CINCINNATI -- Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has said regional rivalries help the league thrive, but Columbus Crew SC owner and operator Anthony Precourt might not feel the same way when it comes to his club.
Precourt seemed to express some reluctance about the idea of FC Cincinnati moving up to MLS in a question-and-answer session with the Columbus Dispatch, which was published in July. Crew director of communications Tim Miller referenced the article to WCPO when asked for a statement about the club's thoughts on the possibility of Cincinnati moving up to MLS.
Cincinnati submitted its application for MLS expansion on Jan. 31 and is among 12 markets being considered to fill four remaining spots in the league's plans to grow to 28 teams.
"First of all, I'd say that Cincinnati is a great market for Crew SC," Precourt told the Dispatch. "We've got a lot season-ticket holders coming up from Cincinnati for our games. The second thing I'd say is I cheer for club soccer in America. So, the early success they've had is great to see. It's great for the sport and they should be proud of what they've done. I hope that it's sustainable. They've got out of the gates fast. Let's see if they can keep it up. It has worked so far. I'm a new member of the MLS expansion committee, which is a sub-committee of the board. We're charged with looking at markets for expansion, and it'll be interesting to see how Cincinnati does down the road."
Since that interview, FC Cincinnati out-sold the Crew for 2016, averaging 17,296 and ranking 16th among professional soccer clubs in the U.S. and Canada for attendance. The Crew was No. 17 with 17,125 fans per game last year. FC Cincinnati broke the United Soccer League's single-season attendance, set the league's single-game record at 24,376 tickets sold and surpassed 10,000 season tickets for 2017.
Precourt is joined on the MLS expansion committee by representatives of four other clubs, including Jonathan Kraft (New England Revolution), Andrew Hauptman (Chicago Fire), Phil Rawlins (Orlando City SC) and Jay Sugarman (Philadelphia Union). All five clubs play in the Eastern Conference.
Aside from Precourt's ability to provide input to the committee, the Crew has no grounds to prevent Cincinnati from expansion. MLS rules state that clubs can only block markets within a 75-mile radius. About 120 miles separate Cincinnati and Columbus.
When asked after the expansion application deadline last week for a statement from Precourt regarding the pool of candidates, Miller said Precourt would not speak specifically on any market; however, in the statement provided to WCPO.com, Precourt had a slightly more positive tone regarding the nearby markets in the mix.
The other markets to apply were: Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg.
"MLS is experiencing meteoric growth and to see expansion bids from 12 markets is exciting and remarkable and a testament to the growth of soccer in our country," Precourt said in the statement provided to WCPO.com. "These 12 expansion applications come from all over the United States and it is exciting to see several markets close to Columbus in the applicant pool, including: Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Our Crew SC supporters have a chance to see some healthy new regional rivalries develop within MLS in the coming years."
Under Precourt's ownership, which began in 2013, the club has focused its attention on reaching the half-million soccer fans in the Columbus area, as determined by market research, but the Crew still has been known as a regional team.
At one point, under previous ownership, it was determined that about 40 percent of fans came from outside the Columbus-Franklin County area. Miller could not provide more recent figures regarding its fan base demographics.
FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding told WCPO.com last year that he doesn't consider the Crew competition for the fan market.
"They obviously do a great job," Berding said. "They are one of the founding franchises of the MLS. We are by no means comparing ourselves to the Crew. They are enormously successful and have done a great job. We're a startup. People that want to see MLS soccer, they are going to go to Columbus, and they do a great job.
"Certainly, to an extent," he continued, "people want to come to the hometown team and support their hometown team and, we think, see soccer at a very high level, as led by John Harkes, They don't necessarily have to go up to Columbus every time. They are getting something here right in their backyard."
FC Cincinnati fan Amy Meyer, a 27-year-old East Walnut Hills resident, said she doesn't believe the Crew's attendance would see a negative impact should FC Cincinnati move up to MLS. She has been going to Crew games at least once a year for the past five seasons as a way to reconnect with some of her college friends in Columbus.
"I doubt there are a ton of fans in Cincinnati who are driving up to Columbus every single game," Meyer said. "Most of those people probably were like us, going up one or two times a year, because you have to make hotel plans and schedule it out more. Now we're all just going to a lot more games with a team in Cincinnati. I think it would be fun to have an MLS rivalry with the Crew."
Meyer's fiance, Kristofer Lindquist, said he would still go to Crew games even if Cincinnati were included in MLS expansion.
"There are a lot of similar things about the two clubs," Lindquist said. "They both have lots of support, and the games are fun. We still went to Crew games even after buying season tickets to FC Cincinnati games, and we got some of our friends from Columbus to go to a game here, too. It's the closest MLS team we have right now, so I enjoy going, but even if FC Cincinnati were MLS, I would still want to go to Crew games, too. I think there would be a bigger rivalry, and that would make it a lot of fun."
MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott indicated during a conference call with media last week that geography would factor into the decision on which four markets to choose for expansion, but noted "it is too early to tell how much of a factor it will play."
The majority of the 10 clubs in the Eastern Conference are located in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern parts of the country and Canada.
"Geography is a factor you think about, but it actually can cut both ways," Abbott said. "You both think about the country and how to get broad coverage of our country, which is obviously quite large, but I think one of the core competitive advantages or identities of our league are these great rivalries we have. A lot of those rivalries have close geographic proximity. Geography is a factor, but it doesn't cut just one way when we think about what are the best four markets to select."