MLS in Austin: Someday, Someway
It won’t be the Crew, but there will be an Austin FC, league suggests
The Columbus Crew SC may not be coming to Austin after all, but several sources indicate the Austin FC will hit the new pitch at McKalla Place in the coming years. No one can say with certainty when that will happen, but a source close to the discussion between Major League Soccer and Precourt Sports Ventures said a 2019 launch date was not out of the question.
Late Friday afternoon, officials with MLS revealed that a new owners' group led by Jimmy Haslam (who owns the Cleveland Browns, and whose brother Bill is governor of Tennessee) has made "significant progress" on keeping the Crew in Ohio. To Austin soccer fans, MLS said there was still a "clear path forward" to help PSV bring an Austin FC to town as one of the league's newest clubs.
How the Austin team will join the league remains unclear. PSV would likely not have to go through the league's expansion process, which comes with a $150 million price tag. Because PSV is already a league operator, MLS could just give the group a new team to launch in Austin, which could consist of the Crew's staff and players or be built from scratch, depending on what deal Haslam strikes with MLS.
Either way, says PSV's Austin-based lobbyist Richard Suttle, the outcome is looking good for Austin soccer fans. "From what I hear from MLS, once the lease is signed on the stadium site here, Austin has a team one way or the other," Suttle said Tuesday. Haslam's potential deal with MLS would also make the lawsuit brought by Ohio Attorney General (and gubernatorial candidate) Mike DeWine effectively moot.
The delicacy surrounding a PSV Austin deal likely reflects MLS's desire to avoid frustrating the four cities currently vying for two expansion slots in the league. MLS aims to add five teams to its current 23; Cincinnati, Miami, and Nashville will each field a team over the next two years, and Detroit, Sacramento, San Diego, and St. Louis have been vying to complete the field. One of those cities would likely have its spot handed to Austin if PSV moves forward here.
Whatever MLS and PSV settle on, however, is having little impact on city staffers who are working to finalize Austin's deal with PSV. One city official pointed out on Friday that the term sheet City Council approved in August doesn't specify whether the MLS team is existing or new, just that it would take the field at the McKalla Place stadium by 2021. City Media Relations Manager David Green concurred in a statement issued Friday: "From the City of Austin's perspective this does not change the terms of the ongoing negotiations between the City and Precourt Sports Ventures."
Mayor Steve Adler saw the news as a positive sign, calling it a "win-win-win" on Friday. "Columbus gets a team, we get a team, and MLS ends up in Austin," he said, after a conversation with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and PSV operator Anthony Precourt. But Council Member Leslie Pool, whose District 7 includes the stadium site, was less enthusiastic; on Friday, she renewed her call for Council to consider other development proposals for the 24-acre site. On Monday, Pool told the Chronicle she's not against soccer in Austin, just the way it's gotten here.
"It's never been about soccer, the game. It's about the person who wants to do business with us, who wants us to give him gifts," Pool said. "The process has been the problem. It should be an embarrassment to the city. I would like Austin to have a soccer team, but I want the city to do right by its taxpayers and residents."
Although no deal between the city and PSV has been signed (city officials expect that to happen soon), Pool said it would be possible to bring a new agenda item to the dais that would renew discussion of options for McKalla Place. Such a move would complicate efforts to bring an MLS team to Austin, but Pool said it would benefit the city, because Precourt acted "as if he had a team to bring to Austin" and that he needed to do so under a strict deadline. The news Friday has left a bad taste in Pool's mouth: "I just don't find Precourt to be especially trustworthy as a partner."