Forbes is out with their valuations for each Major League Soccer team, and buried in the story are some quotes from an interview with MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Aside from the usual platitudes, there was a discussion about expansion. With Cincinnati coming online in 2018, Garber was asked about the future of MLS expansion. That inevitably brought up the issues involving Columbus and Austin. Garber let slip an important detail.
That is a new revelation from the commissioner, though perhaps not a surprising one. While MLS had held out hope that a MLS-Austin team would be able to play in 2019, like sand through an hourglass, time has finally run out.
I can independently confirm based on discussions I’ve had with sources that a MLS team in Austin in 2019 will not be happening. The reasons for that are varied and complex, but the overriding reason is simple: There isn’t enough time to do it, and it would be too expensive at this point to force it.
As I wrote about in my exclusive story interviewing various sources involved in the SaveTheCrew/MLS2ATX story, there were several factors complicating an Austin team starting play in 2019. Most of those interviews had been done in the last 3-4 weeks, and nothing has changed in the meantime would have made getting a MLS team (expansion or otherwise) down to Austin next year more likely.
First, it was simply becoming a logistical and financial impossibility. In my previous stories, I’ve discussed the three possible locations: Dell Diamond in Round Rock, and one of two facilities at the University of Texas (Myers Stadium or Royal Stadium). Dell has already set their baseball schedule for 2019, and MLS would have to work around that. Additionally, Round Rock is located about 20 miles outside of Austin, risking limited engagement from Austin soccer fans. Finally, the stadium only holds 13,000, which would require a waiver from U.S. Soccer, and risk sub-10,000 attendance numbers, given the odd dates/times the team would have to work around.
The University of Texas has much better facilities which would in theory work for MLS. But that’s the problem. UT knows they have a good facility, and wasn’t inclined to cut MLS a break on the price. In addition to wanting infrastructure improvement paid for by MLS, talk is that UT wanted at least $5 million/year in rental fees, minimum. Additionally, like Dell Diamond, MLS would have to take dates subject to UT’s whims. Given the margins that MLS and current Columbus owner (investor/operator) Anthony Precourt are dealing with (see: Forbes valuations), that was likely too steep a price for the league to pay.
There are of course other considerations involved with this decision. The MLS schedule typically comes out in early January, which is less than two months away. They also typically announce the first home games for all teams in mid-December. That’s only about a month away. It was always unlikely MLS was going to drastically delay those announcements for the purposes of shoehorning an Austin team in an ill-fitting location.
I’ve also heard that MLS internally was uncomfortable with trying to fast-track Mr. Precourt down to Austin, once it became clear that they were unlikely to secure the lease development agreement with the Austin City Council before December, nor get a desirable temporary stadium location on their terms. The league believes attempting to have Mr. Precourt to operate a team at Dell Diamond, for example, would not have put him in the good position to launch Austin FC and provide the best possible start for an owner (investor/operator) who wasn’t able to make Columbus work for one reason or another.
So how will this affect the Crew? MLS continues to negotiate with the Haslam/Edwards group on a sale of the team. A deal has not been announced, but both sides continue to believe it will get done. Whether that is in December or January is still unknown, and there is still the unanswered question of a stadium solution, which all sides seem to acknowledge is necessary. There are rumblings that there is a deadline of mid-December to get a stadium plan set. That doesn’t mean that a stadium deal needs to be completed, but a path forward that can be put before the City of Columbus (or the votes) needs to be there.
A 2019 season for the Crew has not yet been confirmed, but with Austin 2019 foreclosed as an option, there don’t seem to be many other pathways. There are some “darkest timeline” scenarios, but those seem very unlikely at the moment, so best to set those aside for now. With the Austin City attorney saying the finalization of the lease/development agreement is still set to be completed in December, it seems that Austin and Columbus continue to be linked, but not necessarily intertwined. Call it, “parallel paths” if you will. The Modell lawsuit continues to hover over all of this; it won’t be dismissed until the sale is completed, and there will likely be some complications in unwinding that litigation.
With all that said, the revelation that Austin will not have a team playing in 2019 adds one piece to the puzzle, but the picture is still far from clear. Expect a few more pieces to be put in place in the next month.