Major League Soccer could soon leave Columbus.
The owner of the Columbus Crew SC announced Tuesday he was considering relocating the team to Austin, Texas, unless Columbus comes up with a plan for a new, downtown stadium. That stunned fans, to say the least, including season ticket holder Matthew Coy.
“I was devastated,” Coy says. “I felt betrayed.”
Coy has been a season ticket holder since 1996 – when the Crew began as a founding MLS team, back when they played matches at Ohio Stadium.
“It’s been a great journey,” Coy says. “I invited my son to join me as a season ticket holder. He started going to games when he was 3. He’s now 15. We’ve missed fewer than three or four games in our entire lives.”
Coy blames the team’s new owner, who Coy believes never had any intention of keeping the team in Columbus.
Crew’s owner, Anthony Precourt – CEO of California-based Precourt Sports Ventures – bought the team in 2013, saying he was "very committed" to staying in Columbus. According to The Dispatch, his purchase agreement included a promise to keep the Crew in the city for at least 10 years, but an escape clause if he decided to move the team to Austin.
Now, Precuort says the team is struggling here. He says there are not enough season-ticket holders, and not enough local business support.
“The club historically and presently has challenges with match day attendance, with growing our season ticket base, with demand for corporate sponsorship, and with relevance,” Precourt said in a conference call on Tuesday. “The stadium and site are challenges in Columbus.”
The Crew has a good team this year – they’ve gone 16-12-5 this season and rank fifth in the Eastern Conference. They've gone undefeated their past nine matches, and even secured a spot in the playoffs.
But match attendance has fallen behind other teams. This year, average attendance was 15,439 fans per match, third-to-last in MLS.
Columbus Crew’s home, MAPFRE Stadium, is nearly 20 years old and far from downtown. Though MAPFRE was the country’s first soccer-specific stadium, it lacks the amenities of more recently-built soccer stadiums.
Precourt says unless Columbus builds a new, privately-financed stadium downtown, the Crew will move to Austin by 2019. While he says he’s not asking for public tax dollars, Precourt says he hasn’t heard any serious investment offers.
“The key thing for us is that we need to have confidence in the market in order to feel comfortable building a new world-class soccer specific stadium,” he says.
City political and business leaders have been talking with Precourt, and reportedly offered to buy half the team. Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther said in a statement that the city tried to keep the Crew here, but “did not receive full engagement from the team’s ownership."
Ohio State junior Drew Niccum loves cheering on the Crew in "Nordecke," the supporter section in the corner of the stadium. He attended his first Crew game a few years ago, when he won discounted tickets through a lottery at Ohio State.
He thinks the team - and its stadium - should stay where they are.
"I don't know where he'd put it," Niccum says. "Like the Arena District is full. Downtown is skyscrapers. And Franklinton, we would have to just get rid of a bunch of residents, which would just gentrify the area, which would be bad for the city."
Precourt did not totally rule out staying in Columbus, but he said if something will keep his franchise in Central Ohio, it has to happen fast.
Austin, meanwhile, is the largest metropolitan area in the U.S. without a major league sports franchise. Earlier this year, Major League Soccer registered “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic” as trademarks of the league.
“There is a growing disparity in attendance and corporate support when comparing Crew SC with its MLS tiers and with other mid-size markets such as Kansas City, Orlando, Portland and Salt Lake City,” Precourt says. “Despite increased efforts and investments, our current course is not sustainable.”
The Crew has one regular season game left – Sunday in New York, then the playoffs begin. As of right now, the Crew will play at MAPFRE stadium in 2018 for what could be its last, lame duck season in Columbus.
That leaves fans like Niccum and Coy conflicted.
“Part of me says that I wanna cancel my season tickets, and part of me says I wanna enjoy every last minute that I can,” Coy says.
"I don't want to give the owner any more money, but if it's our last season, I can't not watch us play," Niccum says. "It means so much to me and my brother."