Back in September, I didn’t mince words when it came to the relocation of Columbus Crew SC to Austin, Texas. Austin FC was nowhere near ready for a 2019 start, while the move itself threatened and undermined MLS and USSF in a way that the two could avoid. And I criticized them for not stopping such a damaging move. Well, it turned out, MLS really was working to keep the Crew from relocating. A few weeks after the article, it emerged that a new ownership group was negotiating with MLS to buy the team and save the club. The deal would keep the Crew in Columbus and give the current owner, Anthony Precourt, his desired Austin team. It seems like a win-win for everyone around. And that deal is now in the final stages of being finalized. The lawsuit that the city of Columbus and the State of Ohio filed under Ohio law to fight to save the Crew has been dismissed pending the final signatures. Columbus will keep their team and, with Austin FC making steady progress towards their own stadium, it seems like Austin fans will, indeed, get their very own team. It looks like a win-win for everyone (except for fans in San Antonio. Sorry, you guys kinda got screwed by this whole situation).
And yet, I look at the terms of the deal and I can’t help but get a little bit queasy. The #SaveTheCrew story is absolutely an inspiring one. Somehow, a community rallied together to protest and fight against the end of something that the loved, managed to get local and state government to stand and fight on their behalf, and, ultimately, won. For fans of other teams watching, the take away absolutely is that a dedicated fanbase can, with some government support, save their team from a greedy and self-interested owner and/or sports league. Indeed, if your state doesn’t have a version of the Art Modell law, you might want to start calling or writing your state lawmakers. After all, they really did Save the Crew. And now we know, you really can fight to save a sports team in America, at least in soccer.
But that’s not the only thing you can takeaway. The sale of the Crew depends on approval of a new stadium, a new, downtown stadium set to open in spring of 2021.
Think about that for a moment.
They are building a new stadium and dismantling Mapfre Stadium.
This probably means we’ve seen the last USMNT v. Mexico World Cup qualifier at Mapfre Stadium. No more Dos a Ceros in those yellow stands. A symbol of the United States national teams will be gone. The oldest soccer-specific professional stadium in the country will have been torn down at the ripe old age of 22.
Not going to lie, that one hurts.
Of course, the site isn’t just being blown up or something. The stadium is being converted into a training facility, along with a public park with soccer fields and basketball courts for city residents to enjoy. And, while the games won’t be at this stadium, Columbus can still host international matches at the new place. The new stadium is even supposed to come with some nice upgrades, including a wrap-around roof for all those rainy game days. Future Crew games, along with future international fixtures, will still take place in Columbus, just a few miles removed from where they are now.
Still, this building is not old. The stadium needed upgrades and an owner willing to actually take care of it, not plans to tear it down. And that makes me nervous. How is it acceptable that a multimillion dollar structure has a lifespan of a college graduate? Is this going to be something that we see repeat with other “old” stadiums around the league? MLS went through a round where most of the original and early expansion clubs got their own stadiums, along with a round of expansion with clubs building a home as part of their way in. Is the next phase of growth going to come with stadium replacement? Are we going to start hearing about how the Stubhub Center (now Dignity Health Sports Park) is outdated in a few years time?
In the joy of actually saving the Crew, it seems like these questions haven't really been talked asked and discussed in the soccer community. And that concerns me. It’s a well known fact that the NFL has repeatedly used the threat of relocation to force cities into upgrading or building new facilities. They bully cities into dumping money into their product, or move to a place that is willing to do just that. And the way that the Crew deal worked out strikes me as very similar.
Remember, this is how the Crew Relocation story broke, how this whole thing started out.
Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt is set to move team to Austin, Texas, in 2019 if downtown stadium can't happen in Columbus. Story soon.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 17, 2017
An abusive owner, a league investor, with the approval and backing of the league, threatened to move a team if he didn’t get what he wanted. And, at the end of the day, MLS got exactly what they wanted: a new stadium in Columbus and a team set up in favorable conditions in Austin. When you spell it out like that, it becomes plain to see, there’s something wrong there. The league threatened and bullied a fanbase and, at the end of the day, they got all the things they asked for. Just writing this makes me cringe.
Let’s not pretend that there are no stakes here, beyond the fate of a local soccer scene. The city and the county together pledged $100 million in support for this whole plan, including renovating the current stadium, building the new stadium, and developing the accompanying land for mixed use. That’s a lot of money that could be used for a lot of different things. And that has consequences. We as a soccer community cannot have such tunnel vision that we only look at what is good for our teams and ignore our schools, parks, police, and roads. We should take the time to really evaluate whether or not our stadiums are a good deal.
Yes, the Crew is saved. And I don’t want to suddenly see the Crew unsaved, again. But we, as a soccer community, need to start talking about our stadiums and our relationship with the league. Because the last thing I want to see is another relocation scare happen to somebody else’s team. But I’m worried we will.