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Columbus Crew relocation is a major threat to MLS growth

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The Columbus Crew potentially moving to Austin could undermine the entire league's expansion plans for growth.

Toronto FC v Columbus Crew SC Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, news emerged that the owner of Columbus Crew SC, Anthony Precourt, would move the team to Austin, Texas in 2019 if a deal to build a downtown Columbus stadium didn't materialize. Since then, soccer fans in Columbus and around the United States have essentially been in revolt, with #SavetheCrew #SaveTheCrew rallies, very visible signs at the Crew’s knockout round playoff game in Atlanta, and even making it on ESPN College Gameday ahead of an Ohio State game. You can find plenty of good takes on the SB Nation soccer network or elsewhere, but I wanted to make a little bit of a different point. I love to talk about MLS expansion and growth, but relocation is a major threat to that.

The Columbus Crew are among the most storied clubs in MLS, even claiming to be the "the first and oldest club in the league" when introducing the redesign of the new crest a few years ago. The club has the oldest soccer specific stadium and has been the host to some of the biggest moments for the USMNT. Columbus Crew Stadium, now MAPFRE Stadium, helped create the blueprint for the league's success. Crew fans were very much the innovators of fan culture before the likes of Toronto and Seattle and Portland and Atlanta joined the league. And yet, their average attendance hovers around 15,000, low in a league where expansion sides have dramatically risen the bar, but still a respectable number and one that certainly doesn't indicate a failing club.

Yet, given all this history, the owner is still willing to move. In other words, if it can happen to the Crew, it can happen to anyone. If your attendance numbers are a little bit on the low end, your team can be moved to somewhere else, someplace where there maybe can be that feeling of being new and shiny again. That somewhere else isn't going to be a major market like New York or Los Angeles, as was the case with the NFL, but smaller markets like Austin. If attendance dips, even after seasons of poor results, your team could be shipped somewhere else. And there is always somewhere else for the team to go to where the grass is perceived to be greener.

At the same time, MLS is adding more teams through expansion. The current round of expansion saw 12 teams apply for 4 spots, with an expected expansion fee of $150 million, not including the costs of building a new stadium, signing players, the front office, and everything else. In contrast, Precourt was able to pick up the Crew, complete with the team and front office and stadium and history, all for just $68 million, less than half the expansion price. And, having picked up a club on the cheap, Precourt now wants to ship it off to a new market, completely bypassing the risk and expense of competing for an expansion team. If someone like Precourt can go and pick up an aging club that isn't a league leader in income, why can't somebody else do the same thing? Indeed, you would be a sucker not to do that in place of going the expansion route. Instead of dropping all that money, just go and buy the Colorado Rapids, Philadelphia Union, or FC Dallas. If you can get a good price on Real Salt Lake or the Chicago Fire, why not drop that money and then move them to your target mid-size market, like New Orleans or Las Vegas.

MLS Expansion isn't the sort of pyramid scheme that many make it out to be. However, it does help form a major source for a league-wide cash infusion. Because of expansion fees, MLS has been able to grow more rapidly and aggressively, creating allocation money provisions to sign better players. As a result, the standard of play has risen dramatically, particularly in the last few years. If relocation becomes a way for new ownership to get a team in their preferred market, then those expansion-fee fueled bumps would go away (or at least get a lot smaller). The other positives with expansion would also not be there. The media markets would be merely shuffled around, instead of expanding. There wouldn't be an increase in roster spots and available minutes for players. It would pull the top off of youth soccer development, with academy systems either moving wholesale, or losing a major source of funding and prestige.

Furthermore, clubs that move are likely to move again. If an ownership and front office can't get their act together in one city, how will moving to another clean up their act? And if the move didn't turn out to be the shiny, new, successful venture that the ownership dreamed of, then what is to stop them from selling to someone else who will do the exact same thing? The result would be a series of poisoned markets. Do you really believe that the Crew would ever come back to Columbus if they left? Do you believe the fans would forgive them? I'm skeptical. It would be a sudden souring of the relationship between club and fan as fans now can never feel safe that their club won't just abandon them for another city. And if you can't trust your club, can you really go and support them as if they are a part of your community?

What do you think? What are your thoughts on #SavetheCrew? Drop a comment down below and let us know.