After news broke Monday night of a very serious plan by Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt to move the club to Austin, Texas, following the 2018 season, Precourt took a conference call with the media on Tuesday to answer questions about the Black & Gold’s now tenuous situation in MLS.
What followed will not lift hopes for Crew SC fans, as Precourt mostly abstained from providing details of his plans either in Columbus or Austin, speaking in vague phrases and business lingo.
The phrase “strategic alternative” will never be the same for Columbus fans.
What follows is the audio and full transcript of the conference call. Be warned, Crewniverse, proceed with caution if you don’t like marinating in anger and frustration.
(NOTE: This transcript may be edited in parts for clarity.)
Opening statement from Anthony Precourt, owner of Columbus Crew SC and CEO of Precourt Sports Ventures:
MLS is experiencing unprecedented growth. Our league peers are improving on and off the field year over year. Precourt Sports Ventures has spent the last 4 ½ years committed to elevating the Columbus Crew SC into one of the top clubs in MLS, both on and off the field.That’s been our vision since we purchased the club in July of 2013. We’ve demonstrated our commitment to being successful in Columbus. Making significant improvements to stadium infrastructure, training facility infrastructure, a team re-branding effort, resetting our front office and soccer operations leadership and getting the three Designated Players for the first time in club history. Proudly I can state, we have qualified for the MLS playoffs three out of four years, we won an Eastern Conference Championship in 2015 and hosted the MLS Cup, coming up a goal short.
Despite all the efforts to move the needle with success, our business is struggling to keep pace with the rising standards of Major League Soccer. The club,historically and presently, has challenges with matchday attendance. With growing our season ticket base. With demand for corporate sponsorships and with relevance.The stadium and site are challenges in Columbus. There’s a growing disparity in attendance and corporate support in comparing Crew SC with its MLS peers and with other MLS markets such as Kansas City, Orlando, Portland and Salt Lake City. Despite increased efforts in investments, our current course is not sustainable. With this in mind, Precourt Sports Ventures has decided it must begin exploring strategic alternatives to secure the long-term viability of the club.
These options will include remaining in Columbus in a new, privately-financed stadium in a new downtown location or potentially relocating the club to the city of Austin, Texas. The key takeaway is that Precourt Sports Ventures has strong ambition as a club to be a standard bearer in MLS. Our central goal is to be celebrated, to operate a vibrant and sustainable business that creates the resources to have a successful soccer team that is positioned to win trophies year in and year out. We need to have confidence in the marketplace in order to feel comfortable building a new world class, state of the art, soccer-specific stadium. So we have no choice but to proceed with exploring our options. No course of action is yet set in stone.
I also want to clarify some of the misrepresentations that have been made over the last 12 hours.
This is just an announcement that we are exploring our options. No relocation decision has been made. We are not asking for public tax dollars and we are not asking either city to build a stadium for us. Any conversations we’ve had in Columbus with potential investors center around a new, privately-funded stadium in the downtown area. No investor in Columbus presented a serious offer to invest in the club while the team plays at MAPFRE Stadium. Not for 100 percent, not for 50 percent, not for any percentage. To say that a deal has been made to host games at UT Austin is also premature.
Jered Smalley, NBC 4 Columbus: Good morning, Anthony. Just a question about the stadium location issue you addressed earlier with downtown Columbus. Can you go through that process a little bit of locations you’ve tried to identify and maybe some of the difficulties you’ve had in trying to get stadium locations secured in Columbus? Where are the challenges there?
Anthony Precourt: Well, we are initiating a process — a concurrent path of exploring our options in Columbus in a new facility and possibly relocating to Austin, Texas.
We hired Barrett Sports Group a year ago to do a survey on Columbus — to understand what a new stadium would be like, what our supporters and fans and sponsors would like to see in a new stadium and where that stadium should be located. And we’ve also hired a local real estate and development firm to do a site evaluation for us to understand the best locations for a potential stadium.
The key thing for us is we need to have confidence in the market in order to build a new, world class, soccer-specific stadium. We need stronger support in the form of attendance, in the form of season ticket base, in the form of sponsorship, so that we have the finances and business model to build a new stadium. Building a new stadium in MLS is now a significant investment. We’re going to explore how that can come together. It would be premature to comment on specific stadium location at this time.
Christian Flores, CBS Austin: I know Austin and, I guess, San Antonio — both similar areas — have been used in the past as pawns, so to speak, kind of as leverage. How is this situation any different. Austin is, I’m guessing, being very seriously considered in this case, right?
AP: Yes. We are sincerely looking at the opportunity of relocating our team to Austin, Texas.
Tom Bosco, ABC 6 Columbus: I just got done speaking with Alex Fisher from the Columbus Partnership and can you tell us why his offer to buy half the team was unacceptable? And, also, he says that they keep asking you for specifics as to what you need, what you need, what you need, what you need, and that you haven’t given them specifics as to requirements to stay.
AP: We’ve had private conversations and they’re probably better to remain private. At this time, I’m going to stay there.
There were no serious offers made to me in regards to the Crew. And I’ve made it perfectly clear, and so have potential investors in Columbus, that a new investment would not be made until we got the specifics around a new stadium plan. No investor in Columbus has ever given me a formal, serious offer, and they all expressed they would not have an interest in investing in the team until we had a a stadium plan.
Dennis de la Pena, Austin FOX affiliate: The interviewer earlier was talking about how it’s almost like Austin is being used as leverage. What makes you think soccer at MLS level would work well in Austin? What attracts you about our city?
AP: You know, Austin is the largest metropolitan area without a major league sports team. It has a growing national and international presence. It has a strong multicultural foundation. It’s millennial and has a robust economy. We’ve long thought of Austin as a potential ideal fit for a Major League Soccer team and a very, most attractive untapped market in the United States for Major League Soccer.
Laura Newpoff, Columbus Business First: Hi. When we wrote the story about your purchase of the team — this was back in 2013 — part of that was it was very important to the Hunt family that the Crew remained in Columbus. At the time you were committed to that. So what’s changed?
AP: I was committed to that and I believe I demonstrated my commitment through significant investment in infrastructure and personnel and the quality of our product on the field. What has changed? Our league has grown leaps and bounds. It’s been unprecedented in the improvement year over year. New teams that have come into the league have shown dramatic attendance. Let’s look at Atlanta with over 70,000 fans over their last few games. With Orlando building a new facility and averaging over 30,000 fans a game. With New York City FC. The list goes on and on. Our peers get stronger and stronger year in and year out and I have to go back to our ambition as a club, as Crew SC. Our ambitions as a club is to be a standard bearer in Major League Soccer. To be respected on and off the field in terms of our soccer operations and business operations and to operate world class, soccer-specific infrastructure. We’re going through growing pains now. It’s time for us to build a world class, soccer-specific stadium that we can be celebrated and successful and sustainable.
Rudy Koski, FOX 7 News Austin: Have you selected or made a decision whether you want to be downtown Austin or possibly out at a location like Coda?
AP: Nothing is set in stone.We’re just getting started with this process. So I’m not going to really comment on specific stadium sites at this time. You know, Major League Soccer as learned over our history that operating in the urban core, where the most people in the community can access the facility and enjoy the facility — that’s important. So a downtown location is important.
Andrew Erickson, Columbus Dispatch: Hi, Anthony. With conversations with city officials, a lot of them, including the mayor, seem to be blindsided by announcement. Why, from the city aspect, were they kept in the dark and how can those conversations progress going forward?
AP: Again, I think that’s a misrepresentation. I have been very clear since the beginning of 2016. I raised my hand and expressed our concerns around the health of our business with both public and private leaders in the Columbus community. The process began after we won the Eastern Conference and hosted the MLS Cup and our jersey renewal was up. So we reached out to Alex Fisher and the Columbus partnership to help us in securing a market-rate jersey sponsorship. And I have to say, that was a long process that came together at the 11th hour. We were unsure if we’d even have a jersey sponsorship for 2017. But I will tell you this — we have engaged the community privately since the beginning of 2016 about our business issues. We made it clear we would start to explore re- … our strategic alternatives if the business did not improve.
Dave Greeley, President of Precourt Sports Ventures: I just wanted to add to Anthony’s comment. We had a very specific, objective and factual findings presentation we gave to Columbus business leaders in early September and it outline very specifically all of our issues and challenges. We also said at that time, ‘Guys, we have no choice, given these facts and findings, that we’re going to need to explore our strategic options and alternatives.’ So Anthony deserves a lot of credit for being extremely standup and candid in that meeting.
AP: Again, this is about building a new soccer-specific stadium. A world class, soccer-specific stadium. And it’s going to be privately financed. So we’re not asking for public tax dollars. I’m not asking Columbus for anything. We need to make that step as a club.
Kevin Lyttle, Austin American-Statesman: Anthony, thanks for talking to me earlier. I wanted to ask a question again that I asked earlier and see if you could put a little better timeframe on it, and that’s what the timeframe on all of this would be.Are you talking one year? Two years? Can you clue us in on that?
AP: This is just the beginning of the process and we look forward to exploring the opportunity. We will be playing in Columbus in 2018 and, you know, we’re just kicking things off.
I want to talk a little bit about the timing of our announcement at this point in time. There is no good time to make this announcement. I understand that. The timing should underscore the seriousness of our actions to realize our ambition. This is an opportunity for us to escalate the conversation for those that need to understand it. If there’s a chance for us to stay in Columbus or a chance for us to move to Austin, we have to work on it immediately. Again, our situation is not sustainable and we need to get to a place where we can be successful and put out a good product on and off the field.
Aaron Goldstein, Spectrum Sports: Anthony, to follow up on that timing question, do you worry at all that making announcement now with the team trying to, obviously, in the playoffs and trying to make a run there, can distract them or get in the way of that run at all?
AP: You know, every sports organization’s goal is to win a championship, and that’s our goal, unequivocally. It’s to win a championship this year. We’ve got a great team, we’re playing well and we’ve got true pros. We’ve talked to our players and our coaches about the situation, and they’re good to go. We’re going to give it a run for MLS Cup this year.
Andrew King, MLSSoccer.com: Hi, Anthony. Since the day you bought the team you’ve used phrases like “committed to Columbus” and talked about the long-term plan. Just last October you told the Columbus Dispatch you were, “tired of the insecurities Crew SC fans have about the team possibly moving. Now you’re openly considering moving the team. Do you feel like you maybe owe those Crew fans an apology for suggestions of unwavering commitment?
AP: I stand by what I said. I know the Crew fans are avid fans. I want to make the statement that I recognize their love for the club and that they put their heart and soul into this club every Wednesday and Saturday. But we’re trying to be a successful club here.We’re trying to take the next step. So I hope you guys recognize the ambition.
Paul Tenorio, FourFourTwo: You said a few times that this would be a privately-financed stadium. In the Dispatch story where you were quoted, you also said that you imagined and anticipate the deal being a public-private partnership. Can you explain the difference between how you’re framing it now and how you anticipate it being public-private if the stadium in Columbus is to occur?
AP: I said it would be premature to discuss how a stadium would be financed, but I also said in that statement I was expecting it to be primarily private financed. [pause] I expect it to be privately financed. [pause] In Austin or in Columbus.
Christian Flores, TBS Austin: Oftentimes when we hear about sports teams moving over, you know, trying to get public financing for stadiums, that’s not the case here. So can you just elaborate what really, you know, is kickstarting this possibility of moving?
AP: I think we have room for improvement in Columbus as it relates to matchday attendance, growing our season ticket base, getting to market-rate corporate sponsorships and just generally being relevant in the city.
Pat Murphy, Massive Report: Anthony, earlier you listed several things you see as positives in Austin, a lot of them are very similar to what you would have — what you do have — in Columbus, in terms of the city and fan base and whatnot. What makes you confident that a team would work in Austin that has not worked in Columbus under your ownership?
AP: [pause] We’ve seen new markets be really successful. Expansion has been a tremendous success. And, um, there is a receptivity to MLS 3.0 in new markets. We’ve got 22 years of operating history in Columbus. And, look, we’ve tried relaly hard. I’ve worked extremely hard over the last 4 ½ years to improve this club and I’m going to continue to work hard to improve this club. That’s my goal. Our ambition is to be successful on and off the field and be a standard bearer for MLS. And we’ve tried very hard to do that in Columbus.
Rudy Koski, Fox 7 Austin: Hi, Anthony. In a followup question — You mentioned you were looking for investors. Have you identified or locked down are are talking with Texas investors, and who are they?
AP: That would be premature. Again, we’re just initiating the process. And I say this again — in Columbus or Austin, we are very open to bringing in local investors and we will have conversations about that.
Tom Bosco, ABC 6 Columbus: I want to press you just a little bit on sites in downtown Columbus. The press releases said you did conduct a stadium survey earlier this year in January or February. Were there specific sites in downtown that were identified? And if you could identify those to us, that would be great.
AP: Uh, yes. There are three sites that have been recommended to us and we will continue to look at them. That’s all I can comment on.
Dennis de la Pena, Fox 7 Austin: Anthony, I know you’re fully aware of the Austin Aztex of the USL and how it just didn’t really work out. I think the attendance was a little over three-grand before they last stopped. Did that give you pause at all or is this an apples-oranges kind of thing with the MLS?
AP: I think it’s apples and oranges. We’re talking about Major League Soccer. You know, the Aztex had some troubles with their stadium, with the fan experience, and they weren’t playing Major League Soccer. I commend them for being visionaries and pioneers and trying to seed soccer in a very attractive marketplace where I think soccer can be very successful. We had a good experience working with the Aztex in our affiliation. Good on them. We’re all in the same boat. We want soccer to be successful in every marketplace we both believe that Austin could be a great MLS market.
Aaron Goldstein, Spectrum Sports: You mentioned that you’re considering both options concurrently. So what, tangibly, needs to change here in Columbus between now and whenever you make that final decision?
AP: We have to have the confidence in the marketplace in order to feel comfortable building a world class, soccer-specific, state-of-the-art stadium. Again, we have room for improvement when it comes to our matchday attendance and our season ticket base and the demand for corporate sponsorship.