These days there are rarely any big surprises in sports. There are favorites and underdogs, and while there are upsets on the field or court every so often, in the long run the teams with the best ownership, management, and resources generally win.
Sports fans in Cleveland know this all too well given our teams’ lack of championships in their respective sports. Additionally, we’ve had to watch legends like Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, and LeBron James pack up and leave town in search of greater opportunity elsewhere.
One team that has flown in the face of these expectations has been Columbus Crew SC. The club, a charter member of Major League Soccer, has managed to field competitive teams most years despite not being in a major market and being near the bottom of the MLS in average attendance for much of the past decade. The club won the MLS Cup title in 2008, and won the MLS Supporters’ Shield (best regular season record) in 2004, 2008, and 2009. Most recently, the Crew reached the MLS Cup Final in 2015 but lost to the Portland Timbers.
Given the success of the Crew on the pitch, what happened next was stunning. The club’s long-term prognosis took a turn for the worse in October 2017 when owner Anthony Precourt announced his intention to move the club to Austin, Texas. According to a statement by Precourt Sports Ventures, the decision was largely made based on revenues and attendance numbers relative to teams of similar market size, like Kansas City, Portland, and Salt Lake City. Also at play was a poor television contract in terms of revenue and team coverage with Time Warner Cable Sports Network in 2014. MLS Commissioner Don Garber commented on the situation, expressing concern for the situation in Columbus.“As attendance league-wide continues to grow on a record-setting pace and markets across the country seek to join MLS, Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning,” Garber said in a statement.
Faced with this sudden grim reality, as well as a vote of no confidence from their owner and Commissioner Garber, Crew fans rallied around their club, turning #savethecrew into a citywide movement that only grew as their club embarked on a surprise run through the MLS playoffs. The Crew defeated Atlanta United on penalties in the wild card round, before taking down heavily favored New York City FC 4-3 (4-1, 0-2) in the MLS quarterfinals. Just like that, Columbus was one step away from the MLS Cup final, facing the vaunted Toronto FC, a squad that featured US national team standouts Michael Bradley and Jose Altidore. Columbus would lose 1-0 on a strike by Altidore, but this playoff run gave Crew fans the platform they needed to show the MLS their love for their endangered club.
This outpouring of support was evidently not lost on Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who proceeded to shock the sports world on October 12 by announcing that he was teaming up with a Columbus-based investor group to purchase the Crew from Precourt Sports Ventures. This agreement ended the threat of relocation and also included a plan to build a new stadium in downtown Columbus, which was something Precourt had desired but the city had been reluctant to pursue. In a statement, Haslam said, “We value and appreciate the benefits a professional sports franchise can bring to a community and are hopeful to be a part of the solution to keep the Crew in Columbus. We would invest in a strong infrastructure within the Crew organization so that we can continue our focus and commitment to building a winning Cleveland Browns football team in Northeast Ohio.”
The statement suggests that while Haslam’s first priority remains building a winner on the gridiron of Cleveland, that he is also seeking to build up and strengthen a proven winner on the pitch in Columbus.
The big irony here is that the Browns helped the Crew stay in Columbus not just through Haslam’s action, but also through history and the law. Following the Browns’ 1995 move to Baltimore, the Ohio general assembly passed a statute that would be nicknamed “Modell’s Law.” This law stated that any professional sports team in Ohio that plays its home games in a taxpayer-supported facility must enter into agreement with the city in which the stadium is located if they wished to move, or to at least give six months time window whereupon the city could purchase the team. Basically, the state was ensuring that another fly-by-night sudden departure like what happened with the Browns in 1995 would never happen again. In March 2018, five months following the relocation announcement, Ohio attorney general Mike Dewine filed suit against Precourt for not adhering to this law. “Loyal Crew fans in Columbus have invested their time and loyalty in this team, and they have allowed the Crew to capitalize from financial incentives paid for by their tax dollars. I am left with no other choice than to file this lawsuit to ensure our laws are followed,” said Dewine in a statement. It would not be an exaggeration to say that both through change of ownership and the law, that the Browns saved the Crew from moving to Austin.
In the end, all parties will probably get what they want. Columbus gets to keep their beloved club, and Precourt Sports Ventures and MLS are now pushing forward to start an expansion club in Austin in 2021. The big questions looming now are no longer about the dire prospect of relocation, but rather on who the Crew may face in the upcoming MLS playoffs provided they do not lose their regular season finale vs. Minnesota United this coming Sunday. The Crew currently sit 6th in the Eastern Conference which is the final playoff position, making the match of utmost importance. But one thing is for sure, Crew SC supporters will be in full throat, just as they were on their iconic playoff run last fall. Whether or not more good times are ahead may depend on how well Haslam and his colleagues in Columbus run the organization, but one thing is for sure, the Browns and the Crew are now inextricably linked forever.