As the Columbus Crew get set to battle in the Major League Soccer playoffs, a far different battle is taking place between the team and its fan base over where Columbus will call home in the 2019 season.
On Oct. 17, Columbus owner Anthony Precourt announced that unless the Ohio state capital builds a new downtown stadium for the Crew that would be projected to open in 2019, the Crew would relocate to Austin, Texas for the 2019 MLS season. Initial reports said that Precourt would ask for public money from Texas to build a stadium there upon making the move, but the owner has since suggested that he will not ask Austin to spend tax dollars on a new stadium.
In response, the Crew’s supporters — led by Morgan Hughes, who hosts a Crew-themed podcast — have begun reaching out across the soccer landscape to try to get city leaders and other MLS squads to join with them in hopes of blocking Precourt’s move. Across the United States, fans of other teams began posting versions of their teams’ logos modified with the Crew’s black and gold color scheme as a way to show support for Columbus fans.
Other soccer fans, such as the Columbus chapter of English side Tottenham Hotspur and the Denver chapter of Manchester City’s fan club, put out messages of support for keeping the Crew in Columbus with the #SaveTheCrew hashtag. The effort has even reached MLS players themselves, as Chicago Fire goalkeeper Matt Lampson and Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finlay both put out messages on their Twitter feeds supporting the efforts in Columbus. The Independent Supporters Council, which represents many of the supporters groups in North American soccer, also released a statement condemning the possible move.
On Thursday, Precourt responded on Twitter to the Columbus fans, pleading for the focus to return to the Crew’s efforts on the field rather than what is taking place off the field.
Columbus is one of the original 10 franchises of MLS, having joined the league in 1996. It also became the home the United States’ first soccer-specific stadium in 1999 when Columbus Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium) opened, and it has become an unofficial home of sorts for the United States’ men’s soccer team given their history of success in the Ohio state capital.
But in recent years, Columbus has struggled to get its business metrics up to the level of other squads in MLS. The Crew rank 20th out of 22 clubs in attendance this season and average just above 15,000 fans in a stadium that seats 20,455. Precourt believes the problem could be the stadium’s location, as the Crew are the only one of the city’s three major and minor-league professional teams that plays its games away from downtown Columbus.
But recent moves from Precourt have suggested the owner has his sights focused squarely on Austin, which is currently the largest metro area in the United States without a major professional sports franchise. In August, MLS registered “Austin FC” and “Austin Athletic”, downplaying the move at the time. Reports have also suggested the team has looked at using Myers Stadium on the campus of the University of Texas while the team constructs a new stadium, and Precourt did Columbus no favors when the team announced that no refunds would be given on 2018 season tickets in light of the move announcement.
Precourt ultimately reversed that policy on Oct. 25, ultimately choosing to offer refunds through Nov. 3 to those who wish to pursue a refund.