The Columbus Crew appear set to stay in central Ohio.
After a year of uncertainty over whether owner Anthony Precourt would move the Crew from Columbus to Austin, Texas, MLS released a statement on Friday announcing that the Knoxville-based family of Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and a Columbus-based investor group led by Pete Edwards, Jr., has joined together to move toward buying the Crew and keeping the team in Columbus.
The plans also include building a downtown soccer stadium in Columbus, and potential locations have already been discussed, according to a source with knowledge of the situation who spoke to SI.com.
“MLS is committed to keeping Crew SC in Columbus," MLS announced, "should we continue to make progress on these critical components and agree to key terms with the investor group.”
The news of the Haslam family’s involvement was first reported by Ian Thomas of the Sports Business Journal.
Meanwhile, MLS said it remains committed to Precourt’s plan to launch Austin FC as an MLS team in Texas.
"Major League Soccer is excited to move forward in Austin with Precourt Sports Ventures and their vision for Austin FC. Regardless of any scenario in Columbus, there is a clear path forward for PSV to operate Austin FC as a Major League Soccer club," the league said in a statement. "The strong support from Austin’s corporate community, government officials and passionate soccer fans is impressive. Austin is a flourishing, dynamic city that presents a great opportunity for MLS, and we look forward to finalizing plans to become the first major league team in the capital of Texas.
"While timing for Austin FC is still to be finalized, we are confident that the team will begin play no later than 2021 at the new, privately financed stadium and soccer park at McKalla Place. We applaud the Austin community, city leaders and Precourt Sports Ventures for their commitment to making this happen."
The source who spoke to SI.com said that the most likely scenario for the impending sale of the Crew would involve the league selling the operating rights of the Crew to the new investor group, while Precourt would maintain his equity stake in the league and Soccer United Marketing.
The new investor group for Columbus, which does not include the Columbus Partnership, a civic organization led by Alex Fischer, said in a statement: “We are optimistic about our recent conversations with Major League Soccer regarding the potential sale of the operating rights of the Columbus Crew SC. While there are many details to be worked out, our alliance is working diligently and collaboratively with the league to keep Crew SC in its community. We are very excited about the quiet but deliberate progress that has been made to date and will keep the community updated as this process moves forward.
“I am energized by the willingness of MLS to collaborate with us over the past several months. I appreciate Commissioner Garber’s personal involvement with the Columbus Partnership, the Haslams and the Edwards. Having community-oriented owners ready to purchase the team is a significant step forward in achieving our goal to keep Crew SC in Columbus.”
In addition to being the owner of the NFL’s Browns, Jimmy Haslam is the brother of Tennessee governor Bill Haslam. A source with knowledge of the situation told SI.com that Gov. Haslam is close to John Ingram, the billionaire owner of Nashville’s recently awarded MLS expansion team. On September 10, the night before the U.S. men’s national team’s game in Nashville against Mexico, MLS commissioner Don Garber had dinner with Gov. Haslam.
“The two [Haslam] brothers talk a lot to each other,” the source said.
How having teams in Columbus and Austin will impact MLS’s expansion plans remains to be seen. With Cincinnati (2019), Nashville (2020) and Miami (2020) already announced officially, that would leave one spot open for the league to get to its current announced goal of 28 teams. Chief candidate cities for that berth include Sacramento, San Diego, Detroit, Phoenix and St. Louis, the latter of which revived its bid with a new investment group and plan this week.