Chants of “Save Our Crew” rang out boisterously during the first ten minutes of a match between Toronto FC and the Columbus Crew. On a frosty November night in Columbus, over 21 thousand people lit up Mapfre Stadium at the start of a historic Trillium Cup encounter. The Crew are facing their ‘rival’ in an Eastern Conference Final, yet this playoff series for the ages seemingly is taking a backseat to another battle off the field.
One question reigns supreme over the rest: where did it all go wrong for the Crew? Columbus was the site of the first soccer-specific stadium built for an MLS team all the way back in 1999. The Crew have had a playoff culture about them for many years now, with the franchise going as far as winning the MLS Cup in 2008. On top of that, Mapfre Stadium has become a fortress for the United States Men’s National Team, the famous site of the “Dos A Cero” scoreline in 2013. So, why are the Crew considering a move away from the original soccer city of the United States?
SI initially broke the Columbus to Austin rumors last month. Columbus’s loss will be Austin’s gain as the Crew are considering a move to Austin by 2019. If this move is approved by all the involved parties, the Crew would become Austin’s first ever professional sports franchise. How did this move even become a possibility? A common doctrine of life is the fact that being the first doesn’t necessarily mean being the best in the long-term. Although the Crew had the first stadium built for a club in the MLS, their stadium (and its location) have become outdated in the last decade, thus prompting Crew owner Anthony Precourt to demand the construction of a downtown stadium in Columbus. On top of that, the Crew’s most attended season is still the inaugural season of the MLS (1996). With city officials getting cold feet about his downtown stadium proposal, Precourt is likely going to take his assets to Austin.
After five years of increasing attendance figures for the Crew, 2017 average attendance for the team experienced a near ten percent dropoff from its 2016 figure (from an average of 17125 in 2016 to an average of 15439 in 2017). Overall, the Crew had the 3rd-lowest average attendance this season in the MLS (only the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas had worse attendance figures this year). Despite these possibly glaring figures, Crew fans have come out in droves this postseason, starting up the hashtag #SaveTheCrew across various social media platforms. Surely this will be enough to keep the team in town, right? Not quite. Toronto FC and USMNT captain Michael Bradley bluntly stated the Crew have not kept pace with the rest of the MLS.
Finally, another question arises: how would Austin receive a professional soccer club? The “MLS2ATX” campaign has already kickstarted; the Austin City Council also unanimously approved a play that will see city officials start to look for potential locations the Crew can call home in Austin. Only time would/will tell how a city immersed in the other football like Austin would take to MLS.
What does this all mean for American soccer? Austin and Columbus are similar TV markets (#39 and #32 respectively), so it’s not as if moving the team to Austin will be a huge step up in market exposure. Is this a move emblematic of a shifting of the guard in MLS as expansion sides like Atlanta, Toronto, and New York City FC dominate the attendance charts? Is this all a bluff by Precourt to get the Crew to move to a downtown Columbus location? Or is this a move that shows the standards for American soccer have already increased from minimalist expectations only a decade? I know one thing that’s certain: the Crew fanbase won’t go down without a proper fight to save their dented ship.