By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 17, 2018) US Soccer Players - With a 7-4 vote to approve a proposed soccer stadium plan for Precourt Sports Ventures, owners of the Columbus Crew, the Austin City Council may have opened an unsettling new chapter in the history of Major League Soccer on Wednesday.
You’ve heard a lot about new eras in MLS over the past 10 years or so, most of it positive. The threshold that was just crossed down in Texas’s capital city might lift the curtain on one that’s not quite so nice, at least not for current fans.
Austin’s official approval of a privately-funded $200 million, 20,000-capacity venue on public land on the city’s northwest side does not guarantee that the Crew will relocate. This possibility has been staring us all in the face for the better part of a year, ever since Precourt’s Central Texas intentions came to light last October. Investor/operator Anthony Precourt still has a few more legal hurdles to navigate back in Ohio. However, this week’s vote already made MLS history. Austin’s embrace opens up a path for the league’s first franchise relocation since 2005 and just the second in its 23 years of existence.
In this regard, MLS has been relatively out of step with its North American professional counterparts. A glance at the long list of relocated teams underlines the extent of this.
Football, baseball, basketball and hockey have made relocation a voluntary and more or less commonplace occurrence, typically driven by economic factors. Up to now, however, MLS has followed world soccer’s lead. They're sensibly spotting the alluring power of the deep bond between club and community that throbs at the heart of many of the planet’s best teams. The league’s sole previous relocation, the San Jose Earthquakes’ move to Houston to become the Dynamo, was carefully handled. The league reassured Quakes fans that their team would eventually be reborn. With it the crest, history, and record books all still intact. MLS followed through on that commitment.
Have things changed? Based on many conversations I’ve had with people around MLS, maybe. Atlanta United and to a slightly lesser extent LAFC are adding to the pressure on existing clubs. The rest of the league knows what a wealthy owner can achieve in a short period of time. Atlanta's success story in a questionable market for pro soccer is the new ideal. That's in the possibilities for the game and at what scale. For under-performing clubs, this is the issue.
Garber’s public explanations of the Crew relocation push have centered around “business metrics.” Pick from among the problem points. Attendance, local TV deal, TV ratings, and the stadium both the building and location. One well-placed source emphasized to me the stark contrast between Atlanta and Columbus in the eyes of MLS leadership. The new kids on the block rack up the kind of numbers in one game that it takes the Crew much longer to generate. The issue for the rest of the league is that this doesn't only apply in Columbus.
You can pick from among a group of MLS clubs with obvious problems. Suburban stadiums, lack of on-field success, lack of boardroom success, and so on. Where does it start, much less stop? How much time might a team have to try to fix things before trading cities becomes a viable option? Remember, this is still the league that doesn't regularly move teams. That's not the MLS way. Well, until the league and its investor/operators decide that it is.
With expansion slots alone now valued at $150 million or more, we should expect would-be MLS owners to look hard at undervalued existing teams. It's smart business considering the enormous tolls paid by newcomer franchises. There are also relocation fees, of course. No North American pro sports league moves clubs around for free. Shortcutting an expansion fee has its limits. So does MLS itself, not committing to more rounds of expansion.
A league that has demand for teams but halts expansion even in the mid-term creates scarcity. That could make relocation unavoidable.
If MLS does embrace relocation, there's a sadly familiar takeaway. That could mean that all bets are off when it comes to the relationship fans have built with their local teams.
Will moving trucks, broken hearts, and the manipulation of competing cities become part of the MLS landscape just like the other “big leagues”? Can MLS’s awkward position on international club soccer’s totem pole really sustain that style of high-stakes poker? These are the types of questions that hang over the heads of fans across the continent after Wednesday’s vote in Austin. That’s not exactly the brave new world we were hoping for.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Raising the roof without lifting the lid
- Steve McManaman on North American talent, playing abroad, and La Liga’s US push
- MLS transfer market moves: A turning of the tide?
- Fans, stadiums, and questions for American soccer
Photo by Jose L Argueta - ISIPhotos.com