used to come on the podcasts. … The more you look into it, you realize that, no, he's been secretly planning this thing pretty much since he bought the team.”

Even worse, from the fans' perspective, was the MLS facilitating it. The Oct. 17 announcement that caught most fans by surprise was accompanied by a prearranged endorsement from league commissioner Don Garber calling the Columbus market “particularly concerning.” Garber continued, “Despite PSV's significant investments and improvements on and off the field, 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 PSV's efforts to explore options outside of Columbus, including Austin, provided they find a suitable stadium location.”

Fans received Garber's comment as a betrayal. After all, many argued, Columbus was the first city to secure an MLS franchise, and the league might not have survived if Columbus had not opened a pioneering soccer-specific stadium in 1999 financed by former owner Lamar Hunt. Many wondered what would become of Mapfre, which has long been a fortress for the U.S. national team, and of the youth development academy that yielded Crew stars like Wil Trapp and Alex Crognale. “We are the first club in MLS,” Mutter says. “We are the first soccer-specific stadium. We have so many firsts in the MLS. Just to erase this history and say, ‘Let's go to Austin'—that's terrible.”

Since mid-October, there

have been numerous efforts to keep the Crew in Columbus. Among the most impressive was the show of unity by fans in the #SaveTheCrew movement. On Oct. 22, almost 2,000 gathered at the steps of City Hall. Among them were former Crew players Mike Clark and Dante Washington and prominent business leaders, including Jeni Britton Bauer. She says she brought her company, Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams, into #SaveTheCrew because she and her husband have so many fond memories involving the team, and because she believes the ownership is misrepresenting Columbus. “I travel a lot,” Britton Bauer says. “I take Columbus everywhere with me. When somebody wants to just lie and make my city look bad, that doesn't work for me.”

What followed was weeks of local and national media noise about saving the Crew, partially fueled by a deep Columbus playoff run that fell just one goal short of advancing to the MLS Cup. Businesses posted #SaveTheCrew signs in their windows. With College Gameday in town for the Ohio State vs. Penn State football game, an army of Crew supporters flooded the broadcast with #SaveTheCrew messaging. Columbus City Council resolved to “do everything reasonably possible to make sure that the Columbus Crew stays within the city of Columbus.” ESPN analyst and former Crew forward Alejandro Moreno vocally campaigned against the move, as did writers at Sports Illustrated and Yahoo Sports. Supporters groups for nearly every MLS club began raising #SaveTheCrew signs at their own home games.

In mid-November, Precourt and Garber agreed to meet the Columbus contingent led by Ginther and Fischer. Among fans and stakeholders, the meeting at the MLS offices in New York City took on Kennedy/Khrushchev proportions. To the disappointment of many, it ended in much the same way, with each side calling the other stubborn and unreasonable. Within hours of the meeting's conclusion, both sides issued polarizing statements. “We were extremely disappointed that no concrete offer or proposal was presented,” said the PSV release, “and that the City of Columbus then told us that it would not communicate with us past today.”

The statement from Ginther and Fischer retorted, “We are disappointed and frustrated. 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.”

In an open letter to Precourt and Garber in late November, Ginther affirmed that Columbus had indeed brought offers to New York, outlining three potential stadium sites (Berliner Park near German Village, Dodge Recreation Center in Franklinton or a revamped Mapfre Stadium entertainment district), plus three scenarios that would allow partial local ownership alongside PSV and a promise to assist with “strengthening corporate sponsorship, attendance and television ratings.” Ginther admitted the plans still required refinement and reiterated, “None of the above is achievable if we continue to be pitted against another city.”

In December, Garber told the Men in Blazers podcast the demand to cease exploring Austin options “creates a little bit of an impasse here—not a little bit, but a lot of an impasse.” In an interview with the Toronto Sun, Garber sounded more optimistic about Columbus's prospects: “I've tried to do what I can to help facilitate them coming together in a more productive way. Right now I'm not sure we're at that point, but I'm confident if everyone gets in a room there might be an opportunity for the team to stay.” At press time the two sides had yet to reconvene, but communications were said to be ongoing.

With the apparent failure of the two largest stakeholders to come close to any agreement, another city leader stepped into the ring. Five days after the New York summit, Columbus Foundation CEO Doug Kridler unveiled his own plan for a Downtown stadium. He called it “a creative exercise that has not been vetted with or approved by any of the parties mentioned in this document,” proposed only “with the intention of sparking our civic imagination.”

One thing it definitely sparked was the attention of Abbott-Ross Labs, whose facility is situated on the site of Kridler's imagined stadium. Abbott, like the rest of the city, only caught wind of Kridler's plan when it saw the Page One headline in the Dispatch. The plan, which apparently had been orchestrated without consulting any other city leaders, was uncharacteristic of Kridler, which made it doubly confusing. While neither Ginther nor Fischer would comment on Kridler's hasty plan, a source close to the situation says they were both angry and disappointed because “it shifted the conversation from going after the untruthful owner and the big, bad MLS.” The following day, Kridler, who declined to comment for this story, retracted the proposal and apologized: “In the heat of emotion, I conceived of an idea this weekend that doesn't work for a variety of reasons. However well-intentioned, it was a mistake to approach it in this manner.”

Staggering, the Columbus contingent tagged in one more fighter from its corner—the ghost of Art Modell. On Dec. 6, Ohio Rep. Mike Duffey, a Republican from Worthington, asked Ohio Attorney General Mike

DeWine to hit Precourt with Ohio Revised Code 9.67, enacted in 1996 after former Cleveland Browns owner Modell moved the beloved team to Baltimore. The law states no sports team that plays in a tax-assisted facility may move without first gaining approval from the local government or allowing six months for a local group or individual to purchase the team. Mapfre Stadium is located on state land at the Ohio Expo Center that Precourt leases from the Ohio Expositions Commission at a discounted rate, an arrangement he inherited from the previous team ownership. Additionally, Ohio appropriated $5 million for parking lot improvements in 2009. In a tweet that night, Duffey wrote, “To the naysayers. They are leasing land for $72,000 a year. They pay no property taxes. They get parking revenues from state land. They got $5M in state funds on top of all that. We can win.”

DeWine, who is campaigning to become Ohio's next governor, responded in kind. In an open statement addressed to Precourt on Dec. 8, DeWine wrote in part, “Our hope is that Precourt Sports Ventures will reaffirm a commitment to playing its home games in Columbus. Should you decide otherwise, I remind you that you will need to follow the terms of R.C. 9.67 and that my office is prepared to take the necessary legal action under this law to protect the interests of the State of Ohio.”

Things aren't exactly going wonderfully in Texas, either. The reception in Austin has been decidedly mixed. Comments in the Austin American-Statesman indicate a certain unwillingness for a stadium on public parkland. PSV unveiled plans in early December to privately finance a $200 million, 20,000-seat stadium at Austin's Butler Shores Metropolitan Park, but aside from being the home to Texas's oldest Little League, it also offers little in the way of parking. Eighty miles down I-35, a lawsuit nearly resulted from the MLS encouraging San Antonio to spend millions of public dollars on an expansion bid while secretly orchestrating Precourt's Austin relocation.

Still, there is progress down south. Austin City Council passed a resolution in November to examine city-owned sites as possible locations for a soccer-specific stadium and practice facility. That report was due as this issue went to press. Meanwhile, Crew fans remain caught in a seesawing public feud, with new developments and vitriol emerging weekly. The 2018 MLS season, perhaps the last in Columbus, begins in March. Fans are hoping that by then they'll have a reason to cheer again.