“We are not asking for public tax dollars and we are not asking either city to build a stadium for us.”
— Anthony Precourt, Columbus Crew owner
“In the time the Crew has been in Columbus, there are many people who have bought tickets, come to games, and have become attached to this club. I owe it to those people to do everything I can to keep the club here.”
— Lamar Hunt (1932-2006), Columbus Crew founder
Central Ohio may have a new most hated figure, and it’s not a politician or a foreign leader. It’s not an athlete or pop star. It’s not even a Michigan football coach. No, the new most hated man in Columbus is a venture capitalist whose name may soon sink alongside that of the late Art Modell. That’s because Anthony Precourt, who purchased the Columbus Crew from Hunt Sports Group four years ago, is now threatening to move the club to Austin, Texas.
Cities and fans usually have very few legal options when a team decides to relocate. That’s because, with the notable exception of the Green Bay Packers, teams are usually owned by a wealthy individual, or a small ownership group. Absent a stadium lease that binds these owners to a particular location, they are usually free to move their asset elsewhere.
To make matters worse for cities and fans, sports leagues are treated differently under antitrust law than other business ventures are, in that sports leagues have the authority to limit the number of teams that they will allow. Owners have been given even more power by court decisions like 1984’s Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission v. NFL, which limited the ability of sports leagues and other owners to control the movement of other teams in their league.
Which brings us back to the Columbus Crew. When Anthony Precourt bought the team in 2013, it was thought that the purchase came with a ten-year stadium lease that would have locked the Crew into Mapfre Stadium at least until 2023. That was important because even four years ago, there were rumblings that Precourt wanted to move the team to Austin. Adam Jardy, who covered the team for the Columbus Dispatch at the time, recently recalled that he even asked Precourt about the prospect of a move, and Precourt was cagey in his response.
So if Precourt owns the team outright, the league can’t prevent him from moving, and he has an “out” in his stadium lease, have any legal options been proposed for the City of Columbus or Crew fans to take in their battle to #SaveTheCrew?
Two weeks ago, a story surfaced in Columbus Business First that points out that the stadium sits on land owned by the Ohio Expositions Commission, and that the lease for the stadium contains specific language that requires the team, if terminating early, to be responsible for either finding a new sports tenant for the stadium or for, “removing all structures at the team’s expense.” It’s not clear how much that would cost, or whether the “out” clause in the 2013 purchase agreement would void that lease provision. The latter may be an issue for a Franklin County court to settle.
Another option might arise not from Ohio, but from another city in Texas. Precourt purchased the Crew rather than trying to get an expansion franchise and pay the $150 million expansion fee. Major League Soccer is currently in the middle of an expansion from 22 to 28 teams, having announced Atlanta, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Miami as the first four of those expansion sites. Atlanta and Minnesota debuted in MLS this season.
Another city in contention is San Antonio, and a judge there has asked prosecutors to investigate whether MLS misled San Antonio, leading it to spend $18 million to purchase a soccer only stadium in support of their bid, when the league already knew that Precourt intended to move the Crew to Austin. Precourt is one of the owners on the expansion committee that chooses the new sites, and a team nearby in San Antonio might not be high on his wish list if he wants to move the Crew to Austin. MLS denies these claims and it is unclear if San Antonio will take legal action against Precourt or the league.
The blowback from relocations has often come in the form of public relations disasters and has, on several occasions, resulted in cities getting to keep their history and being awarded an expansion franchise. Only time will tell whether Precourt’s Austin plans succeed, and if they do, whether a new Crew will ever rise in Columbus.
David Hejmanowski is Judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Delaware County Court of Common Pleas.