The groundwork for the transfer of power in Columbus started about a year ago with an ambitious, young investor seeking an opportunity in professional sports.
The decision to train his sights in Columbus came about a bit later. Precourt expressed his interest in MLS last year. Discussions with Hunt Sports Group commenced about four months ago as the Hunt family pursued minority investors for the Crew. Although HSG's search initially focused on local options, Precourt – a Denver native now based in San Francisco – sent out feelers anyways.
“The Hunts were really seeking a local minority investor,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said after MLS W.O.R.K.S. and Sporting Kansas City opened a new futsal court at Wyandotte High School on Tuesday afternoon. “They were not looking to sell the team. We were not pressuring them to sell the team. As the discussions proceeded and as Anthony got more and more engaged with MLS and did more and more due diligence, he said, hey, I want to own all of this team. He was able to convince the Hunt family to sell him 100 percent interest in the club.”
The combination of financial considerations (the sale of the Crew and Crew Stadium for an undisclosed, yet apparently robust, sum created a return on many, many years of investment in MLS) and logistical realities (HSG operates FC Dallas and functions primarily in Texas, albeit with one significant holding in Kansas City) likely made the task easier than publicly professed. Precourt accomplished his goal and secured his team in relatively short order. HSG exited the scene gracefully by selling up to an investor/operator committed to keeping the club in Columbus.
The changing of the guard occurred on Tuesday morning. Clark Hunt spoke about the importance of Crew Stadium and the success achieved during the last 18 years. Columbus mayor Michael B. Coleman thanked the Hunts for their contributions and welcomed Precourt to town. And Precourt stepped into the spotlight and shared a rough outline for the future.
“Being here today in Columbus as the new Crew chairman is a huge honor for me, it’s a fulfillment of a lifelong dream,” Precourt said during a press conference in Columbus on Tuesday. “This club, and any sports franchise for that matter, should be a sacred community asset – that is how we’re going to treat the Crew. Our goal will be to take the Crew to be one of the standard bearers in the league, a league I believe is going places fast. I see so much opportunity here in Columbus – it’s a dynamic growing city, it’s got incredible soccer heritage, and a passionate supporters' fan base. We have all the resources we need to make the Crew increasingly relevant locally and nationally, stronger financially and more competitive on the field.”
It will inevitably take some time for Precourt to chart a new course for the Crew. He faces challenges to create new revenue streams in one of the league's smaller markets and increase the viability of Crew Stadium as a venue over the long-term. He must also weigh the future of the brand itself (he told the club website he loves the colors and the name, but he suggested he might introduce a new logo) and the technical staff in the wake of indifferent results and widespread supporter unrest.
Precourt will confront those issues over the next few weeks and months, but he quickly turned his attentions to his new duties as an investor/operator on the league level. He hopped on a flight from Columbus to Kansas City on Tuesday afternoon and mingled with league executives and staffers on Tuesday night. He will likely receive a warm welcome when the board of governors meets on Wednesday morning, one of his first official acts as Crew investor/operator.
The sale marks yet another step forward for a league quietly fostering its growth on and off the field. Precourt's decision to purchase in Columbus cultivates the impression of demand and secures another new and presumably stable investor for some time to come. And the transaction also carries the added benefit of diversifying the investor/operator base even further.
“It's been a long time from our days when we had three owners owning all of our teams,” Garber said. “And now we are set to have 20 teams and – with the exception of the 50 percent ownership Phil Anschutz has in Houston – we have one team and one owner. That's been a goal of this league since 2002.”
More than a few constituencies met their objectives on Tuesday. Columbus kept its team. Hunt Sports Group finally sold its secondary side. MLS bolstered its hand by tempting a fresh investor to purchase in one of the league's smallest markets for a tidy sum. And, most importantly, Precourt fulfilled his desire to invest in a professional sports franchise by assuming full control over the Crew.