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The shadow over Columbus falls across us all

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The Crew might be moving to Austin. That has repercussions all the way to Commerce City.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Colorado Rapids
And we thought we were having a bad season.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

While the top executives and many MLS owners were slapping each other on the back a few weeks ago at the sight of Atlanta United opening its huge new Mercedes Benz Stadium to the screaming throngs of 70,000 fans, I was cringing.

Cringing because of how consistently successful the newest teams in MLS have been, and what that meant for smaller teams from the beginnings of MLS. A few weeks ago, I wrote:

Atlanta’s big debut makes me nervous

The big news of the weekend was Atlanta United shattering previous MLS records in single game attendance at their new stadium, as they drew more than 70,000 fans. That’s good for soccer in America, and good for the league.

Allow me to experience a moment of paranoia, but that’s probably bad for the Colorado Rapids. Or at least their fans.

Atlanta’s success makes every city, and every potential-owner, think that MLS 3.0 is a sure-fire cash cow with a civic-pride kicker to boot. And if they can’t get an expansion team, and the league is still nursing along a few hard-luck bottom-feeders like Colorado, then a motivated and energetic owner might just pay to move the Rapids to their city, expecting that every city from 2017 forward will be just like Atlanta.

I thought it would take a few years until some cities, passed over in the latest rounds of MLS expansion, would make irresistible offers to the owner of a current MLS franchise f or them to pull up and move to Detroit, San Diego, or San Antonio. Turns out, I underestimated the level of greed owners were capable of. Because yesterday, well before MLS had even determined the next round of expansion cities, owner Anthony Precourt announced his intention to move the team he owns, the Columbus Crew, to Austin, Texas.

This is a terrible moment for fans of the Columbus Crew. The Crew are one of the ten original MLS clubs, and have a fairly impressive trophy case in their 21 year history in MLS: they won the US Open Cup in 2002, MLS Cup in 2008, and the Supporters Shield in 2004, 2008, and 2009.

They have always been on the small side of MLS media markets, ranking around 33rd in metropolitan areas nationwide. In MLS attendance, they are 20th out of the 22 teams in the league, averaging 15,439 fans per match. And their current stadium, the first soccer specific stadium, doesn’t have the degree of appeal (or profitability) that Precourt wishes it did. Last year he told mlssoccer.com’s Andrew King this:

“Our facility is 17 years old, and the high-water mark in MLS keeps going up every year, with Orlando and Atlanta coming online next year having new facilities and probably Minnesota the year after and LAFC probably in 2018.”

“We saw what Sporting Kansas City did, in terms of really resetting themselves and being a truly sustainable soccer venue and soccer club based on moving into Children’s Mercy Park, and in Columbus we want to do the same. We need to keep up with the Joneses and plan for our long-term future.”

In speaking to reporters via conference call yesterday, Precourt said this (emphasis mine):

“Our league has grown leaps and bounds. It’s been unprecedented in the improvement year over year. New teams that have come into the league have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games. With Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game. With New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger year in and year out and I have to go back to our ambition as a club, as Crew SC. Our ambitions as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer. To be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and business operations and to operate world class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to build a world class, soccer-specific stadium that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.”

In other words, owners in small markets with modest revenues are realizing that there might be sweetheart tax deals and windfall profits to be had, if only they are willing to relocate.

In addition, the value of each MLS franchise is ballooning at an enormous rate. Precourt bought the Crew in 2013 for a then-enormous $68 million dollars. MLS expansion fees last year were announced at $150 million. That essentially makes every MLS franchise worth $150 million.

Having an MLS franchise is like owning a painting by Vincent Van Gogh: there aren’t too many, everyone with money wants one, and if you just hang onto it for a few years, you’re guaranteed an immense profit. And it puts Mr. Precourt in a tremendous seat of power.

The recent success of franchises in Seattle, Portland, Atlanta and Orlando has some MLS owners thinking: how get I get a piece of that? Even though the team in Columbus is stable and successful, their greedy owner is thinking: why be a modest success in a small town when I can rake in the dough in a bigger town?

A Columbus move is devastating for MLS on two levels.

First, it hurts the league’s reputation with its fans, and in turn, its image around the world. Many MLS fans root for the league itself in a way that is totally different than the relationship fans of baseball, throwball, and basketball have with their leagues. Rockies fans root for the Rockies, but because Major League Baseball is old and established and does not compete for attention with any other league in the world, there is no feeling among baseball fans for a need to ‘promote the league.’ American soccer fans do root for MLS to succeed and to grow, and many of us feel a need to promote and explain our league to non-soccer fans in America, or global soccer fans who sneer at the league as ‘inferior’ to the Premier League or the Bundesliga.

To both of those groups of individuals, MLS fans could always point to our own nascent soccer culture, and particularly our supporters groups, as evidence that America could soccer just as hard as Germany or Spain. Our chants were real chants, and our historic teams, while not quite as old or storied as Real Madrid or Leeds United, were an essential component of a true soccer landscape.

But when the league consents to moving a team - an original MLS team - it hurts the league and its fans to a degree that makes it difficult to continue the same way as before. Before Tuesday I could say that I have the best interests in MLS in mind because MLS has my best interests in mind. But as of now, if the league consents and facilitates the move of Columbus to Austin, I can’t say that anymore. I can’t assume the league cares about its fans anymore than the other professional sports leagues in America. MLS is the same as the NFL, who let the Chargers desert San Diego and the Browns run to Baltimore. They are the same as MLB, whose owners have made a nearly annual ritual of holding their local fans hostage in exchange for truckloads of tax breaks and public financing for stadiums that empties the coffers of local communities that could spend that money on schools and parks. So too the NBA, and the NHL. If the league doesn’t handle this right, none of us can trust MLS to have their fans interests at heart.

In other words, we believe we are soccer supporters, and that our clubs belong to us. And MLS just reminded us that we are customers for their product, and that the clubs belong to the owners. And that feels really shitty.

Second, it hurts all the older teams and the teams with lower attendance. Like us.

DC United is safe: they open a glorious and brand new soccer specific stadium next year. But everybody else on that bottom-part-of-the-attendence-list should be uncomfortable about what Columbus-to-Austin means for them. I love the Rapids, and I have irrationally and fervently supported this team since the first day I went to DSGP in 2013. But whereas before the threat of the team leaving me was a theoretical anxiety, now it feels like a legitimate possibility. And it makes me question the rationality of going all-in on this team and this league. The thin thread that tethers our team to Colorado is not held by fans, but by accountants.

Crew fans are organizing to oppose this move, and I hope they succeed in keeping their team, not only because it is the right and just outcome, but also because of what it could mean for the rest of us.

And MLS has an important decision to make, too. They can help Columbus to keep the Crew in a variety of ways. They can create financial incentives for the Crew to stay. They can charge an exorbitant ‘re-location fee’ to scuttle the deal. They could do a combination of both. Or they could straight block the deal. Don’t laugh: it’s been done before. MLS commissioner Don Garber could also grant an expansion franchise at a discounted price to a Columbus-based owner, much like MLS did when they gave San Jose a new team after their original franchise departed for Houston in 2007.

There will be a lot of twists and turns to this saga, and I really hope it has a happy ending, for the league and for Columbus. But whatever happens, make no mistake that the repercussions will be felt from Ohio to Colorado and everywhere else in the soccer universe.