Columbus Crew SC, in conjunction with MLS czar Don Garber, has crossed one of the final checkpoints in their plan to move the team to Austin as early as next season. The Austin City Council passed a vote on Wednesday, seven to four, to pave the way for the building of a soccer-specific stadium onto city-owned land in North Austin.
Crew owner Anthony Precourt—who once stated, “It’s important to the Hunt family and Major League Soccer that the Crew remains in Columbus. We’re very committed to that. This city feels right,”—now has full license to begin privately financing the estimated $200 million stadium he couldn’t wrangle from Columbus taxpayers. Despite the groundwork already laid, and the full support of MLS, there is still one last-ditch effort that has a chance—albeit small—to force the Crew to remain in Ohio.
After Art Modell moved the Browns to Baltimore in 1995, the state enacted a law that requires any professional sports team that uses a tax-supported facility to provide six months notice before any potential relocation, and to allow a local investor, or the city, the opportunity to purchase the team. The Art Modell Law has been the main crux of a lawsuit filed by Ohio’s attorney general, Mike DeWine, and the city of Columbus to block relocation.
As Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst Michael McCann points out, though, there are a number of pitfalls with the law. Its language is vague and will spark reasonable debate from both parties, especially in regards to what is deemed a viable “opportunity to purchase the team” and what specifically a “tax-supported facility” is. DeWine has stated that the city deserves a “reasonable” opportunity to buy back the team, which is not language used in the law. As a private enterprise, Precourt, however slimy, is under no obligation to give up ownership to the state, barring unlikely, unrelated circumstances.
The Modell Law also may be unconstitutional, interfering with federal protections on interstate commerce. This portion of the Constitution was invoked by a Louisiana judge in 1979, allowing the Jazz to move to Utah despite the fact that the team was contractually obligated to stay in New Orleans. In fact, generally, judges side with relocating teams, even when the franchises are required by contract to stay put. During the SuperSonics’s move to Oklahoma City in 2007, they, too, broke a clause in their stadium lease. The courts opted to just go with a simple fine and let the team move anyway.
There are two things that could tilt the interpretation of the law toward Ohio’s favor, though. 1) Although the state cannot force Precourt to sell the team, they could slow down the process, forcing the grease-man to slog through litigation long enough to finally cave and get rid of the team. Simply invoking the Modell Law, and fighting that through the courts, may afford the state the opportunity for years of trench warfare. Additionally, DeWine’s complaint states that the Crew are just 20 years into a 25-year lease at the stadium, meaning litigation could toil through that period of time if the court finds that relocating the franchise breaks that contract. 2) The Modell Law’s lack of precedent, though it adds uncertainty, is mostly beneficial in the state’s favor. Because the Modell Law has never been invoked in court, it will be entirely up to the presiding judge—a publicly elected Ohioan official—to determine the validity of its lawfulness.
So despite the fact that Austin’s city council ruling today means that we’re near the culmination of this incredibly shitty process, there remains a minuscule sliver of hope for Crew supporters. For that, they can thank the most hated man in all of Northeast Ohio.