TORONTO -- MLS commissioner Don Garber said it was still possible for Columbus Crew SC to remain in Columbus, but overall he painted a sobering picture of the franchise's chances of staying in the Ohio capital.
Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt announced in October that he was exploring the option of moving the team to Austin, Texas. It later emerged that as part of Precourt's purchase agreement when he acquired the team in 2013 from Hunt Sports Group, he had an out clause that allowed him to move the team to Austin before the mandated 10-year commitment in Columbus is up. Since then, Precourt and his representatives have been meeting with various Austin city leaders in search of a site for a stadium.
A #SaveTheCrew movement has picked up steam on social media, but no real headway has been made in terms of keeping the team in Columbus. Last month a meeting in New York involving the Columbus Partnership -- a group of Columbus business leaders -- along with MLS and Precourt ended with both sides trading conflicting press releases.
"The owner has said very clearly, 'I am going to pursue a path in Austin.' And the league approved that. At the same time, I want to pursue a path in Columbus,'" said Garber in an exclusive interview with ESPN FC. "The city recently came to us and said, 'We get it, here are some things we'd like to do, but we're not going to do that unless you stop in Austin.' That's set a line in the sand that gets us to a point where we're not sure what the next steps are. The ball is in their court. Anthony Precourt and [Precourt Sports Ventures] will work with the city if they are willing to discuss things that might help actually 'Save the Crew' but he's not going to do that without pursuing an alternative in the event that they're not able to come up with something that will allow that team to be successful."
The ripple effects of Precourt's decision are still being felt. Expansion candidate San Antonio, which purchased Toyota Field for $18 million, threatened legal action against MLS over possibly having the Crew move to nearby Austin, though it later backed off that threat. Fans have wondered aloud if their team might suffer the same fate as Columbus.
When asked how much damage the saga was doing to the league in terms of its credibility with fans and expansion candidates, Garber repeated his mantra that, "No league and no commissioner wants to move a team and you do everything in your power to try to avoid that. At the same time, our obligation to the sport is to ensure that we have viable teams that are able to be successful in their markets."
Garber went on to defend Precourt's decision to look into Austin. Garber explained that the Hunt family sunk $200 million into the franchise while Precourt has put $30 million in. (During his state of the league address, Garber upped that amount to $40 million.) He explained that when the Hunts were looking to sell the team, they went with a Cleveland-based investment banking firm that specialized in finding local ownership. None could be found that would meet the Hunts' asking price, and a nationwide search brought Precourt into the mix.
"[Columbus], that is a team that has not been able to be economically viable, and we're trying to figure out the elements that have gotten us to this point," Garber told ESPN FC. "Is it the market? Is it the stadium? Is it the lack of true embracement by the community? While there is a passionate core fan base, that core has not spread out like it has in other markets, where they had a drop count of 13,000 or 14,000 at the first playoff game. All of these things have us assessing is that something that will allow MLS to continue to be successful."
When it was suggested that Precourt already appears to have two feet out the door, Garber insisted that wasn't the case.
"There's a lot of buzz, there's a lot of noise, there's a lot of anger over this. I understand that," said Garber. "Anthony made his decision because it's a decision he believed he needed to do to ensure that team could be successful. And the city had to react to that. But to think that he has two feet out is just not true. I also want to say that he had been working with the city for years, as did the Hunts, to try to find ways that they could work together to address some of these problems."
Garber added, "Beyond the purchase price, Anthony has invested $30 million and that's the operating losses for the team, it was the $4 million he invested in the stadium, it was the cost of a rebrand. Those are not things that somebody who is committed to a market does."
Garber also denied that there was what he called a "solid offer" from local businessmen to buy the team.
"There was no solid offer from the Columbus Partnership to buy the Crew," he said "It's just not true. There was no detail behind it, there was no ownership, no individual or entity to look at. When we go to look at team ownership, this is not just somebody walking into a room and saying, 'I'm going to buy your team for $150 million.' It's easy to say that to try to win the narrative in the press. But there has been no solid offer for that team. And by the way, Anthony Precourt doesn't want to sell his team."
MLS has long touted its devotion to community in the markets where it has teams. One of the stars on the league's crest is said to represent community. Precourt's actions in Columbus appear to undermine that message, though Garber insisted that isn't the case, and that the commitment to community "from the bottom up" still exists.
The sight of one of MLS' original teams possibly moving has also raised concerns among some fans that a similar fate could befall their team. Garber insisted that the concerns about the franchise have been going on for longer than Precourt's ownership of the team. That is the difference between Columbus and other markets.
"There has been no discussion in any other market to address the situation like there have been discussions in Columbus for many years," said Garber. "To think that any other fan could be questioning the stability of their club, I just think is a disconnect.
"There's got to be years and years and years [of discussions] as there are in any other league when there are challenges of working to find solutions. That's the check and balance that exists in our entire industry, whether it's in our league or any other league. We're just trying to figure out if there's a way we can turn it around in Columbus and if it can't turn around what our options are."
An unexpected obstacle remains. A statement from Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine referenced a state law -- enacted after the NFL's Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore -- that prevents pro teams that receive taxpayer support on stadiums from relocating.
"Should ownership of the Columbus Crew initiate a move of the team without complying with Ohio law, I am prepared to take the necessary legal action under this law to protect the interests of the State of Ohio," said DeWine in the statement.
When asked about the potential obstacle, Garber declined to comment.