COLUMBUS, Ohio - San Antonio's chances to land an MLS franchise may have taken a huge hit.
The owner of the Columbus Crew SC is considering moving the franchise to Austin in 2019 unless the city of Columbus, Ohio, can come up with a plan for a new downtown stadium.
Anthony Precourt, whose Precourt Sports Ventures has owned the Major League Soccer club since 2013, said Tuesday the Crew needs more fan and financial support to compete in the growing league, and a new stadium in the urban center is the only way to make it work.
The Crew currently plays in 17-year-old Mapfre Stadium, about four miles north of downtown Columbus. They are one of Major League Soccer's original franchises.
The team will be back in Ohio's capital city for 2018, Precourt said, but its future beyond that depends on which city steps up first.
"Despite all the efforts to move the needle beyond on-the-field success, our business is struggling to keep pace with the rising standards of major league soccer," Precourt said in a conference call with reporters. "The club historically and presently has challenges with match-day attendance, with growing our season-ticket base, with demand for corporate sponsorship and with relevance. The stadium and site are challenges in Columbus."
The Crew is 20th in attendance this season out of 22 MLS teams with an average of 15,439, despite making the playoffs. The capacity is 19,968.
Austin is the largest market in North America without a major league sports franchise, and the city is receptive.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler was interviewed Tuesday morning by Fox 7 and said he believes MLS soccer would have a supportive fan base in Austin, but he would not support public financing for a new stadium.
Precourt declined to comment about any talks that could result in a new downtown soccer-specific stadium there.
He dispelled rumors that the team has an agreement to play temporarily at the University of Texas stadium in 2019 while a new stadium is built.
Precourt called Austin "the most attractive untapped market in the United States for MLS soccer." The city already has submitted a bid for an MLS expansion team.
San Antonio has also submitted a bid. But Tuesday's news would ruin those chances.
"Well, if it's true, it's not good news," San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg said.
Sports Illustrated soccer insider Grant Wahl spoke about the potential move on Fox Sports and said Columbus' relocation to Austin "would kill" San Antonio's chances of getting an MLS franchise.
Wahl said MLS would not want four teams in the state of Texas. He added MLS is still on track to announce the league's next two expansion franchises in December.
San Antonio FC responded to the news via Twitter with a statement that read in part:
"The expansion of Major League Soccer to include San Antonio FC remains a focus of the organization"
Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said he had met with team ownership about solutions to keep the team in the city but complained that he didn't get "full engagement."
City officials didn't know about a potential move until the public announcement Tuesday, he said.
"We were surprised to learn of their decision in this way," Ginther said in a statement. "Losing the Crew to another city would be a huge disappointment to their loyal and growing fan base in Columbus."
Alex Fischer, of the Columbus Partnership -- a consortium of CEOs and business leaders -- told The Columbus Dispatch that a group of business leaders approached Precourt with offers to buy Crew SC outright and to go into a 50-50 partnership, both of which were rejected.
But Precourt said Tuesday that his discussions with potential investors in the team were all attached to a plan for a new stadium.
Precourt said he approached Columbus business leaders last year and was clear about the problems.
"We have engaged the community privately since the beginning of 2016 about our business issues, and made it clear that we would potentially start to explore strategic alternatives if the business didn't improve," he said.
He said three potential stadium sites have been identified in Columbus, but he declined to comment on them.
"We are not asking for public tax dollars and we are not asking either city to build a stadium for us," he said.
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