…Via Columbus, Ohio?

Welcome to the next in a series of articles where we discuss possible scenarios which bring Major League Soccer to Austin, Texas. In this piece, we explore the Columbus Crew considering a relocation to Austin. The origin of this story was a question by a member at our 1/29 meetup about Austin getting a team via relocation instead of expansion.

We’ll preface this saying this is speculative — but we also have heard some things. We aren’t advocating a Columbus move or claim that they have stated publicly that they plan to. However, out of all the existing teams, they are statistically the only probable team to move outside of their current market. In short: It warrants a moment’s consideration.

We’re still confident in the long-term outcome of earning a MLS team here in Austin — if it were to come by relocating a team here, we’d be equally happy with that.

Why Would We Even Think Such a Thing?

  • Barrett Sports Group previously worked with Columbus on a stadium analysis. This is the same firm MLS hired to evaluate Austin. Maybe they were just a referral within the league and there’s no connection — it is what BSG does– but perhaps their work in the Capitol City wasn’t just for expansion, but and/or a possible relocation assessment?
  • Columbus has made no secret of their desire for a new stadium and began a strategic planning process last November. Even if just “Plan B”, they have to have an alternative strategy in place if they can’t get a stadium deal done. Their actual lease terms are unclear, but if their 25 year lease on the site started when they opened in 1999, this means it’s up in 2024. This is within the 2022–2024 window for Austin to have a stadium solution in place to support MLS.
  • The league seems to look more and more toward 25k attendance capabilities and away from 18,500 as a maximum capacity goal. Atlanta has almost 30 thousand season tickets sold, Minnesota’s will be expandable to 24.5k, Orlando will open supporting 25,500, and LAFC will hold 22k. Might Columbus be at peak soccer at around 17k average attendance and is the club is looking for somewhere else with a faster and longer-term growth curve?
  • The USL Aztex were the affiliate team for Columbus. The Crew organization has done their homework on Austin and spent some time here already. Crew owner Anthony Precourt is preported to have a good relationship with the current Austin USL ownership group. It was also rumored he may have explored investing in the Austin USL group at one point before the Aztex wash-out.
  • Also interesting we think: Columbus is a college town, dominated by Ohio State; Austin is a college town, dominated by the Longhorns. So the Crew Front Office would bring experience operating a professional sports franchise in our kind of market.
  • All our previous statements on MLS really liking the long-term potential of Austin as an MLS market still stand.

Changing Soccer Geography

I think we can all agree that there’s a finite number of teams left to be added to the league. 4 more if you believe the league will max at 28, 8–10 more if you believe the magic number is around 32 (like we do). With a small number of teams to cover such a large number of key geographic areas, some surgical realignment might help nudge the league toward maximum strategic coverage across the map. While regional rivalries are one of the key things the league looks for when considering a market, they may need to sacrifice a few to create new ones.

Columbus to Cincinnati — Less than 2 hours down I-71

Cincinnati pulled a 17k average 2016 attendance in USL compared to Columbus’ average attendance in MLS. Cincy is also only two hours away from Columbus, which is a similar sized city in both population and TV market-size. Basically, MLS may see more growth opportunity elsewhere in Ohio. Indianapolis is another regional MLS applicant, as is Detroit — both bigger markets. Indy and Cincinnati are also incrementally closer to Chicago and probable expansion city Saint Louis.

Swapping Columbus with another city in the area allows the league similar midwest coverage, but in potentially more lucrative and growing markets. It also maintains regional rivalry opportunities and frees up an expansion team placement to be used extending or adding coverage, as well as build additional rivalries elsewhere on the map — like in Texas.

To Be Fair: The Counter Argument

  • There’s not a lot of public chatter that the Columbus organization is looking to move the club, although comments on the need for a new stadium will only grow. There’s also not a lot of information on if there is any progress on a finding a location closer to their downtown or if they will get any public financing support. We here in Austin can relate to that.
  • The club pulls decent attendance — averaging 17k in the 2016 season isn’t shabby and the club has a passionate fanbase. We have nothing but respect for the Nordecke supporters.
  • Columbus is an original MLS club, moving it should not be taken likely. Going anywhere means leaving the Crew legacy behind and building a new brand.
  • Precourt might just shut down Cincinnati’s MLS bid instead
  • As a negotiation tactic, Columbus may just need to have a city to threaten to move to at some point. Austin could just be a pawn in a scheme to get a new facility negotiated in Ohio.
  • Austin might not be the target city for a move even if they were to relocate, although we’re short to come up with any better market, let alone one that doesn’t already have a publicly-announced ownership group making their own MLS push.

Impact to Expansion Cities

Even a threatened move of Columbus to Austin would have a ripple effect on handicapping the expansion derby. Having your owner on the expansion committee certainly helps. Cincinnati, Detroit, or Indy’s odds of getting in go up substantially in this scenario, while San Antonio’s bid would essentially be parked until the Crew organization settles on a new location — whether it be on the other side of Columbus or the south side of Austin. Existing franchise needs should far outweigh any expansion market bids.

Flashback

Years from now, it’ll be interesting to see what some consider “crazy talk” by us was actually was on point, what rumors we heard panned out, and which intricate set of circumstances eventually brought MLS to the Austin area.

What do you think?


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