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Columbus Crew SC: Local buyers may save franchise from Austin relocation

Local buyers have emerged to work on a deal to keep Crew SC in Columbus, according to an announcement made by MLS. (USA Today)

Columbus Crew SC may have found its saviors.

After a year of uncertainty and drama surrounding investor/operator Anthony Precourt’s efforts to relocate the Major League Soccer franchise to Austin, Texas, local buyers have emerged in an effort to keep the team in Columbus.

Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and his family have joined a Columbus-based investor group led by Pete Edwards, Jr., to potentially buy the Crew, according to a statement released Friday by MLS. The league will still work with Precourt to launch Austin FC by 2021.

“We are optimistic about our recent conversations with MLS regarding the potential sale of the operating rights of the Columbus Crew,” read a joint statement from the Columbus Partnership (a non-profit coalition of local CEOs), Pete Edwards, Jr., and Dee and Jimmy Haslam. “While there are many details to be worked out, our alliance is working diligently and collaboratively with the League to keep the Crew in its community. We are very excited about the quiet but deliberate progress that has been made to date and will keep the community updated as this process moves forward.”

The Columbus Dispatch reported the sale is far from complete, but it appears the Crew will remain in Columbus beyond this season. The plans also include building a downtown soccer stadium in Columbus, according to Sports Illustrated.

“Major League Soccer and the Columbus Partnership have been working together for several months on a plan to keep Crew SC in Columbus and we have made significant progress,” the statement read. “MLS, the Columbus Partnership and the investor group all agree that for the club to be successful in Columbus, it requires strong local partners, long-term corporate support, a strong season ticket base and long-term plans for a stadium, practice facilities and associated sites.”

The league went on to say that it is committed to keeping Crew SC in Columbus “should we continue to make progress on these critical components and agree to key terms with the investor group.”

Earlier in the day, rumors of the deal circulated on social media and Crew SC fans packed into a local brewery, where they frequently broke into chants of “Save the Crew!” while awaiting the official news. 

The announcement comes nearly a year to the day from Precourt announced his relocation plans. During that time, the City of Columbus filed a lawsuit to block the relocation; Precourt got a title change, which led to accusations of “factual misdirection”; FC Cincinnati’s expansion approval caused concern; Austin’s city council fought over stadium plans; renderings for a soccer-specific stadium at McKalla Place were released; Austin FC was born — and that just skims the surface of the saga.

“MLS also remains very committed to PSV’s plan to launch an MLS club in Austin and is excited for Austin to become a great addition to MLS,” the statement read. “The strong support from Austin’s corporate community, government officials and passionate soccer fans is impressive. Austin is a flourishing, dynamic city that presents a great opportunity for MLS, and we look forward to finalizing plans to become the first major league team in the capital of Texas.

“While timing for Austin FC is still to be finalized, we are confident that the team will begin play no later than 2021 at the new, privately financed stadium and soccer park at McKalla Place.”

During the 2018 MLS season, Crew SC morale struggled behind the scenes as employees questioned their futures and whether they would have a job at the end of the season.

Some fans wrestled with how to balance supporting the Crew with not supporting Precourt, which led to discussions of whether to boycott games. The Crew’s average attendance so far this season is last in the league at 12,120, according to Soccer Stadium digest, down from 15,439 in 2017.

But a strong contingent of Crew SC fans rallied to create a fierce social media campaign to #SaveTheCrew. Their voices rippled across the country, permeated other sports leagues and garnered support and criticism along the way, especially from proponents of the countermovement #MLS2ATX.

But most importantly, it maintained a constant presence that could not be ignored by Precourt or the league.

“We’re just going to keep on doing what we’ve done, keep being the mouthpiece for our community and telling everybody that this is not over, and showing the powers that be that we’re not going away,” a Save The Crew leader, Morgan Hughes, told Pro Soccer USA at the beginning of the season. “The most important thing I want them to realize is if you move this team tomorrow, we don’t go away. If you tear this thing from us, our loyalty and our support remains. We’re not going anywhere. There really is one championship at stake here, and it’s saving the Crew. If we save the Crew that’s the best win in franchise history.”

Then it may be time to celebrate.

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