When asked for a full transcript of the Major League Soccer State of the League press conference held on Dec. 8, a league spokesman said one did not exist. So the Statesman decided to transcribe the questions and answers pertaining to the potential relocation of the Columbus Crew to Austin. Below is a transcript of relevant comments, questions and answers pertaining to the potential Crew move to Austin and MLS expansion. We lead with Alexi Lalas’ specific question on the “Austin clause” that has been floated by some media members since Precourt Sports Ventures announced its intention to look into relocating the Crew.
State of the League Address Dec. 8:
Alexi Lalas, FOX Sports: Do you think it’s disingenuous from you as the league or Anthony Precourt to not have made it public that this move was contractually based at the time of the sale?
Don Garber, Major League Soccer Commissioner: I don’t think so, Alexi. We have a wide variety of things we do when we are in the process of building this league and bringing in owners. At the time Anthony came in, that was a team we were struggling to get a local owner for. We didn’t find that to be successful. We found a guy from San Francisco to do it. The alternative is Anthony doesn’t buy the team — and I’m not quite sure whether that team would have continued — and we are one team fewer and we are not as successful as we are today.
We are a private business. All teams can, in any league — if they satisfy the test as to whether or not the factors are not existing for them to be successful — could come to the league and try to determine whether or not that team can move. You’ve seen in it in the NFL and you’ve seen it in other leagues for generations. In this case, we did what we needed to do in order to get an owner to come in and buy that team.
He remains, by the way, committed to being successful. He put money into the stadium, he rebranded the club, he hired among the top coaches in the league, he invested in his players. So this thought that he was not committed to Columbus is just not true.
Garber addresses “situation with the Columbus Crew” and expansion in his opening remarks:
DG: First I want to start off by congratulating Gregg Berhalter and his players on an incredible run deep into the MLS Cup Playoffs, their third postseason appearance during the past four seasons — the years that Anthony Precourt has owned the team.
I want to take this opportunity to make our position very clear. Like every professional sports league, we never want to relocate a team. While no decision has been made to relocate the Crew, MLS is supportive of the Precourt Sports Ventures’ efforts to explore their options in Austin. Ownership remains very interested, as they’ve stated from the very beginning of this process, in exchanging ideas with the Mayor of Columbus and with other city leaders, and ways to address the challenges that have prevented the Crew from succeeding in Major League Soccer. The Mayor (Andrew Ginther) and city leaders have said to us they will only engage in those discussions if the club’s ownership discontinues any ongoing discussions in the city of Austin. That’s just not possible at this point, so the ball is in the city (of Columbus’s) court.
Looking forward and ahead to 2018, our 23rd team will take the field next year in LA with the debut of LAFC. It’s being led by veteran coach Bob Bradley, they’ve signed their first two designated players — Mexican National Team player Carlos Vela and a great Egyptian National Team player Omar Gaber. They’ll be playing in this brand new stadium that will open up on time, ahead of schedule and on budget in downtown Los Angeles. As all of you know with the planned addition of Miami and four other major markets coming into MLS over the next number of seasons, we will become a 28-team league establishing a footprint across all of North America in our mission to grow this game on and off the field.
On Wednesday, our MLS expansion committee, chaired by Jonathan Kraft, met with officials from the four finalists for the next two teams: Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento. All four are outstanding soccer markets represented by established sports and business leaders who believe in what an MLS team can do to help their communities. Expansion will be one of the main focal points of our board meeting and will take place next Thursday in New York City.
Michael Lewis, Front Row Soccer: Given what you had said about Columbus with the blowback and reaction that has been out there, and the renewed interest within Columbus, is there anything that can change the league’s mind in terms of moving the Crew to Austin?
DG: Let me be clear, Michael, it’s not the league’s decision. It’s the league’s approval of an owner decision to determine whether or not moving out of Columbus is something that would make sense for Precourt Sports Ventures. It requires club (sic) approval but it’s a decision that ultimately is made by the owner. We have said all along, and this was led by Anthony’s initial comments, that he would pursue a parallel path — a path to see if his situation can improve in the city of Columbus, at the same time determining whether or not there was a viable option in Austin. What has happened of late is that we were told they would not continue discussions with Anthony if he was going to pursue this parallel path. I assume that will change. I hope it changes, because I think we need to have that debate. There has been talk about owners coming together; Anthony is not interested in selling the team. There’s talk about stadium opportunities which I think are intriguing. So we need to all get back together and see if there is an opportunity to determine two possibilities.
ML: As a follow-up, I saw a video today of you and Taylor Twellman. He had asked you about the chance of the Crew remaining in Columbus and you said ‘Absolutely.’ Could you elaborate on that?
DG: I think if they’re able to address some of the concerns that we’ve been experiencing in that city for many years, it’s conceivable that the team could stay. I know many of you, as I look around, have been around our league for a long time. It’s a legacy team, and it’s traumatic when an owner and a league is willing to move a team — whether it’s a legacy team for 20 years or in other leagues when they’ve been around for 50. But you need to be in a situation where you can be viable. As we have new teams coming in that are deeply connected in the community, have dramatically more commercial revenue, higher fan bases, all the measures that matter, what we’ve been experiencing in Columbus for many years — and we’ve been somewhat quiet about this — it is among the lowest teams. Twenty out of 22 in in every measure that matters in pro sports: average ticket price, average attendance, average revenue, their local television ratings, their local television deal. Every aspect that is going to determine whether a team can be viable. And as our league continues to move in the right direction, we need to have strong clubs. So there’s a lot that needs to happen to address those situations, and it started in a productive way with the Mayor and with the head of the Columbus Partnership. I hope those discussions continue, and if they lead to something that makes sense it’s conceivable the team could stay.
Brian Straus, Sports Illustrated: What we saw in Kansas City was a market that we questioned, and then with new ownership they became a flagship. Same city, same people, same infrastructure. Why is what’s going on in Columbus a reflection of the market and not the owner?
DG: Because those issues, Brian, have been going on almost since the beginning. It was before I came to MLS, but the first year was remarkable. Lamar Hunt went in and said, ‘I’ll think of Columbus as an inaugural team.’ You need to have a local ticket campaign. I think they had 10,000 season tickets, and then almost since then — after the stadium was built, it took a couple years for that to settle in — we’ve been struggling to resonate in that market.
I made this comment in an interview with somebody this morning, and I’ll say it again: the Hunt Sports Group, when they owned the team, invested over $200 million in that team. Anthony Precourt has invested nearly $40 million. You can read what investment and loss, kind of synonymous. We’ve had those challenges for a long time. So we don’t think that it’s an issue of ownership. Anthony has done a very good job. He’s invested a lot of money. He’s not getting enough credit for that, he’s got one of the more successful teams on the field, and generally when you have success …
We had not had that in Kansas City, and we were playing in a very different environment not in a soccer-specific stadium. We were playing in Arrowhead (Stadium). That dynamic was not about owner, it was some issues that we had in the market. So I can only say that you have to be strong and viable with every team if you’re going to continue to move forward. As hard as it is, and it’s not fun and I will say that I feel for the fans in that market, I am fully understanding of the challenges that they see and how disappointed they are. But we need to try to find a way to ensure that that team can be an MLS 2.0 team to be able to compete like a small market can. Portland would be an example, Kansas City is another example, and I think many of the expansion teams that have bid have been small markets, some of them even smaller than Columbus.
You have a team down the road in Cincinnati that’s averaging over 20,000 fans a game. The presentation that Carl Lindner and Jeff (Berding) made to us the other day, it’s just hard to imagine that they are separated by 150 miles. It’s just incredible the difference between those two, and they’re playing in the lower division.
*MAPFRE Stadium is 110 miles from Nippert (Cincinnati’s) Stadium.
Paul Kennedy, Soccer America: Is there a chance that one of the two teams that you pick for expansion next week, or perhaps a third team of the four up for expansion would move ahead of Miami and begin before Miami either in 2019 to fill that 24th slot or in 2020?
DG: It’s conceivable. It’s conceivable that could happen.
Matt Pentz, ESPN: Doesn’t relocation, even the specter of it, kind of undermine that mission (to positively impact communities)? Why would cities engage with the league on that level if they might be taken away?
DG: There’s a difference between community engagement and philanthropy. MLS Works is a philanthropic program. It’s executives, coaches, players and league resources engaging in philanthropy. It could be childhood cancer, or it could be greener goals, or it could be our advocacy for “Don’t Cross the Line” and all the positive messages that come out of that. There’s no doubt that teams and leagues don’t like to move teams. You do it as a last resort decision. Clearly it’s something that has trauma to the system, and we understand that. We don’t blame anybody for that. It’s something we’re going to have to utilize as part of our decision-making progress (sic) as we try to continue to grow the league.
Ian Thomas, Sports Business Journal: You had mentioned that it wasn’t possible at this point to fulfill the desire of Columbus (leaders) to discontinue discussions in Austin. Why, and what sort of discussions were ongoing before all of this began?
DG: I’ll start way before Anthony Precourt owned the team. In 2008, the Hunt Sports Group had owned multiple teams. As part of the agreement, and this is not something that has ever been publicized, that we had with Phil Anschutz and the Hunt family to save MLS, was a commitment as they were investing in owning all those teams to sell those teams so that we could get down to one team, one owner. We were very, very effectively successful at that with Phil Anschutz selling his last 50 percent increase in the Houston Dynamo to Gabriel Brener. The Hunts owned three teams, now they own one.
As part of the process in 2008, they had been trying to find local owners. By the way, they hired an Ohio-based investment bank, graduates of Ohio State University, with the sole focus to find a local owner. There was not any success to that whatsoever. There was a negotiation with one local owner who made an offer for the team that valued it so low that it would be inconceivable that we would have approved the sale of that team.
When there was no success in the local sales process, the Hunts then hired a broader nationally-based sports investment banker and that’s how we found Anthony Precourt. So I want to point out that this process has been going on for some time. During that process, and I participated in that, we had a Goal 10K. We went and met with Mayor (Michael B.) Coleman, we met with the previous governor of the state of Ohio (Ted Strickland), we met with civic leaders. I went out and made season ticket sales calls with Lamar (Hunt) to try to get people to engage with this team. So this is not new.
Anthony had reached out to the community to see if they can get support for their commercial partners: the jersey sponsor and the stadium partner. It’s the lowest in Major League Soccer, and that was at a point where the city was trying to help. We are where we are not as a surprise to any of us and frankly to the city, but it’s a surprise to the fans and I understand that.
Ives Galarcep, Goal.com: How concerned are you that it is going to make things tougher as you pursue other expansion markets and opportunities now that you are going to get those markets’ politicians questioning “Why should we invest, why should we help fund a team, build a stadium, if there’s that kind of uncertainty around MLS teams?”
DG: I haven’t experience that yet. Three of the four bidding cities had their mayors along, and one of them had their mayor and their ex-mayor in Sacramento. I don’t see that, because I think there is a real local focus and passion that starts at the municipal level. In the case of Sacramento, this was started as Kevin Johnson’s dream. Detroit Mayor (Mike) Duggan’s brother has been an owner in the minor leagues for 25 years and he played competitively in college. The level of municipal and public support is significant, and we haven’t seen that in Columbus.
I’d almost put it around the other way. Maybe Columbus should look at what Detroit and Nashville and Cincinnati and Sacramento are doing and think maybe if this thing is turned from what it was to where it needs to be, that the Crew might have been more successful.
Dan Courtemanche, MLS Executive Vice President, Communications: One quick note on moving clubs: Since MLS started in 1996, we’ve moved one club. Major League Baseball has also moved one club, the three other leagues have moved more than one club. So just a quick stat there.
Ives Galarcep: How are you feeling about the process in Miami? What is the process?
DG: It is the most complicated situation of any market that we’ve experienced, at least in my 18 years. Part of it has been complicated by the Miami market generally. It’s a difficult sports market. The second part of that is that it’s one of the fastest-growing value markets as it relates to their real estate. Third is the political structure. There’s a variety of different mayors for the same space. And then part of it is we’ve needed a local owner because we’ve seen that at least in the success of some of those Miami teams, having a local owner has been one of the factors of the three major league teams that have had issues. The one that hasn’t is because they’ve had a very strong local owner.
We’ve needed to get a finalization on that land. The lawsuit on that land was just settled. The appeal to that was turned down last week. We’ve been working very hard on trying to find a local owner for David Beckham. I feel confident that will come together, so I continue to say that we want Miami in the league. It’s a large market, it’s a gateway city. There are a lot of values to us having a team down there and I remain confident that we’ll get something done.