The Columbus Crew and Ola Kamara, slipping the ball past Orlando City keeper Joe Bendik, are likely to move to Austin if they cannot get a new stadium in Ohio. (Jacob Langston/Orlando Sentinel)
The Major League Soccer team in Columbus, Ohio, announced Tuesday morning it is exploring a move to Austin, along with continuing to pursue a new stadium in Columbus.
“Despite our investments and efforts, the current course is not sustainable,” Anthony Precourt, chief executive officer of Precourt Sports Ventures and chairman of Columbus Crew SC, said in a statement Tuesday morning. “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,” the statement said. “Soccer is the world’s game, and with Austin’s growing presence as an international city, combined with its strong multicultural foundation, MLS in Austin could be an ideal fit.”
A relocation to Austin is not possible without a stadium plan, the Crew owner told the American-Statesman Tuesday morning.
“It would be a privately financed stadium in Austin, and I really think it can get done,” Precourt said. “We are not asking for tax dollars. We are just initiating the process. A huge key to this is finding the right site. That will take time.”
Precourt said he’ll need financial help bringing the team here.
“We will look for local investors in Austin,” he said. “We will look for stragic partnerships with people or groups who can get this done.”
Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber supports the Crew SC’s possible move to Austin.
“As attendance League-wide continues to grow on a record-setting pace, and markets across the country seek to join MLS, Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning,” Garber said. “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.”
Columbus Crew SC was the first charter granted in Major League Soccer in 1996. Crew officials have recognized its growing disparity in attendance and corporate support compared with its MLS peers and other midsize markets, such as Kansas City, Orlando, Portland and Salt Lake City.
Columbus wants a downtown stadium, whether it is in the capital city of Ohio or Texas.
Precourt, a Northern Californian with few ties to the Ohio capital, has visited Austin several times in recent years and been in conversation with Austin leaders, multiple sources told the American-Statesman. SI.com’s Grant Wahl was the first to report the intention late Monday.
“He wants to move to Austin,” a Columbus business leader said. “He may mention Cincinnati and Phoenix, but it’s Austin he really wants.”
An MLS source agreed that while Austin is being used for leverage, the first option is to move to Austin.
University of Texas athletic director Mike Perrin indicated his school would be interested in such an arrangement. Myers Stadium has a capacity of 20,000 — in the ballpark for MLS — and alcohol sales are allowed.
“We are aware of MLS interest in Austin and have no opposition to exploring possible collaborative opportunities,” Perrin told the Statesman.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler shot down reports by other news outlets that there would be bond elections coming for a new stadium.
“I don’t know what it would be you would be putting on a ballot,” he told the Statesman. “You could put something on a ballot if there was going to be a bond election to finance a stadium, but nothing like that is in the works.”
Adler told KVUE that Austin would make an excellent MLS market.
“Exciting news because Major League Soccer would be a huge success in Austin, and the Crew would find tons of fan support,” he said. “There is a lot of benefit that being in Austin would give a team, too, though not public funding of a stadium.”
Earlier this year, Major League Soccer registered “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic” as trademarks. MLS executive vice president Dan Courtemanche told the Statesman that Austin would not be considered for one of the four remaining expansion slots but did not respond to a question about relocation.
An Austin soccer source said he was told MLS Commissioner Don Garber sent a letter to owners explaining the potential Columbus move. Garber has previously praised Austin as having the right vibe and demographics for his league.
The Crew had an affiliation with the Austin Aztex of the United Soccer League for one year, 2015, before the Aztex were suspended amid a sea of debt. The Aztex reported an average home attendance of 3,227 playing in high school football stadiums.
Epstein is not involved with Precourt’s group and said he will take a wait-and-see approach about the Crew’s possible move to Austin.
Columbus is near the bottom of MLS in attendance and franchise worth. Columbus’ home average of 15,439 fans ranks 20th of 22 teams, ahead of only Colorado and Dallas. The Crew SC is worth $123 million, according to Forbes Magazine, ranking 21st.
Mapfre Stadium, capacity 22,555, is the original purpose-built stadium in MLS and also the oldest, opening in 1999, and is showing signs of wear and tear.
The timing of the reports is curious. The Crew, the 2008 MLS Cup champions, qualified for the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s fifth seed. The playoff start next week.
“Our interest in Austin is very sincere,” Precourt said. “(I) have a longstanding affinity for it.”
Staff writers Kirk Bohls and Katie Hall contributed to this story.