Analysis

Why Precourt's threat of Austin relocation burns all bridges with Columbus

Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

Crew SC's owner says he's just looking into his options, but he seems to have already made up his mind.

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From the moment Anthony Precourt bought the Columbus Crew in July 2013, the California businessman told Columbus fans that he valued the team, one of MLS’ originals. He told fans he valued the city. He said he saw “so much opportunity” in Columbus. He called himself “committed.” He said the city “feels right.” He said Columbus provided “all the resources we need” to be relevant locally and nationally.

Four years later, in the wake of Precourt’s announcement that he is pursuing a move to Austin, Texas, it seems likely that he has had something up his sleeve since day one.

From the very beginning, people in Columbus were worried about what a new owner meant for the franchise’s history. Precourt had purchased the team from the Hunt Sports Group, which had owned the Crew since it became the first official MLS team in 1995 thanks to a $5 million franchise fee.

At Precourt’s introductory press conference, former Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman captured the thoughts of many in the room and in the city.

“You all know me pretty well,” he told those in attendance. “You know my first question [to Precourt] was, ‘Is the Crew staying in Columbus?’ He said, ‘absolutely.’”

That statement from Coleman – a popular figure at the time – and encouraging promises from Precourt kicked off a precedent that would become more than four years of hollow reassurances from Crew management to Columbus fans. The new owner said he was “honored” to carry on the Hunt tradition. He said, in no uncertain terms, that the club would remain in Columbus.

“All you need to know is that I’m very committed to Columbus, and I’m here with you,” he said. “We see a clear path of success here in Columbus. We have all the resources we need to make the Crew increasingly relevant locally and nationally, stronger financially and more competitive on the field.”

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The next year, in October of 2014, the team site caught up with its extremely enthusiastic owner. Precourt doubled down on his Columbus commitment.

“I’m living and breathing the Columbus Crew,” he said. “This is a dream come true for me. As a child, I always dreamed about being involved in professional sports. I played soccer; my kids play soccer; I coach soccer. I’m all-in on this. I spend all my waking moments thinking about the Crew and how to make us more relevant and more attractive as a club and more successful on the field.”

What he didn’t say is that he was looking for public tax dollars to bail out unsuccessful financial strategies. He didn’t say he long had a fallback plan if Ohio didn’t seem economically viable. The Columbus Dispatch reports that Precourt’s acquisition of the club from the Hunts included a promise to keep the team in Columbus for 10 years -- but it also included an exit clause for Austin, Texas.

Talking up Columbus, with other plans in mind

At the club’s “Columbus Crew SC” rebranding event, Precourt couldn’t stop talking about Columbus. He discussed connecting with a “young, intelligent, progressive city.” He said the new badge – which now contained the word “Columbus” – was designed specifically for the city, and would help connect the club to Columbus in a more literal way. Even MLS Commissioner Don Garber got in on the act. He said the relaunch would help to “build on all the history that’s existed here.”

All of that is to be expected from an owner. But now it all feels particularly disingenuous given the way the Crew’s potential relocation has come to light, with the Austin exit clause built in from the start of Precourt’s tenure.

In February 2016, as he helped introduce one of the most derided uniforms in recent professional sports memory, the Crew labeled the kit unveiling, “For Columbus.” Players were introduced in the kits from Columbus City Hall. Precourt seemed to be going out of his way to calm the nerves of any remaining skeptics that still worried the team would move.

“One of my priorities in taking over the stewardship of Columbus Crew SC in 2013 was to make a strong connection to the city of Columbus,” Precourt said. “In 2014, we rebranded the team and put the city’s name into the badge and also made being, ‘authentically Columbus,’ a key part of our brand mission.”

Was it overcompensation or a genuine effort to make things work? In late 2016, fans got antsy again. The club announced that it had been pursuing research into moving stadiums. The club specified that it was looking to remain in Columbus, and searching for a feasible downtown site. In an interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Precourt acted as if Crew fans were silly for worrying.

“I’ve shown my commitment to Columbus,” he said. “We wore the city’s colors this year on the pitch. We put Columbus back in our badge. I’m tired of the insecurities. We’re playing for Columbus.”

By that point, Precourt already had a foot out the door.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

It’s reasonable to conclude that Precourt never intended to stay in Columbus, and his patronizing reassurances throughout his tenure as the owner of the Columbus Crew franchise have only made the betrayal of his fans sting harder.

And while Precourt claims that the club could remain in town, it’s clear that he has no interest in continuing to own a franchise based in Columbus, Ohio.

If he wanted MLS’ first club to stay in Columbus, he wouldn’t have reportedly rebuffed offers from local investors that would have kept the team in town.

And if he wanted the city to remain devoted to the team, he wouldn’t be breaking the news to Columbus fans who are enjoying MLS’ hottest team days before the playoffs begin.

In a lame-duck 2018 season, some fans will still show up to Mapfre Stadium, as illogical as it may seem. They’ll be there because it’s been their home for 18 years. They’ll be there because they’ll miss their friends. They’ll be there because it might be their final handful of chances to watch their beloved Columbus Crew play soccer in their city.

But not one fan will be in the building for Precourt, who has burned every bridge back to Columbus.

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