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Columbus Crew now the moving variety?

Sunday 29th October 2017
With his club in the thick of the MLS playoffs, Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt confirmed he was planning to relocate his franchise to Texas.

Even though I was born and live stateside, I prefer European football to North American sport. Why? In a single word, tradition. In three words, the club system. Professional sport in America does not have clubs anymore; it has franchises. Franchises are a commercial rather than communal entity.

As a European football fan, I can rest assured I will never wake up to find Newcastle Spurs scheduled to play Doncaster Wolves in the Prem or, if it's midweek, Toulouse Saint-Germain locking horns with Hearts of Moray in the Europa League. In the United States, teams change cities all the time.
Baseball's Oakland A's began as the Philadelphia Athletics. They took up residence in Kansas City for a time before packing the wagons for Northern California. The Atlanta Braves began in Boston and spent time in Milwaukee. The Baltimore Orioles were once the St Louis Browns. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants used to play in Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively. The Montreal Expos are now the Washington Nationals.

Basketball's Los Angeles Clippers began life as the Buffalo Braves before decamping to San Diego. If you've ever experienced a Buffalo winter, you can't really fault them for that. Their neighbours these days are the Lakers. You might have noticed there are no lakes in LA. Tar pits, yes. Lakes, no. The team was founded in Minnesota, aka 'the Land of 10,000 Lakes'.
The Sacramento Kings? Hoo, boy. They started out in Rochester, NY, as the Seagrams, then the Pros, and finally the Royals. They kept that name when they moved to Cincinnati, where their best player was the original Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson. After the Big O, the Royals left the Queen City to split time between Kansas City and Omaha, where they lived as Kings. Later on, they decided the upkeep for two castles was overly burdensome and chose Kansas City until 1985. Eventually, they heard the weather was better in California, so picked up stakes and made Sacramento their new realm.

Most recently, Vancouver's Grizzlies migrated to Memphis and the Seattle Supersonics deserted the Emerald City, the yellow brick road leading to Oklahoma City, where the team rebranded itself as the Thunder.

In the NFL, it's a running joke that both the New York Jets and Giants play their games in New Jersey. The Baltimore Colts notoriously loaded up the moving vans in the middle of the night for Indianapolis. The Houston Oilers at least announced they were moving to Tennessee.

The Chargers began life in Los Angeles, headed south to San Diego, and are now back. The Bolts temporarily share tenancy at the undersized (for the NFL) Stub Hub Center with MLS' LA Galaxy. The Oakland Raiders have also been in and out of Tinsel Town and are now destined for Vegas.

Arizona relocated from St. Louis. The Dallas Texans became the Kansas City Chiefs, the only franchise to move there permanently. The Los Angeles Rams tired of LA but recently decided St Louis wasn't an upgrade. For some reason, few teams seem to like Missouri.
The NHL may be the worst, however. Hockey's Calgary Flames were once based in Atlanta, which actually burned during the Civil War. Hence the name. There are brush fires occasionally in Alberta, including just now as a matter of fact, but the city has never been torched. The current Winnipeg Jets also used to be an Atlanta team, the Thrashers. Meanwhile the current Arizona Coyotes were once the original Winnipeg Jets.

Keep up, now, because the Colorado Avalanche were once the Quebec Nordiques, while the Colorado Rockies, who began as the Kansas City (!) Scouts, became the New Jersey Devils. The Oakland/California-based Seals/Golden Seals became the Cleveland Barons, who either merged with the Minnesota North Stars or became the San Jose Sharks, depending on how you do your accounting. Then the North Stars moved to Dallas and lopped the compass point from their name. Oh, and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes. I'm not certain whether the Charlestown Chiefs ever moved to Florida.

Brits are proud to be loyal supporters. They ridicule American fans for their bandwagon nature. Yet, it's no wonder Yanks don't get too attached to their teams. Owners can't be trusted. Just when you make their organisation part of your life, they pack up and leave.
Now the trend is extending into Major League Soccer. Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt has confirmed he will move his team to Austin, Texas if the city council doesn't give him a sweetheart deal for a new stadium. Precourt 'let it slip' he was negotiating with Austin during a session with prospective buyers looking to keep the team in Ohio. Townes van Zandt's ballad of banditry traveled in the opposite direction but Precourt's blackmail is the same sort of treachery.

Wealthy owners who move their beloved teams, or threaten to do so, to secure public monies for a new ground are traditional in North America. Of late, though, the public is more interested in paying Donald Trump's greens fees than building a new ground for their local team's owner. More cities are rejecting overtures, daring billionaires to take their teams elsewhere.

In Canada, Calgary is currently defying Flames owners seeking a new arena.

In the US, Stan Kroenke, Arsenal's largest shareholder who also owns the NFL Rams, has had to partner with Chargers owner Alex Spanos, San Siro style, to develop a stadium in Inglewood, California. Los Angeles politicians refused to underwrite the $2.6 billion project.

With the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB all fielding 30+ teams, there aren't many teamless cities owners can play off against their current landlords. With the NFL back in Los Angeles, any possible alternatives are in comparatively small television markets.

It's a bit different for Major League Soccer. The competition has only 22 teams. There are several metropolitan areas tripping over one another to host an MLS franchise despite buy-in fees going through the roof. The league doesn't have a lucrative broadcast contract. Competition is therefore open to more cities. Even at $200 million, its franchise fee is 10-20% the going rate for a team in the other four major leagues.

Austin, meanwhile, is a burgeoning metropolis represented only by college football's Texas Longhorns. It has no professional team. From a financial perspective, you can understand that the Columbus owner might fancy getting in on the ground floor.
Columbus' Mapfre Stadium enjoys historical status as Major League Soccer's original soccer-specific stadium. Yet, it's become outdated in terms of amenities and revenue enhancing features. The club is among the least profitable in the league. In order to keep the Crew, Columbus may have to play ball with the team's owner.

Alex Fischer, the man leading the Columbus group has stated his belief Precourt will base the team in the first city that agrees to finance a new stadium.

I think there's no question he expects public financing and/or support for any stadium in either city

This is the reality.

In Europe, football teams are tied to their communities. If, now and then, one among London's many clubs must change neighbourhoods to build a modern ground, its fans can still access it with ease. There are many Rovers and Wanderers in English football but no club actually does. The desire to win trophies is universal. Fans expect their side to view winning, rather than profit, as its primary goal. With Arsenal possibly an exception to the rule, every club obliges.
In North America, fans have the same expectation. So do the players. The Crew has brought home 5 trophies in its 21-year existence. Owners, however, are brutally capitalist. They view both parties as resources to be exploited for profit. How do you expect anyone to remain loyal to that?
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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