It’s dishonest to say that any sporting event can have a feel-good event right now. While sports can be a healthy distraction or unifying force for a community, these days they basically act as a perfect sketch of just about everything wrong with the country’s handling and response to the pandemic, from its wanton greed to Elmer Fudd’ing any process or protocol. MLS is no different, as it’s had a comedy sketch of a season with rules made up on the fly and differing levels of fans in the stands, which of course, none of them should have had (though it did have one of the more poignant Black Lives Matter support moments in all of sports).
If you can get past all that, there is still the tinge of sadness of games taking place in empty or near-empty stadiums and the loss of those moments for fans to whom they mean so much. There is nothing like seeing your team scoring a late goal amongst a crowd of like-minded, be it in the supporters section or at the bar. And for Columbus Crew fans on Saturday night, they will miss out on validation of the rare fan victories in sports, whether they lift the trophy or not against the Seattle Sounders in the final.
It was three years ago that Anthony Precourt, then owner of the Crew, first announced plans to move the Crew from Columbus to Austin, TX. That set off one of the more unusual fights between an owner, fans, and a league that’s ever been seen in North American sports.
The funny part of it all is that Precourt was eventually undone because of the actions of another greedy owner, except that one happened to also be an incompetent shithead, and that was former Browns owner Art Modell. Modell was the one who moved the Browns to Baltimore, after his thumb-in-his-ass management of the Browns kept him from reaching a deal with the city of Cleveland for a new stadium.
Because of that, the state of Ohio instituted the Art Modell Law (you know you’re really a tool when you get a state law named after you and it’s not for good deeds), which stated that a team owner could not move a team out of the state if it had used tax money from the city or state without a six-month period for a local owner to be found to keep the team where it was.
It wasn’t that simple, however. The #SaveTheCrew movement after the announcement — absolutely perfectly generated in the backroom of a bar — took on political-battle status to invoke that law. It was started by several Crew supporter groups who weren’t just going to let a team walk away. It took its cues from many political movements, and it was hard to see a broadcast of any sport involving Ohio teams without seeing #SaveTheCrew somewhere, somehow.
Again, because there’s comedy anywhere you look, it was the Browns, in a way, that came to save the day because of a law that was developed when the Browns left. The current owners of the Browns, the Haslam family, along with the former team doctor of the Crew combined to purchase the Crew from Precourt for $150 million and keep the team in Columbus, with the promise of a new downtown stadium that will open next summer, in a deal brokered by MLS.
Is it a squeaky clean story of triumph for the little guy for once? Of course not. What’re you, new around here? That’s not how these things work in this place and time. One, the stadium going up in downtown Columbus has some very shady elements. Two, the purchase price for the Crew from Precourt just happens to match the expansion fee for Austin City FC, which will join the league next season, and would appear to keep alive the long-joked-but-very-possibly-real Ponzi scheme of MLS expansion teams and fees. Third, the stadium deal in Austin, while better than most, still kinda smells. Fourth, Precourt got to “jump the line” of expansion teams to start play next year while not having to go through the process that say, Charlotte and Sacramento did, who will join the league in 2022. And he got to do that for simply acting like a greedy douchebag in being thwarted from bagging up someone else’s team. You can’t have totally nice things, after all.
But still, for Crew fans themselves, Saturday will feel like a triumph that they themselves authored. We have become numb to owners and teams doing whatever they want, getting whatever they want, and being the only ones to profit from it. We long ago gave up the fight that there’s more to us than simply the money we shell out of the teams we love, even if those reasons become more cloudy with each passing day.
Here’s a group of fans that decided to do more than grumble and throw up their hands, but threw up a weaponized middle finger, and got to keep their team. While they haven’t been able to pack the stadium to celebrate together by watching their Crew team, that went from one of the worst outfits last year to the final this year after an impressive regular season (#DarlingtonNagbeForever), they’ll certainly share a smile on the recliner. It’s rare that a fan can feel they actually helped bring their team to a championship.