Austin, the capital of Texas and the home to the state’s flagship university, is the largest city in the country without a major-professional sports franchise. That could change within two years if Anthony Precourt, the San Francisco-based owner of Columbus Crew SC, decides to head south.
“The owner has made a decision to pursue multiple options, including Austin and a new stadium that is being planned down there,” Alex Fischer said late Monday.
Fischer is president and CEO of the Columbus partnership, a group of local business leaders.
“We learned of these conversations (with Austin) a month or so ago, when ownership approached us with ideas for a new stadium in Columbus,” Fischer said. “We made an effort, and an offer, to both buy the team outright as well as go into a 50-50 partnership — an aggressive effort to do what we can to keep the team in Columbus.”
Those efforts were rejected, Fischer said.
Other sources said Precourt is frustrated with the Crew’s declining revenue and poor attendance and has zeroed in on a new location as a possible answer. Earlier this year, Major League Soccer registered “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic” as trademarks of the league.
One source close to the team said a deal to host home games at the University of Texas is “all but done” for 2019. The source also said Precourt paid $68 million — above market value — for the team in 2013 because he long entertained plans to move it. Another source said plans for a “pristine, waterfront development” in Austin are gaining steam.
The sources spoke off the record because negotiations to keep the team in Columbus are not officially dead. It is standard practice for team owners who might want to move to keep hope alive for the purposes of selling tickets for a lame-duck season. The late Art Modell, for instance, made a public promise to keep his NFL team in Cleveland before he moved it to Baltimore.
“It’s not a fait accompli,” Fischer said. “We’ll keep supporting the players and hopefully see an MLS Cup (championship). And we’ll keep our attention on being as creative as we can be to work with Crew ownership to keep the team in Columbus.”
The Crew is unbeaten in its last nine games and has clinched a playoff spot.
“It’s disappointing, on the eve of the playoffs, for the players and the fans to have to face this news,” Fischer said. “We’ll do what we can to preserve this great team for Columbus.”
Precourt, under the aegis of Precourt Sports Management, bought the Crew from its original owners, Hunt Sports Group. The purchase agreement contained a promise to keep the team in Columbus for at least 10 years; it also included an escape clause in the case Precourt wanted to move it to Austin.
MLS has plans to grow, but Austin has not been among a dozen cities bidding for an expansion franchise. Cincinnati, on the other hand, has made a hard push. Cincinnati’s case would be stronger if the Crew were no longer in the state.
The Crew is a charter member of MLS, which began play in 1996. It is considered to be the league’s “first franchise.” It opened the country’s first major soccer-specific stadium in 1999 on the Ohio State Fairgrounds.
Although Precourt has paid for some renovations, Mapfre Stadium, as it is now known, is a dinosaur by league standards. Precourt and the league put great import on newer stadiums located in downtown areas.