Another day, another own goal for American soccer.
Back in the olde country, they often blame “schoolboy defending” for this sort of self-inflicted wound. But here in soccer’s new world, those own goals are scored by experienced, accomplished, full-grown adults.
They could be decorated coaches whose steadfast faith in their own genius obscures the evidence in front of them. They could be administrators convinced the sport’s continued growth hinges on the preservation of their power. Or they could be owners practicing cafeteria capitalism. That sort of owner believes his investment in a club isn’t also a commitment to a community—that a team is theirs to move, collateral damage be damned, as an unnatural insulation against risk.
Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt announced Tuesday morning that he’s prepared to take the club—an MLS original—to Austin, Texas in 2019 if plans for a downtown stadium in the Ohio capital aren’t finalized in time. And that doesn’t leave much time.
Precourt, of course, will claim he’s been trying to find a more modern alternative to venerable Mapfre Stadium since he bought the Crew in 2013. And it isn’t difficult to compare the strides made in competing markets with his struggle to extract revenue from the modest facility located on a sparse corner of the state fairgrounds. In fact, Precourt has partners at MLS HQ who are doing just that.
“As attendance league-wide continues to grow on a record-setting pace, and markets across the country seek to join MLS, Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a Tuesday statement. “Despite [Precourt’s] significant investments and improvements on and off the field, Columbus Crew SC is near the bottom of the league in all business metrics and the club’s stadium is no longer competitive with other venues across MLS.”
MLS and Precourt can point to his “significant investments” and claim they should’ve been enough. And there were investments. He paid for stadium upgrades. He overhauled the brand, and in 2014, the Crew introduced a new logo that was well received. He hired and retained coach Gregg Berhalter, who’s managed the Crew to three playoff berths in four seasons and one conference title.
But after all that, the Crew apparently remain “near the bottom.” So it must be the city’s fault. The fans didn’t show, the politicians didn’t genuflect and the sponsors didn’t pay. It’s true that there’s been concern for some time about Columbus’s long-term MLS viability. It’s a smaller media market (ranked 32nd) where college football reigns supreme and where Mapfre’s location has been an issue.
But it’s tough to separate interest in the product from the quality of the product, and therefore from the owner. Has Precourt done everything possible to make it work? Were mistakes made along the way? Crew fans certainly have pointed out a few over the past 36 hours. Isn’t it true that permission to move to Austin was written into Precourt’s 2013 purchase agreement? That raises obvious questions about his long-term commitment. And is it possible a wealthier owner could’ve made more progress on a new stadium, or signed the sort of stars who attract sponsors and fill suites?
Perhaps the situation in which Columbus now finds itself says as much, or more, about Precourt as it does the city’s viability.
Precourt is a venture capitalist. He knows all about the risk/reward nature of investing, and he surely is aware that not every investment is successful. He bought the Crew and for whatever reason, it’s not working out like he’d hoped. But rather than take the loss, he’s considering killing off the team. The problem is, the team isn’t his to kill. He may own the Crew, but he’s far from its only investor.
This has become about Precourt in all the wrong ways. This is American soccer arrogance in all its self-defeating glory.
The Crew’s average attendance this season was 15,439. That may not compare favorably to much of the league. But it’s still a significant number—certainly enough to keep a business afloat—and it represents an investment of money, time, effort and emotion on the part of those people. The Crew has had no issue exploiting the passion and color in the Nordecke and the tradition established at Mapfre Stadium to market the club. Their commitment appears to be meaningful only when it's convenient.
Take a look at the Crew’s list of corporate partners. There’s a lot of local on there. Each of those companies has spent money to be associated with the Crew and in turn, help keep it in business. Hundreds of local youth players have turned out for the club’s academy teams, which have won national titles at the U.S. Youth Soccer and USL U-20 levels. Not all of those teams are free. And Precourt said this week that three potential stadium sites have been proposed to him. That’s likely an effort by local politicians to assist in holding on to something regarded as a civic asset.
The club has become inextricably tied to the city, which is the idea. If that results in something too modest to compete with the Torontos and Seattles of the league, so be it. Then that’s what Precourt will own or that’s what he’ll have to try and sell. He didn’t build it–he just bought it. And since he did, he has the right to make money off the club. But he also may lose money. Protecting his investment cannot come at the expense of the people who’ve poured in just as much. It’s theirs, too.
Sometimes, teams die. There’s a threshold. Chivas USA hit it. But that was a flawed idea, poorly executed. The Crew are far from death’s door. They may not be the most robust, ambitious, flashy MLS member, but plenty of teams around the world survive, entertain, contribute and win with less.
Precourt, like the aforementioned coaches and administrators, has to be better about taking real responsibility for results. The tone-deaf, “let them eat cake” approach at so many levels of American soccer—especially during the past week—needs to change. The game requires investment. It needs leaders. But when it stops being about the game and starts revolving around the ego and position of individuals, those leaders must evolve or make way.
The Crew aren’t an extension of Anthony Precourt. They’re an extension of Columbus. If he no longer wants to own the Columbus Crew, he should sell. If he loses money, well, that’s the nature of capitalism. That’s how he’s chosen to make his living.