Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber said a lot would have to change for Columbus to keep the Crew, but in explaining why, he also gave a big compliment to Cincinnati.
The majority of the questions asked during Garber’s state of the league address Friday in Toronto centered on the potential move of the Crew to Austin, an option owner Anthony Precourt has been exploring if he can’t secure a new stadium in Columbus.
Garber said in his opening statement the league doesn’t want to relocate the team, but that “MLS is supportive of Precourt Sports Ventures’ efforts to explore their options in Austin” because Columbus has struggled with attendance and revenue losses related to other important metrics falling over the years. Garber then went on to point out how FC Cincinnati has been successful in a small market – and in a lower division.
“We need to find a way to ensure that team can be an MLS 2.0 team, to be able to compete like a small market can,” Garber said. “Portland would be an example and Kansas City would be another, and I think many of the expansion cities have been small markets, some even smaller than Columbus. You have a team down the road in Cincinnati that is averaging over 20,000 fans a game. The presentation Carl Lindner and Jeff Berding made just the other day, it’s just hard to imagine they are separate by 150 miles. It’s just incredible the difference between those two, and they are playing in the lower division.”
FC Cincinnati is one of the four finalists in consideration for the two expansion clubs that will be selected as early as next week. The finalists made presentations to the MLS expansion committee Wednesday in New York City, and expansion will be the focus of the MLS board of governors meeting Thursday, with a decision expected to be announced in the days following.
The other finalists are Nashville, Sacramento and Detroit. The two teams selected will begin MLS play in 2020.
Garber did not discuss the finalists’ presentations during Friday’s press conference, which was streamed live on the league website, and he only briefly touched on expansion.
“All four are outstanding soccer markets represented by established sports and business leaders who believe in what MLS can do to improve their communities,” Garber said in his opening statement before moving on to another topic.
When asked if Columbus’ potential move brings concern to cities looking to put money into stadiums to join MLS, Garber said he hasn’t “experienced that yet.”
“I think there is a real vocal focus and passion that starts at the municipal level,” Garber said. “… The level of municipal public support is significant, and we haven’t seen that in Columbus, so I would almost put it on the other way. Maybe Columbus should look at what Detroit, Nashville and Cincinnati and Sacramento are doing and think maybe if this thing had turned from where it used to be, the Crew might have been more successful.”
According to Garber, Columbus city leaders have told Precourt they are not willing to address MLS concerns until Precourt agrees to halt his discussions with Austin.
Garber said that is not possible at this time. Columbus hasn’t received the level of fan support it once did, and its fairgrounds site stadium is too far from downtown and other entertainment districts, where MLS prefers its teams to be as a way to draw more millennials to games.
FC Cincinnati is looking to build a soccer-specific stadium in Oakley, and the league has said Columbus’ fate has no bearing on whether Cincinnati is selected for an expansion spot. Garber still believes Columbus could work things out to keep the Crew, though the situation looks bleak.
“I think if they are able to address some of the concerns we’ve been experiencing in that city many years it’s conceivable (they could stay),” Garber said. “It’s a legacy team, and it’s traumatic when an owner and a league is willing to move a team, whether it’s a legacy team for 20 leagues or in other leagues where they’ve been around for 50. But you need to be in a situation you can be viable. As we’ve had new teams come in that are deeply connected in the community, dramatically more commercial revenue, higher fan bases, all the measures that matter, what we’ve been experiencing in Columbus for many years, it is among the lowest teams, 20 of 22, in every measure that matters in pro sports. … As we move forward to be a viable league, we need to have strong clubs, so there is a lot that needs to happen to address those situations.”