CINCINNATI -- When Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber talked to WCPO in Cincinnati last May, he didn't sound like he had much hope of keeping the Crew in Columbus.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the City of Columbus had sued to stop Crew owner Anthony Precourt's planned move to Austin, Texas, but Garber scoffed at the lawsuit, saying it didn't have merit.
Within an hour after awarding an MLS franchise to FC Cincinnati, Garber said Columbus needed what FC Cincinnati has – local owners, corporate sponsors, a large fan base and a new stadium.
— Evan Millward (@EvanMillward) May 30, 2018
“Putting the lawsuit aside, our people have met with the mayor and the head of the Columbus partnership as recently as a few weeks ago trying to see is there a way that team could stay in Columbus,” Garber said. “Is there an ownership group that could come together and partner locally? Is there a stadium site that could be dramatically different than the one that they have now, which long-term is not sustainable? Is there a way the partnership can deliver the kind of corporate support that this team (FC Cincinnati) has playing in a lower division?”
It seems Columbus got the message, and now Crew fans who have been rallying to #SaveTheCrew may get their wish.
Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam announced Friday that he is part of an ownership group negotiating to buy the Crew and keep it in Columbus. MLS issued a statement acknowledging that it wants the Crew to stay in Columbus and that sale talks with Precourt are well underway. MLS said it would award a new Austin team to Precourt as part of the deal.
In a statement on Twitter, Haslam said he and his wife "are hopeful to be part of the solution to keep the Crew in Columbus."
A statement from Dee and Jimmy Haslam on the Columbus Crew: pic.twitter.com/tSovbEKZ8G
— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) October 12, 2018
New ownership is probably going to expect local governments to help build a new stadium for the Crew. A group called “Save the Crew” recently announced plans for a new downtown stadium in a location more to MLS's liking than its current spot north of downtown.
Haslam and the Columbus-based Edwards family are joining forces with Columbus investors, according to an MLS statement.
"Major League Soccer and the Columbus Partnership have been working together for several months on a plan to keep Crew SC in Columbus and we have made significant progress.
"Recently, the Haslam Family – along with the Columbus-based Edwards Family, have joined the effort to keep Crew SC in Columbus.
"MLS, the Columbus Partnership and the investor group all agree that for the Club to be successful in Columbus, it requires strong local partners, long-term corporate support, a strong season ticket base and long-term plans for a stadium, practice facilities and associated sites.
"MLS is committed to keeping Crew SC in Columbus should we continue to make progress on these critical components and agree to key terms with the investor group."
You have to think MLS interceded to put Haslam and Precourt together since Precourt's plan to move the Crew had been bogged down by lawsuits in Columbus and Austin. The league thanked Precourt for his "cooperation" in resolving the situation.
"MLS recognizes the cooperation Precourt Sports Ventures has demonstrated throughout the process to date.
"MLS also remains very committed to PSV’s plan to launch an MLS Club in Austin and is excited for Austin to become a great addition to MLS. We will continue to work with PSV and the City of Austin on the timing around the launch of Austin FC.
"While timing for Austin FC is still to be finalized, we are confident that the team will begin play no later than 2021 at the new, privately financed stadium and soccer park at McKalla Place. We applaud the Austin community, city leaders and Precourt Sports Ventures for their commitment to making this happen.”
The announcement is good news for FC Cincinnati fans, too, since Columbus-Cincinnati would make a naturally fierce MLS rivalry. The two teams were pitted in the fourth round of last year's U.S. Open Cup, won by FC Cincinnati. The matchup was nicknamed “Hell is Real Derby” because of the infamous sign on I-71 between the two cities.
Last year, FC Cincinnati stunned the Crew 1-0 in front of an electric crowd of 30,160 fans at Nippert Stadium, which then was a modern era, non-finals Cup attendance record that far surpassed expectations for a midweek, non-league game.
“I love rivalries,” FC Cincinnati coach Alan Koch said recently when asked about whether he hopes the Crew stays in Columbus. “We've obviously played them in one competitive game in (the 2017 U.S.) Open Cup, but we went up earlier this year and played against them in a friendly and it's great having other professional clubs nearby because you obviously have those rivals, but you can also be there to help each other out."
While Precourt argued that the Crew, founded in 1996 as one of the original MLS teams, was no longer viable in Columbus, loyal Crew fans have been trying to drum up support using the hashtag #SaveThe Crew.
Precourt, who is from California and has no ties to Columbus, pointed to slumping attendance, complained about lack of business and community support and said MAPFRE Stadium was too small and outdated. it was the first soccer-specific stadium built in the U.S.
The Crew has the lowest home attendance in MLS this year, averaging just 12,120 fans. It was higher last year- 15,439- before Precourt threatened to move. The Crew's 2018 average is less than half the 25,000 that FC Cincinnati averages at Nippert Stadium this year.
But Friday's announcement - if it culminates in the sale of the team to Haslam and company - is sure to reinvigorate Columbus' passion for the Crew.
Meanwhile, soccer fans in Austin have to be pleased that the impasse there has been broken. The city council recently voted to authorize negotiation and execution of agreements with Precourt Sports Ventures to build a stadium on the 24-acre, city-owned McKalla Place site, but they couldn't tell when or if a team would be playing in it.
Austin is the largest city in America without a major league sports franchise.
This story includes previous reporting by WCPO Contributor Laurel Pfahler.