Let Anthony Precourt go, Columbus. You’re better off without him.
The news that Anthony Precourt, who owns the Columbus Crew, wants to move the team to Austin caught me by surprise. I thought, “Oh no. That’s terrible news.” Columbus is as integral to Major League Soccer as any city. No club is indispensable, but Lamar Hunt’s legacy and the Crew’s history seem like a lot for American soccer to lose just because you got stuck with an insincere owner. At first, I hoped Columbus would work it out with this guy. But then I thought, “Kick him out of town. Please.” And that was even before I saw that his company had already started a website called MLS2ATX.com, along with a matching Twitter feed and Facebook and Instagram pages. Not cool. Columbus, I beg you: Do not negotiate with this man. Let him take his team to Texas. Make him go away as soon as possible.
While the club does deserve a world-class venue, and it would be best if one of the league’s originals stays put—here’s what I really hope happens: Columbus tells him to leave (today), enters a yellow and black team called “Crew SC” in USL under new and local ownership for 2018, makes modest upgrades to the stadium, keeps its youth structure and supporter culture intact, and carries on. Cincinnati’s having a perfectly good time in USL; that will be a nice rivalry. Sacramento, Louisville, and a fair number of other cities are making USL work for them. Didier Drogba seems happy. The soccer fans of Columbus can surely get 10,000-15,000 out for second division games, have just as much fun, and be rid of this guy’s act. For the long-term good of the game, let him go.
I know nothing about Anthony Precourt, though there are a few tells in Grant Wahl’s excellent reporting of the situation. First, “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.” This deal obviously did not get signed by a Seattle SuperSonics fan. I have a vague recollection of some rich men from Oklahoma City who pretended to like Seattle, held the city over a barrel for a new arena, and then shocked the world by…moving the team to Oklahoma City. Why the owner of the Crew wants to move to Austin so badly, I don’t know, but whoever signed a deal with “in the case Precourt wanted to move it to Austin” in it and thought Precourt was dedicated to the future of soccer in Columbus is as responsible for losing the Crew as anyone else. (Well, almost.)
The second tip-off is this: “Our central goal is to be celebrated, and we want to be a vibrant and sustainable business to create the resources to be a vibrant soccer club.” It’s Precourt’s money; if he wants to be carried around in a chair, that’s his prerogative. But if your owner’s first job isn’t to serve the soccer community in your town, you’re going to go through this every time your dear leader gets a wild hair, has a dip in his other fortunes, or isn’t feeling sufficiently appreciated.
The guy wants out. Everything about his behavior this week says he never really wanted in. The most charitable view is that he saw MLS as a pretty good investment in 2013 and bought the cheapest house in a nice neighborhood instead of playing the Don Garber Dating Game (and made sure he inserted the fine print that would let him away with the The Great American Promise: I am yours, unless something else comes up.) The more likely truth, as made clear by a deal to play 2019 at the University of Texas (that the Columbus people apparently didn’t know about) and two copyright registrations for Austin team names, is that this is just part of a plan.
Like I said, I don’t know this person. Maybe elsewhere in his life, he’s a prince. I’ve never been to the Crew’s stadium; I’m sure it needs help. So while what he’s doing to the Crew’s fans sucks, it isn’t a crime. It’s a mistake, but it’s not a crime. But the reason it’s a mistake is not because it’s insensitive and mean and uncool, which it is. It’s a mistake because he thinks he owns the soccer team in Columbus. He does not. He is a momentary and misguided steward. The soccer people of Columbus own soccer in Columbus. He is obviously not one of those people, so let him go, and do it soon. We do not need people like that in our game anymore. We did, once upon a time, but now we don’t. See him to the border, shake his hand, wish him luck but don’t mean it, hate on the new Austin team the way Sonics fans hate the Thunder and go right back to loving soccer in Columbus, Ohio and your now-USL team, Columbus Crew Soccer Club.
I predict Major League Soccer will welcome Columbus back someday, but playing in the USL is a whole lot better than playing with this kind of businessman. It isn’t MLS, but it’s plenty entertaining, the tickets are cheaper, you’ll have saved yourself months and months of pointless negotiation, and you’ll be rid of someone you don’t like who doesn’t like or respect you. And someday, you can fix your stadium up a little bit.
Dennie is the author of Hooper’s Revolution, an excellent re-imagining of American soccer’s origin story that you should read immediately.