Editorial (April 20, 2018) — On a sweltering summer night in southwestern Ohio during mid-June of last year, an event that showed the true potential of soccer in this country took place.
It was then that FC Cincinnati, one of USL’s great success stories since its first season of play in 2016, pulled off a huge upset of MLS charter member Columbus Crew SC in the fourth round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Though the result itself turned heads, it wasn’t the only story to come out of the match.
To say that the atmosphere at Nippert Stadium for the inaugural “Ohio Derby” was electric would be quite the understatement. The 30,160 fans in attendance, including a sizable contingent of traveling support, created a scene that rivaled most derbies in the established leagues across the pond.
Save the Crew Also Means Safeguarding a Budding Rivalry
Two overarching storylines emerged in the immediate aftermath of the contest. Number one was the fact that with MLS expansion a hot-button topic, Cincinnati had made one of the most convincing cases to be awarded a spot in the league. The second centered around the idea that, as a result of the first, a natural, organic MLS rivalry in a league with too many contrived ones was in the process of forming.
Anthony Precourt wants to destroy it all. Motivated by profit over passion, his desire is to tear this blossoming fruit out of the ground before it has a chance to germinate fully by moving the Crew. It represents a step back for the game in this country and has sullied its reputation among many fans both domestically and abroad.
In his corner is MLS Commissioner Don Garber. Rather than side with a community that’s been a part of this league from the beginning (before he held his current role, for what it’s worth), his eyes are similarly veiled by perceived dollar signs. The borderline condescending statements from him regarding soccer fans in that community reinforce that sentiment. Need more evidence? The following tweet should suffice.
Garber says he feels for Crew’s small but passionate fan base. Called managing current situation with Columbus one of most difficult parts of job. Regrets that zero municipal support for new stadium has materialized. https://t.co/erg1IkVGjm
— Jeff Rosen (@jeff_rosen88) April 19, 2018
It’s a far cry from his response to a question I asked him in December of 2016 during his state of the league address ahead of MLS Cup that year. Back then, he seemed keen on a potential Cincinnati-Columbus rivalry becoming part of the league. What’s even more striking about his comments here is that one of his first references is to something the league continues to struggle with: eyeballs on television screens.
“Our highest rated television events are the ones that are our rivalry matches,” Garber emphasized. “So rivalries are important, whether it’s Cincinnati-Columbus, whether it’s K.C.-St. Louis, this idea that getting this communal, tribal engagement is important to us.”
The about-face between then and now truly boggles the mind. That should be readily apparent when comparing and contrasting Garber’s more recent comments with those from just under a year and a half ago. It becomes even more disconcerting given what we now know about Precourt’s intentions all the way back to when he initially bought the club in 2013.
The out clause didn’t just magically appear in October of 2017 when Precourt made his now infamous announcement. It was there from the beginning. Garber had to have known about it. Though his candor in speaking of a potential all-Ohio MLS rivalry at the time seemed genuine, retrospect allows us to peel back the curtain. Those comments were made with a straight face. And all the while, he had to have known what Precourt was about to unleash less than a year later.
All these developments left Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine no choice but to file a lawsuit to prevent the uprooting of the Crew. It’s the first time that the state is attempting to invoke Ohio Revised Code 9.67, also known as the “Art Modell Law,” to prevent a team from relocating. It’s part of a recent string of promising news from the standpoint of the team staying put.
The latest became known on Thursday. A report by Andrew Erickson of the Columbus Dispatch indicated that MLS officials traveled to Columbus in March to meet with local investors who have proposed buying the team from Precourt. It included the league’s deputy commissioner Mark Abbott. Both Abbott and Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer indicated the discussions were “productive” and “constructive.”
One can only hope that’s the case. Though the league is certainly giving the appearance it’s open to “parallel paths,” you couldn’t fault a cynic for perceiving this as legal posturing to comply with the statutes associated with the Modell law. Namely, that the existing owner needs to give six months notice before moving the team along with giving local business entities the chance to buy it.
It all remains a complicated situation. Is MAPFRE Stadium outdated? The case could certainly be made that it is. Is a new stadium necessary? Potentially, but preferably without taxpayer-funded welfare for the rich. But here’s the $64,000 question. Is Columbus really holding back MLS from a business metrics perspective to the point that betraying a community and its dedicated fanbase becomes an absolute must? It’s hard to make a rational argument for such a tragic end game.
In the end, Columbus’ neighbors down I-71 South seem destined to join the league. Cincinnati’s city council recently approved a deal to finance infrastructure for a stadium in the city’s West End. The club itself recently announced a rebrand. But the future would ring hollow if MLS abandons one Ohio city for another instead of cultivating what could become one of the league’s next local derbies.
Garber said it himself. Rivalries generate TV ratings. The metrics are well-established in that regard. And what transpired in the summer of last year indicates that, without question, Ohio has room for two MLS clubs. The Nordecke and The Bailey deserve to be at odds with one another for years to come. Let’s hope the league comes to its senses and instead of abandoning Columbus, it abandons its reckless pursuit of profits while hypocritically standing behind the guise of community.
FC Cincinnati fans deserve a true enemy on the pitch. There’s no better one for the Orange and Blue from the Queen City than the Black and Gold from Ohio’s capital city. And there may not be a more obvious notion associated with this entire discussion than the following: when it comes to what this league has thrown in their face over the past half year…
Crew fans deserve better.