Will Austin Really Get a Major League Soccer Team?
Sports team owners use San Antonio for leverage. They may be pulling the same move in Austin.
Every team owner in the National Football League and Major League Baseball seems to fantasize at night about San Antonio. Not about the Alamo, or the River Walk, or the tacos, or the culture. And not, even, about the prospect of actually playing games in the Alamo City. Rather, they all fantasize about the leverage that San Antonio’s continued existence provides when they seek a new stadium in their current city.
Despite being the seventh-largest city in the country, San Antonio has neither a professional football or baseball team. (The six cities larger than San Antonio in the United States hold seventeen such teams among them.) So whenever an owner wants to bully their current city into publicly financing a stadium for their team, the owner mentions how lovely San Antonio is around baseball or football season, how enthusiastically the city has embraced the Spurs, and what great relationships they have with local luminaries like Red McCombs and Henry Cisneros. But then, when the time comes to move, the home city either finds the taxpayer funds to build them the stadium, or they learn that, hey, Las Vegas is also really nice…
Meanwhile, Austin has ambitions in the pro sports realm, too. Because Austin’s self-identity is still built largely around being outside of the mainstream, though, it’s rare to hear city leaders advocate for the state capital as a home for football or baseball teams (and the University of Texas, which isn’t keen on competition in those arenas, would probably have something to say about it, as well). Rather, Austin, as every Texas city’s hipper-than-thou cousin, has long lusted after a Major League Soccer team. And now, the headlines declare, that interest is finally being reciprocated. According to a statement from Columbus Crew chairman Anthony Precourt, Austin is the team’s preferred destination in the event that it relocates:
“Despite our investments and efforts, the current course is not sustainable,” Anthony Precourt, chief executive officer of Precourt Sports Ventures and chairman of Columbus Crew SC, said. “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.”
The language in that statement does hedge—it contains a lot of “possible” and “could” and “explore all of our options”—but that hasn’t stopped both the Austin and sports press from suggesting that this is all but a done deal. In its initial headline, Sports Illustrated wrote, “Columbus Crew set to move to Austin in 2019,” while the Austin American-Statesman declared, “MLS’s Columbus Crew intends move to Austin in 2019 barring stadium deal.” (Both publications later updated their headlines to reflect the ambiguity at work.) Austin is the largest city in the country without a pro sports franchise, and as the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., it doesn’t make sense why that should continue to be the case. Texas can certainly support a number of franchises (look how many Florida has!), and the populations of Austin, San Antonio, and even El Paso (which is also thirsty for MLS) appeal to potential teams on a few levels.
Nonetheless, it’s probably a good idea to be skeptical that the Crew might actually end up calling Austin home. In the Statesman piece, a Columbus-based source tells the paper that “the Crew were exploring options near Zilker Park or along the downtown riverfront” for a permanent stadium for the team. That is a tall order in Austin, where downtown has been in the midst of a development boom for well over a decade, and the downtown riverfront doesn’t have an obvious candidate for where a stadium could go. The Zilker Park area is similarly crowded and not particularly stadium-ready, and that matters—part of MLS’s approach to growing the visibility of the league involves downtown stadiums that are easily accessible via public transportation. Austin’s likely to be a miss there on both fronts.
It’s also unlikely that the Crew ownership will find what they want in terms of actually paying for the new stadium. Threatening to move from your hometown to a city that will pay for a taxpayer-funded stadium is a solid gambit, in terms of putting pressure on voters or city leaders in the current city to approve public financing. But Austin Mayor Steve Adler made clear in his “we’re open for business” pitch to MLS that any team that wants to come to town is going to have to buy its own stadium.
“Exciting news because Major League Soccer would be a huge success in Austin, and the Crew would find tons of fan support,” Adler told KVUE. “There is a lot of benefit that being in Austin would give a team, too, though not public funding of a stadium.”
Adler shot down suggestions that the issue might come to a ballot initiative in the winter, as well. “I don’t know what it would be you would be putting on a ballot,” he told the Statesman. “You could put something on a ballot if there was going to be a bond election to finance a stadium, but nothing like that is in the works.” That doesn’t necessarily rule out a future bond election for stadium financing, but even if Adler decided to expend political capital in that direction, it’d be a tall climb to actually make it happen: Austin voters are notoriously stingy when it comes to public works projects like roads and rails, and it seems unlikely that 51% of taxpayers would opt to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million (at least) for a stadium for America’s fifth-favorite sport.
All of which suggests that Austin’s primary role here may be less “future home of the Austin Weirdos” and more of a red herring, a role that San Antonio knows well. Maybe being used as leverage is the real proof that Austin is finally playing in the big leagues.