MLS has had a slow rise in terms of popularity. For much of it’s history it languished miles behind all of the other American sports in terms of attendance and viewership. Recently things have been looking up for MLS, with attendance records being smashed by newcomers Atlanta United and an all time high viewership. While this newfound success should be celebrated, the clubs that toiled through years in an unpopular league shouldn’t be forgotten. These clubs provided the base that allowed the league to grow into what it is today.
One of these clubs is the Columbus Crew. The Columbus Crew were one of 10 founding teams in the MLS in 1996. For the first five years of its existence MLS bled money, resulting with a few teams folding due to financial difficulties. Despite this the league continued to persevere and expand. The Crew played a vital role in this by building the first ever soccer-specific stadium in the MLS. The clubs commitment to expanding the presence of the sport in Ohio has also lead to development of a professional soccer team in Cincinnati.
The Columbus Crew has had mixed success, with their only MLS Cup success coming in 2008. Despite this they have had a consistently dedicated group of supporters. While the core supporter group remains active and loyal overall attendance has not been stellar compared to other MLS teams, partly due to the relatively small capacity of the stadium (approximately 20,000). Because of this the owner of the club, Anthony Precourt, has decided to uproot the club and move it to a more profitable market: Austin, Texas. The deal has not been finalized as of yet, but all indicators point to it being finalized after the conclusion of the city.
An additional part of Precourts motivation to move the crew is that he wants a new stadium built, preferably with the money of the city of Columbus. The Mapfre stadium that hosts the club is less than 20 years old, making a significant investment into a new stadium an unjustifiable expense for the city of Columbus. This trend of sports team’s owners demanding new stadiums funded by public money is not a new trend, and has been seen for decades in the NFL and NBA.
If this were allowed to happen in the MLS it would potentially undermine much of the progress that the league has made over the last two decades. It takes time to develop and maintain new fanbases as they come into the league and the knowledge that any of these teams could be taken away at the whim of an owner could make potential supporters wary. If MLS wants to approach the levels of fandom enjoyed by the best clubs in Europe it needs to adopt a model that puts the supporter first instead of the owner. Many clubs have developed their fanbase over the course of the last century, MLS supporters should be given this chance too.
While their future lies in the balance, the Crew are making the most of their season despite the turmoil surrounding the club. They’re currently in the midst of a deep playoff run, hoping to at least bring one last trophy to Columbus.