Never mind the sketchy history of Austin pro soccer, which includes several teams folding and another moving out of town.
Columbus Crew SC ownership, who intend to relocate their Major League Soccer franchise to Austin in 2019 if a stadium deal can be secured, spent Wednesday extolling the virtues of this market for their sport.
“Austin is the best untapped market in the United States for MLS,” Anthony Precourt, chief executive officer of Precourt Sports Ventures, told the American-Statesman. “I think it has a chance to be an MLS 3.0 club right out of the gate,” referring to the league’s highest franchise designation.
Crew SC ownership spent much of the day meeting individually with Austin media outlets at Elizabeth Christian Public Relations firm said a proven soccer track record isn’t a prerequisite if the city checks off enough other boxes.
“Did you anticipate that Atlanta would be a good soccer market a year ago?” Precourt said. “Did you anticipate Orlando would be a good soccer market a few years ago? Portland?
“There were concerns about Atlanta being over-saturated and their hockey team left. They’ve been extraordinary. Out of the box, they’ve pulled 70,000 fans their last three games. They qualified for the playoffs in their first year.”
Atlanta leads MLS with an average of 46,721 fans per home match. Orlando sells out virtually every game, averaging 25,028. Portland is more than 21,000.
“When (former Aztex owner) Phil Rawlins left Austin for Orlando, it wasn’t on the soccer map. Now look at what they’ve accomplished. With the attendance they had in a temporary facility, they were able to build a downtown stadium that’s gorgeous.
“Those are some of the examples of the vision we have for Austin.”
Several times during the 30-minute interview, Precourt mentioned that any possible move is predicated on finding a suitable stadium site in Austin. And he kept the door slightly ajar for Columbus if it agrees to build a new stadium.
“We have a team, we can privately finance a stadium with no public tax dollars,” he said. “So that leaves one critical piece to the puzzle: Finding the right stadium site. That’s what we’ll be focusing on.”
Crew SC ownership drew no timeline for the decision nor answered questions about how much money is needed. They are looking for private investors. They also are adamant that they are not playing Austin against Columbus.
“Let’s be explicitly clear: There is no leverage game here,” said Dave Greeley, president of Precourt Sports Ventures. “This is about creating the foundation for an ambitious soccer club that can be fully celebrated by its entire community. And we want to explore Austin as our potential home.”
Precourt and Greeley said they are not entertaining offers to sell the club and are not eyeing any other cities, although they’ve been contacted by many of them.
“The team is not for sale,” Precourt said. “Why would I put myself through all of this, publicly, if I was selling? We will look for investors, but we want to be controlling owners and run the team.”
Greeley added, “It would be pretty easy to call any one of the 12 (cities) on the MLS expansion list and say, ‘You don’t have to work this beauty pageant. We’ve got a team for you.’ No, Precourt Sports Ventures are the long-term committed owners of this franchise and, if we can find the right stadium site, we want to come to Austin, Texas.”
Precourt said he has not met Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein, an avid soccer supporter who has announced plans to bring a USL team back to Austin in 2019. Greeley said he had a few conversations with Epstein in 2015 when Columbus had an affiliation with the Austin Aztex.
“We look forward to visiting with Bobby and getting to know him,” Greeley said.
Columbus ownership insisted Austin is an ideal market, even though Texas’ two MLS teams — FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo — are struggling to draw fans, and oppressive heat is cited as one reason.
“I think Austin is extremely active and vibrant at night,” Precourt said, smiling. “Our kickoffs are at 7:30 p.m. I see people hanging out on Rainey Street or walking around Sixth Street at night. It’s not too hot and humid for them.”