Bohls: With a key vote, activist Austin finally takes action on MLS

Aug 15, 2018
Jay Janner
McKalla Place, photographed on Tuesday May 15, 2018, is the leading site for a possible MLS soccer stadium. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Austin became a little more big-time on Wednesday.

The activist city finally took actual action.

After months and months of hand-wringing and consternation and stops and starts and threatened lawsuits and petitions and sniping from fan bases, the city that prides itself in its iconic weirdness finally acted out of character and went mainstream when the City Council formally approved a plan paving the way for Precourt Sports Ventures to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Austin.

“It’s been an emotionally taxing process,” said team owner Anthony Precourt, who was seen to be tearing up after the vote before he hopped on a plane for his San Francisco home. “A little bit of a wild ride along the way. It’s a tough situation when you’re relocating a team, and there are obviously a lot of emotions all the way around. But we want to be in Austin.

“Right now I’m just thankful we came to this deal with the City Council. After we celebrate that, we’ve got a lot of work in front of us.”

Lots of work.

Like a temporary stadium for two years (I’m betting on Dell Diamond since Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said Wednesday he’s had “no discussions” with Precourt’s people beyond hypotheticals. And Royal-Memorial Stadium is about to undergo a south end zone facelift starting next June, and Myers Stadium has the NCAA track championships the next two Junes.) Like a name (FC Austin or some other generic title). Like lawsuits and staff relocation and scheduling.

And so the largest city in America without a major professional sports franchise just scratched its name off that list with Wednesday’s decisive, 7-4 city council vote that should bring the transplanted Columbus Crew to the 512 as soon as next year. Cue the confetti.

“We can say we’re finally a major-league city,” said Richard Suttle, a lobbyist working for PSV.

Sure, there are still some legal issues pending, but the MLS office could go a long way toward resolving those by telling Columbus if it mobilizes for a new stadium and comes up with a new local ownership group, the MLS should put that city on top of the list for the next expansion wave.

Austin ranks as the 39th largest television market in the country with almost 800,000 TV households and sat devoid of pro sports entertainment at the top level while other lower-ranked cities like Oklahoma City (41st) goes bonkers over Russell Westbrook, Jacksonville (42nd) celebrates the rebirth of Blake Bortles as a team on the rise, Memphis (50th) wonders why the Grizzlies couldn’t get over the hump, New Orleans (51st) loves its Saints and Drew Brees, Buffalo (53rd) revels in all things Bills and even Green Bay-Appleton (69th) worships its Packers.

Austin didn’t need MLS, and MLS certainly didn’t need Austin. We’re not hurting for either growth or attention. After all, Austin wasn’t even one of the dozen cities on soccer’s expansion list. San Antonio was. Sorry, San Antonio, but at least you’ve got the Spurs and the Kawhi Leonard scrapbooks. But hey, 25 states don’t even have a pro sports team.

But this writer has always maintained pro sports is a quality of life issue. It’s not for everybody. But not everybody goes to our parks and libraries and the Lady Bird hike-and-bike trail or watch Fourth of July fireworks. Maybe half of Austin will never set foot in the new MLS stadium that will rise up from McKalla by 2021, but the other half might. And maybe a large portion of Austin just likes the prospect of having pro sports in our town.

It’s been a long time coming, and I ain’t talking the 10 months since we first heard Precourt’s name. Long before Precourt fell in love with Austin during his bachelor party here.

Anyone remember the Phoenix Firebirds? That Triple-A baseball franchise flirted with relocating in Austin years ago and would have cost each citizen the equivalent of a six-pack, but got soundly vetoed. The Express are playing at Dell Diamond in Round Rock, not Austin, for a reason.

Mark this down as a seminal moment for a city that loves its salamanders and its cars and its ban on plastic bags and will stage a protest over anything that 50 people find offensive. It’s an activist city, and for once it took bold, progressive action when it OK’d Precourt’s request to build a privately financed stadium on the 24-acre McKalla Place near the Domain in North Austin.

Austin got it done, and Mayor Steve Adler should take a well-deserved bow for shepherding this project through one minefield after another. He championed the cause and even suggested the name Austin United with the hope that soccer could help unify what can too often be a fractured city. Hey, anything that reverses the rampant and growing divisiveness in this country is a good thing.

So what’s next for Austin?

Amazon, you having second thoughts about that second headquarters? The water’s fine.

Next thing you know, we’ll have light rail up and running throughout the city.

But sports is on a real roll in our city no-limits.

Texas went back to the College World Series. McCallum football ventured into the rarefied air of the Westlakes and Lake Travis. The Longhorns made a bowl game. And won it.

The Austin RBI 18-under finished third at its World Series. Georgetown club pro Ben Kern was low pro at the PGA Championship, and Tiger Woods will be here for the WGC-Dell Technologies Championship next March.

And now we go from no professional soccer teams to two in the blink of an eye.

Next thing you know, maybe CodeNext will make a comeback.