Columbus Crew SC will need "to see a dramatic change" in attendance and other factors to keep the MLS club from moving to Austin, Texas, owner Anthony Precourt told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview.
Precourt Sports Ventures, the investor/operator of Crew SC, announced on Tuesday that it is has decided to "explore strategic alternatives to ensure the long-term viability of the club."
These consist of either remaining in Columbus contingent on the construction of a new stadium, or relocating the team to Austin, Texas. The plan to concurrently explore stadium options in both cities has the backing of MLS.
Commissioner Don Garber called the situation in Columbus "particularly concerning, and Precourt, the CEO of PSV and chairman of Crew SC, told ESPN FC that a lot needs to change to keep the club in Ohio.
"MLS is enjoying unprecedented growth and our league peers are improving on and off the field, year over year" Precourt said. "So that high-water mark keeps getting higher and higher, and we have an ambition as a club. We want to be one of the standard bearers in MLS, we want to be a successful club on and off the field.
Precourt spoke of how the Crew lags behind mid-market franchises like the Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, and Orlando City in terms of attendance, season ticket holders, sponsorships, and relevancy in the market.
Columbus' average attendance of 15,439 in 2017 currently ranks 20th out of the league's 22 teams and well below the league average of 21,918.
"It's become clear to us that we need a new stadium and a new business model to realize our ambitions of being a top club," he continued. "It's really about keeping up with our peers, having strong ambition, and getting to a world-class, state-of-the-art new soccer stadium."
The Crew's current home of MAPFRE Stadium opened in 1999 as the first soccer-specific venue in the country, thanks to the vision of then-owner Lamar Hunt. It has been witness to several memorable matches, including several World Cup qualifiers between the United States and Mexico.
But Precourt lamented the venue's "antiquated infrastructure" as well as the fact that the area surrounding the stadium isn't a "destination" for fans to enjoy entertainment offerings before or after the game.
He added that a new Columbus stadium must be in a downtown location, though he didn't specify a timeline for when he would make a decision, even though published reports indicate it will happen in time for the 2019 season.
When asked how a new stadium would be financed, Precourt said it would be done "primarily" with private money. But when asked if that meant more than 50 percent of the financing would come from private sources, Precourt said, "We're not going to get into the specifics of the stadium financing at this time."
Precourt indicated he has engaged Columbus civic and business leaders for the last four-and-a-half years, talks that he described as "extensive, exhaustive." In early 2016 those talks focused on the difficulties that Crew SC was having in attaining revenue targets that are in line with its peers.
"We're going to need to see a dramatic change in what our attendance and sponsorship and season ticket base and relevancy in the marketplace would be like to have a confidence to build a stadium [in Columbus]," Precourt said.
Precourt said that it was around this time that he started looking into other markets and settled on Austin, a city for which he has "a long-standing affinity."
According to a report in the Columbus Dispatch, when PSV purchased the franchise in 2013, Precourt agreed to keep the team in Columbus for 10 years. But Precourt also inserted an out clause into the agreement allowing him to move the team to Austin.
U.S. Census data from 2015 say the metro population is about the same in both cities, around two million inhabitants. In terms of television market size, according to AC Nielsen, Columbus ranks 32nd while Austin is 39th.
But Precourt highlighted Austin's demographics, vibrant economy, concentration of millennials and reputation as an international city, as well as the fact that it is the largest city in the country without a major league sports franchise.
Of course, the presence of the University of Texas does plenty to take up Austin's sporting interests, but Precourt indicated that this doesn't concern him.
"There's no doubt that the University of Texas is extremely relevant in Austin, Texas, and the Ohio State University is extremely relevant in Columbus, Ohio," he said. "But that being said, our research suggests that there is room for soccer in Austin."
Crew SC president Dave Greeley stressed that discussions about a stadium plan for Austin are "just beginning."
"This is a starting point, not an ending point," he said. "That's a lot of what we're going to try and determine in the coming days and weeks and months ahead. "
If Precourt thinks the environment for sponsorships is challenging now, that difficulty will likely increase. The reaction from fans is likely to be negative as well. Only once has an MLS team been relocated. That was when the San Jose Earthquakes moved to Houston and became the Dynamo following the 2005 season.
Yet Precourt is determined to take this path of pitting Columbus and Austin against each other.
"We expect this to be a very challenging time," he said. "Exploring other options isn't easy, but it's what needs to be done. We have to realize our ambitions as a club. The league is in a new era, and it's our job to keep up. We don't really have an alternative."
One league source indicated that if Precourt did decide to move the team, it would take a two-thirds majority vote of the league's Board of Governors in order to approve the deal.
But Garber's comments of support are a strong indication that the league won't stand in Precourt's way if moving the team is what he decides is needed to bolster the team's financials. That assumes Austin is able to come up with a stadium plan that satisfies the league's requirements.
The source confirmed that MLS leadership has had some preliminary discussions with Austin civic leaders and that there have been discussions with Columbus politicians as well. But the ultimate decision lies with Precourt.
"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," he said. "We want to be positioned to win trophies year in and year out.
"It's an exciting time, it's a scary time, which I recognize. But it's about our ambition to be one of the standard bearers of MLS."
Does Precourt think Columbus is standing behind him now? "I think there's room for improvement," he said.