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Note: I covered some of the following in my Periscope after the hearing.
Well. I’m home back in Seattle after something of a whirlwind four-day trip to Ohio to check out Columbus and cover the Motion to Dismiss hearing. I was hoping to do more of a daily diary, but Tuesday was consumed by the hearing, and I ended up leaving early on Wednesday to avoid having to go anywhere near Chicago, lest a repeat of Sunday’s nonsense occur. That meant I was unable to go to a Crew training Wednesday, so there wasn’t anything I was able to do that day that would merit a separate daily entry (especially since my flights went smoothly).
Anyway, after four days, it seems only right to wrap up this trip with a summary. So, what did I think?
I’ll start off with the Motion to Dismiss, which was covered here in live-blog form, but that necessarily looks at the trees and not the forest. The plaintiffs have an advantage here generally speaking, as Motions to Dismiss are just difficult to win. There is a policy/legal reason for that, which is that legislators/Courts want people to have their day in court. That doesn’t mean the plaintiff will win the suit, but we’re just inclined to want people to have their say, conduct an investigation and have their claim adjudicated. So from that point of view PSV/MLS are already swimming upstream.
While Judge Brown didn’t ask many questions (especially of the plaintiffs, but his questions of PSV/MLS were limited too), he did have several pointed ones for PSV/MLS. The three most difficult ones for PSV/MLS to handle were:
- Presumed constitutionality. As the Judge pointed out, the law is presumed to be valid until there is a finding it isn’t. PSV/MLS had difficulty explaining how they would overcome that presumption at the motion to dismiss stage. The plaintiffs pointed out that PSV/MLS (in their view) would have to show that every element of the law as constructed could not be valid, such that it would have no legal meaning.
- Discovery. Judge Brown also asked about the discovery issue, and why the plaintiffs shouldn’t be entitled to that process, since this case can be potentially dismissed after discovery at a summary judgment motion. PSV/MLS argued (as many defendants do) that the plaintiffs were going to simply engage in a “fishing expedition,” but having looked at the discovery requests already, I’m not sure how that can be the case. Does PSV/MLS really think that the plaintiffs aren’t entitled to a review of the so-called “Austin Clause?” Or a review of MLS financial documents
- Benefits. PSV/MLS most convoluted argument centers around their interpretation of the statute, and whether as the owners of the team, MLS received benefits from the public funds expended by the city. I’m not going to get in the explanation here, but Judge Brown clearly wasn’t buying, which was made clear when MLS made their biggest blunder, with the analogy that as a parent, they don’t receive any benefit from their daughter obtaining a college scholarship. After Judge Brown said, “oh yes you do,” Mark Ruskin (attorney for MLS), did a moonwalk that would have impressed the late MJ. Frankly I’ve never understood why MLS has stake a claim on the “ownership/benefit” argument, except as a “throw spaghetti against the wall” strategy.
There were some other interesting eyebrow-raisers from MLS (such as their claim that their ownership structure has always been open/transparent; what?), but the bottom line is they were always fighting an uphill battle.
As to the plaintiffs, Judge Brown only had one question for them on the issue of benefits aside from the $5 million for parking lot improvements, which they dutifully answered. Aside from that they were allowed to make their case. The argument that they need discovery to determine if PSV/MLS obtained financial benefits from *other* municipalities was very interesting, although one would think those cities would be happy to hand that information over if it exists. I was a bit surprised that nobody hammered PSV/MLS on the six-month notice issue (which PSV/MLS repeatedly said they’d complied with), but perhaps the plaintiffs were happy with how their presentation went.
As you can imagine, I’m pretty doubtful that this matter gets dismissed at this stage, which means that the parties will move towards trial, subject to a potential settlement. And there are rumblings that the Columbus Business Partnership and MLS are meeting this week to go over a potential offer to purchase the team and come to an agreement on a potential stadium site. Which segues me nicely into…
So, I’ll think about this in the context of what we know MLS 3.0 is looking for with its teams, which is soccer specific stadiums in downtown/urban locations with youthful populations, even though they don’t always follow through with that. I’ll try to leave my Seattle biases to the side, though they of course inform my point of view. I will for purposes of this story, list all of the stadiums/cities I’ve been to since I began intensely following soccer in 2009; I think that makes a pretty good reference point.
Aside from people probably flogging me for not having visited Vancouver, while flying all over the country, I’d say it’s a pretty good cross-section of MLS cities/stadiums. The only one I’ve not seen a game in is Columbus, and since they’re talking about a new stadium, I don’t think it matters too much. If you were to ask me what I’d compare Columbus to, I’d probably say a cross between Salt Lake and Portland: Decent sized metro areas, though the “downtown” isn’t especially huge. Columbus is lacking some of the aesthetics of Salt Lake and Portland, but has a massive University that dwarfs either of the other two (which is a blessing and a curse as they say). All three areas are growing at a pretty decent clip as well.
I enjoyed the night-life options in Columbus (as you could probably tell following my twitter), even moreso than Salt Lake actually. But as I pointed out in my other story, where Columbus falls a bit behind is the limited transportation. Salt Lake and Portland have dedicated light rail in addition to the other standard transit options, so you can get to their stadiums with quite a bit of ease. While I wasn’t able to get to Mapfre, everyone I’ve talked to says while the location isn’t bad, the lack of ingress/egress means you’re sitting around in the parking lot for a long time, and because it is some distance from Downtown (or one’s home for that matter), there isn’t much to do while you wait.
ENTER, THE ARENA DISTRICT:
Which brings us to the potential new stadium location (I’m getting good at the segues). I was about to take a look at the area where they’re looking at building the new stadium, which is located in the Arena District. Even having not been to Mapfre, the Arena District is clearly, obviously, a vastly superior location for a new stadium. It’s a five/six block walk from main entertainment hubs, and very close to Ohio State to boot. Relative to places like Philadelphia, Colorado, Dallas and Salt Lake (and even the Galaxy), the location will prove to be much better for a full soccer entertainment experience, granting of course that some of those cities are larger than Columbus by multiples in some cases.
I’m guessing the only drawback from the perspective of people I talked to is that the somewhat limited parking would cut down on tailgating. I personally don’t find that to be an issue, as there is virtually no tailgating for Sounders games; a fact that stunned no small amount of people I talked to in Columbus. But it may be a shock to the system for people used to having ample room to park and set up the grills/tents. Still, there are plenty of bars/restaurants within walking distance for pre-game and (importantly) post-game activities.
*Note: I’m not a city/urban planner, but if you’re going to have another stadium in that area, might I suggest spending a few (million) bucks and set up a light rail at least between the Arena District and Ohio State? Might encourage a bunch of students to get from campus to the area. Just my two cents.
I suppose the only issue with the location (or with the stadium specifically) is obtaining the funds to get it built. It’s likely going to require a public contribution, so there is question of whether there is a public appetite for that. My guess is with a local owner who is decidedly NOT Anthony Precourt (and I’d even advise against bringing any anyone with the name Anthony), there may be some willingness to get it done. One question: What would an agreement like this do to the Modell law? Would the legislature re-write it? Would a settlement require an agreement from the legislature to repeal it? After all, relocation language can be included in the lease/operating agreement. Just something to think about; there could be interest/encouragement from other leagues to prevent laws like this from staying on the books, so #SavingTheCrew in exchange for erasing the law could be an interesting quid pro quo of sorts. And speaking of getting along…
I wanted to talk a bit about this, because it has been a source of consternation from all sides really. One of the complaints (especially from MLS), is that there has been a de facto “cold war” between corporate sponsors in the area and MLS. From what I have gathered from some anecdotes of people I talked with, this goes back 20 years, to when Lamar Hunt attempted to purchase Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s a long, convoluted story which I won’t go into here, but it’s fair to say it’s led to limited engagement between sponsors and the Crew/MLS. Unfortunately, Anthony Precourt’s attempts to thaw the freeze were akin to dropping napalm on a bridge, which does a good job of getting rid of the ice…and the bridge too.
However, given the commitments from local businesses, and with the potential of a wealthy (local) owner, one would think that there would be a chance to start a new relationship to assure MLS that Columbus has support of local corporate businesses (along with a new stadium) MLS says they need to ensure viability of the Crew in Columbus. Alex Fischer has been leading the efforts on this, so we’ll see how it goes. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with Columbus as a MLS-city that a new owner and stadium can’t fix.
WHERE WE GO FROM HERE:
Well, there are a lot of moving pieces. We have a decision on the motion to dismiss to look forward to, which could take up to 90 days (per court rules). We have a potential trial set for March. There are ongoing settlement negotiations, which could make the above moot. If there is a settlement, there will have to be assurances that the legislature will agree to the asks from the settlement, and litigation concerns that could result from any agreement/legislation are mitigated. And any settlement potential hinges on the assumption that MLS isn’t dead set on leaving Columbus. There is still a long way to go, however this plays out.
THANK YOU, ONE MORE TIME:
Obviously, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank everyone who supported the GoFundMe campaign to get me out to Columbus. This trip wouldn’t have been possible without your help. Thanks to everyone who showed me around. It was a pleasure to meet Andrew Erickson and others as well. Thanks to German Village Guest House for the sweet digs where I could sleep and do some work. And thanks to all of you who read my stories over the last few days. My live-blog was my most viewed story ever!
I have no idea if that is any good or not, but hey, pretty cool nonetheless. Anyway back to the daily grind.