Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt has confirmed reports he is considering moving the MLS franchise to Austin, Texas.
The Columbus Dispatch reported Monday that Precourt had grown frustrated with the club's declining revenue and attendance, with the Crew's average crowd of 15,439 ranking 20th out of the league's 22 clubs this season.
While Precourt did not confirm a date for the move, he did admit the team is looking at relocation options, with Austin featuring heavily in his released statement.
“Despite our investments and efforts, the current course is not sustainable,” Precourt said in a statement. “This club has ambition to be a standard bearer in MLS, therefore we have no choice but to expand and explore all of our options.
"This includes a possible move to Austin, which is the largest metropolitan area in North America without a major league sports franchise. Soccer is the world’s game, and with Austin’s growing presence as an international city, combined with its strong multicultural foundation, MLS in Austin could be an ideal fit."
MLS commissioner Don Garber was also included in the statement, supporting the move.
“As attendance League-wide continues to grow on a record-setting pace, and markets across the country seek to join MLS, Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning,” Garber said. “Despite PSV’s (Precourt Sports Ventures) significant investments and improvements on and off the field, Columbus Crew SC is near the bottom of the League in all business metrics and the club’s stadium is no longer competitive with other venues across MLS.
"The League is very reluctant to allow teams to relocate, but based on these factors, we support PSV’s efforts to explore options outside of Columbus, including Austin, provided they find a suitable stadium location.”
Precourt also said any move to Austin has a MLS-approved stadium plan as a prerequisite.
However, the Dispatch reports a deal to host matches at the University of Texas is "all but done" for 2019, and MLS earlier this season registered "Austin FC" and "Austin Athletic" as trademarks. The Dispatch also reports that Precourt paid an above market value price of $68 million for the team in 2013 because he was considering moving the franchise.
According to Alex Fischer, president of the Columbus Project — a collection of local business executives — Precourt has already turned down approaches from a group of business and community leaders in Columbus, who have offered to buy 100 percent or 50 percent of the franchise.
But Precourt could keep the Crew in Columbus if the franchise can secure funding for a new downtown stadium within the next year. The Crew currently play 3.5 miles from downtown Columbus at Mapfre Stadium, an antiquated venue that opened as the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS in 1999.
"We met with ownership a month ago to discuss their stadium study and plans and ideas for a new stadium in Columbus," Fischer told SI.com. "Those conversations turned up the fact that ownership had been in extensive conversations over the last number of months with leaders in Austin about a possible new stadium and moving the team there."
Fischer added: "We've received notice from the ownership that at a press conference [Tuesday] they are going to announce they are jointly pursuing that plan in Austin as well as continuing conversations about a possible new stadium in Columbus."
Austin, which is set to launch a franchise in the second-tier USL in 2019, was not one of 12 markets that submitted bids for expansion sides in January as MLS looks to reach 28 clubs in the coming years.