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  • Writer's pictureVillanova Sports Law Blog


Updated: Feb 12

By Dylan Thompson:

In the cut-throat world of professional sports, the most crippling fear of any fan is relocation. Fans of the St. Louis Rams, the Oakland Raiders, or the San Diego Chargers understand all too well how quickly a franchise can leave a city. The MLS has generally been the opposite story, with new franchises regularly appearing every year. This past year Atlanta and Minneapolis have welcomed new MLS teams and the fan response, especially in Atlanta, has been nothing short of incredible.

In Columbus however, the home of one of MLS’s original franchises, a new ownership group, Precourt Sports Venture (“PSV”) announced in October of 2017 their intentions to move the Crew from Columbus, OH to Austin, TX.[1] This decision was immediately met with considerable fan uproar, and criticism of PSV, the MLS commissioner, and the MLS single-entity ownership structure.[2] Despite numerous lawsuits and grassroot social media attempts (#SavetheCrew) to keep the Crew in Columbus, it appeared that PSV’s plan was final.[3]

On October 12, the Cleveland Browns appeared to have come to the Crew’s rescue.[4] An ownership group of Ohio business owners, headlined by the owners of the Browns, have allegedly negotiated a deal where they will assume ownership of the Crew, but PSV will remain entitled to start a new franchise in Austin, all be it without having to pay the substantial expansion fee required for other new franchises.[5] Questions remain about the final purchase price for the Crew, but it appears that every party has won. Austin FC are scheduled to start play in MLS no later than 2021, MLS gains a new franchise in a desirable market, and Columbus retains the Crew.[6] But was this actually a good thing?

Sports unquestionably create emotional attachments for interested parties that do not exist in other businesses. But running a professional franchise is still that, a business, and the Columbus Crew have worrying signs of being one that is poorly run. The Crew are near the bottom of the league in revenue, income, attendance, player salaries, and are dead last in total team value in the MLS.[7] Columbus is not a substantial MLS television market, there is a severe lack of “must-watch” players on the current team, and the current head coach is strongly linked with vacant USMNT job.[8] Not to mention that the new ownership group is completely unexperienced in MLS ownership, and are now largely controlled by the widely-accepted worst run team in the NFL for the last decade.[9]

Fans of the Crew and anyone afraid of their franchise leaving town, are expectedly ecstatic that this historic MLS franchise is remaining in Columbus. A new franchise, FC Cincinnati is entering Ohio in 2019 and that has the potential for a promising in-state rivalry.[10] The Crew are currently preparing to begin their playoff run and there is plenty of good-will to go around. Also, now that it appears the Crew will stay in Columbus the online anger (#SaveDtheCrew), has mostly subsided. But as this goes forward, its important to apply context. An MLS franchise with minimal financial success, is going to remain in a relatively small market, but now under the ownership and operation of the same people who run arguably the worst franchise in American professional sports.

[1] Jeff Carlisle, “Cleveland Browns Owners in Negotiations with MLS to Buy Columbus Crew FC.”, Oct., 12, 2018.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[8] Charles Boehm, “Crew SC’s Berhlater ‘clear frontrunner’ for US National Team Coach.”, Oct., 11, 2018.; Andrew Erickson, “With Ratings Down, Crew SC Agrees to 2018 TV deal with Sinclair.” The Columbus Dispatch, Oct., 4, 2017.

[9] “Worst NFL Teams Ever for all Franchises” Dec. 26, 2017.

[10] Charlie Hatch, “FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew SC in MLS? Koch says fans must choose their team.” Cincinnati Inquirer, Oct., 10, 2018.

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