What now for Columbus? Learning from the Earthquakes' relocation (and return)
An inferior stadium. Dwindling crowds. Stagnant revenues. Diminishing opportunities to compete for trophies.
Is that Anthony Precourt, explaining why he's considering moving his Columbus Crew SC to Austin, Texas? Could be, but no. This is Anschutz Entertainment Group back in 2005, just before taking the San Jose Earthquakes to Texas to become the Houston Dynamo.
It's the only instance of an Major League Soccer team swapping markets -- a practice that's been seen many times in America's “four major” sports -- and the parallels with Precourt's deliberations are telling. Only a new stadium can solve the problems, according to the rhetoric, and if that's not going to happen, well, hasta la vista, baby!
The Earthquakes' situation then and that facing the Crew today are not identical. The major differences: San Jose was looking for a buyer, and Columbus has a soccer-specific stadium and control of the accompanying revenue streams. But the way things played out when San Jose left for Houston and in the following months, as groundwork was laid for the new Quakes, could serve as a map as (or if) Columbus goes through the process.
Let's do a quick contrast and compare:
Earthquakes: San Jose spent its first 10 years at Spartan Stadium, a football facility with too narrow a field but 30,000-plus seats and nice sightlines. The problem was that San Jose State University controlled the millions of dollars worth of revenues from parking and concessions.
As other MLS clubs began to build soccer-specific stadiums and take command of their revenue streams, the economic differences between the haves and have-nots started to grow. Ticket sales and replica shirts aren't enough to support a club with aspiration, especially with fewer than half the seats taken.
AEG wasn't going to get a publicly financed stadium, and SJSU wasn't going to surrender revenue, so the Quakes' existence depended on whether the club could be sold.
Crew: Columbus opened MLS' first soccer-specific stadium in 1999, and that -- and four 2-0 victories over Mexico -- have made it one of the country's iconic soccer facilities. What it's not is modern. Precourt called it “antiquated.”
Mapfre Stadium, originally Columbus Crew Stadium, was bare bones when it was built, an erector set of a venue that would make a great high school football stadium everywhere except maybe Texas. It just can't compete with the facilities the Crew's rivals use, with the luxury suites and modern amenities, and the absence of nearby entertainment options doesn't help. Precourt wants a downtown stadium.
Meanwhile, attendance is down nearly 10 percent after four years of growth. The Crew's 15,439 average is 20th in the league, nearly 1,000-per-game less than No. 19's, for an entertaining side that has clinched a playoff spot. MLS Commissioner Don Garber expressed “concern” with Columbus' situation, noting the club was “near the bottom of the league in all business metrics.”
Earthquakes: AEG was the original owner/operator of the Colorado Rapids and has since October 1998 run the LA Galaxy. It took control of the league-owned Quakes in 2002, after the team’s first MLS Cup championship, and held complete or controlling stakes in five clubs come 2005. Philip Anschutz was keeping the league afloat, but the path forward would require new ownership in every AEG market except Los Angeles. AEG had played savior in San Jose. Now it was in selling mode.
Rumored or prospective new owners in the Bay Area -- first Club America, then Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, owners of the NHL's San Jose Sharks -- didn't pan out. Prominent Earthquakes supporters formed Soccer Silicon Valley to represent fans' interests, as the club won a second MLS Cup. Attendance wasn't healthy: the average was 9,635 in 2001 and 10,466 two years later. The two title years had the lowest turnouts in that first decade.
Crew: Precourt bought Columbus from the Hunt family in July 2013 for $68 million, a bargain by today's standards, and set to work on upgrading the stadium and better connecting the club with the community. He brought in Gregg Berhalter as head coach and sporting director and rebranded the club, and the Crew in 2014 posted its best attendance figures in a dozen years, then surpassed them in 2015 and 2016.
Precourt's agreement when he purchased the Crew mandated that he keep the team in Columbus for at least a decade, but there's an out clause that permits him to depart for Austin. He has made it clear he has no interest in selling the club.