Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt got a major boost to his effort to move the Major League Soccer club to Texas when the Austin City Council voted Wednesday to move ahead with a plan for a new, privately funded stadium on city land.
Precourt has been courting Austin for a potential move since late 2017 and has sought a deal to build a 20,000-seat stadium on 24 acres of city property in time for the 2021 MLS season.
Austin is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a major league sports franchise. The 7-4 vote allows city staff to "negotiate and execute" a stadium plan with Precourt Sports Ventures. The final contract would not need another council vote.
"It's been a long, emotional process," Precourt said. "We're thrilled to move forward. The work starts now and we're bringing Major League Soccer to Austin, Texas."
The San Francisco-based investor bought the Crew in 2013 and moving the team would uproot a bedrock MLS franchise that won the league championship in 2008. The Crew is in the hunt for a playoff berth this season. Precourt has said he wants to move because of poor attendance, lack of corporate support and an aging stadium in Columbus.
Precourt's plans have upset Crew fans in Ohio. Fan groups have rallied to try to save their team with pledges for future season tickets and pleas for local investors to step in to buy the team.
Ohio and Columbus officials have also sued Precourt and MLS to stop or slow down the move. Ohio law requires teams that use tax-supported facilities and accept state financial assistance to give six months' notice and give local investors a chance to buy the team. The law was enacted after the NFL's Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996.
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"Precourt Sports Ventures and MLS still have an obligation under Ohio law to provide notice and a reasonable opportunity for local investors to purchase the rights to keep the Crew in Columbus. Our lawsuit will continue," Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's office said in a statement.
Precourt declined comment on the pending litigation and declined to offer details on his planned move. Previous proposals have the Crew in Austin by the 2019 season, but the team would need to find somewhere to play before the stadium is finished.
The Austin plan is strongly backed by Mayor Steve Adler, who said bringing professional soccer could help bridge racial and economic divides in the Texas capital.
"This city is excited about Major League Soccer. I am, too," Adler said. "I can't wait until we are all wearing the same jersey."
Precourt will pay for construction, pay rent, and must address local transportation needs to help get people to and from the stadium. The team will not have to pay property taxes.
The Austin stadium has critics who call it a giveaway of city property that could be used for affordable housing or parks. The land has been vacant for more than 20 years but is near a rapidly expanding, high-end retail and condominium project.
"A soccer stadium is a want, not a need," said council member Allison Alter. "Stadium deals represent a race to the bottom by cities."
MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said the league is reluctant to see one of the original franchises move, but has also backed Precourt's desire to look for a new home. The league declined comment on Wednesday's vote.