Since that late-night lightning bolt all those months ago that instantly changed MLSinSA forever, the future has remained clear as mud.
That bolt, of course, was Grant Wahl’s Oct. 16, 2017 tweet revealing Columbus owner Anthony Precourt’s double-secret contractual clause allowing him to move the Crew to Austin.
The immediate question that emerged and still exists to this day is how is this even possible when San Antonio is in the midst of a methodical MLS-sanctioned 12-city expansion process?
The eight months since involving Columbus, Austin and San Antonio have been a spaghetti bowl of conflict, contradiction and confusion. What was once a purely ambitious civic effort to bring another major league team to a primed and deserving city, turned into a story of confused betrayal.
This was a painful blog to write because of a cauldron of emotions. It will have several points of personal reflection because I’ve been on this roller coaster since it left the platform. But I’ll address a myriad of San Antonio fans’ concerns throughout, while pointing out the most vital questions for Austin city officials to answer.
A lot of tremendously loyal fans and supporters already have been hurt and disrespected in two different cities and the coaster shows no signs of slowing down. Though it does look like there will be battles in June that could determine the outcome of this tug of war. The reason for the dateline at the beginning is because by the time you finish reading this there will have been a new development.
Wahl’s tweet not only put San Antonio’s bid in limbo, but also shattered MLS’ credibility that there was actually some sort of systematic merit-based expansion process. Can I get an amen, Sacramento?
In San Antonio’s case, its expansion bid was circumvented by a backroom deal years earlier that apparently only MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Precourt and few other owners on the league’s Expansion Committee knew about. Yet even those “facts” are murky. Yes, the conflict of interest of Precourt’s presence on the Expansion Committee is mind boggling, but let’s stay focused on San Antonio / Austin. A quick side note, San Antonio remains in full support of the Modell Law and watches developments coming out the Columbus court battle very closely.(#SaveTheCrew).
If Precourt Sports Ventures’ (PSV) expansion coup falls apart in Austin, I believe San Antonio would and should continue its pursuit of a MLS expansion team because the city would be a fabulous new market for various reasons – not the least of which is because it’s been built from the ground up. Would there have to be an extended period of healing and forgiveness because of the undercurrent of angry frustration and distrust? Yes, of course. But it could still happen.
MLSinSA has always been poised to help any way the triumvirate steering the expansion bid – Spurs Sports & Entertainment (SS&E), Bexar County Commissioner Nelson Wolff and Mayor Ron Nirenberg – needs grassroots support.
San Antonio is a national sports city with only one major league team and three minor league teams that may well be standing at the intersection of greater relevance and potential obscurity. The city’s political leaders know it.
Theses past eight months, however, have been the worst of times. While San Antonio seemingly just stands there wondering what’s next, it’s been hard to separate angry emotions directed at Austin. But you can’t paint all in Austin with the same brush, and working through this process has been liberating.
I’ve personally been conflicted because my family has great on-the-field memories and personal relationships with the Austin soccer community, both at the premier club and collegiate level. Austin is a fabulous city.
However, I’m one of the founding members of MLS in San Antonio. It was more than 14 years ago that a few of us citizen soccer supporters jumped in to put together an exhibition bringing two MLS teams to San Antonio for the first time. Right, we didn’t realize how crazy this idea was until we were too far in, but, happily, it was an extremely successful event.
It laid the first bricks of what’s been a long and winding road toward possibly landing an expansion team. But now, in these daily off-again-on-again uncertain times with the latest from Austin or Columbus, it can seem like it’s just matter of time until MLSinSA becomes a historical footnote.
Don Quixote called the other day and said even he would have given up by now. “Dude, the windmills won.”
So I want to make clear when we’re discussing the what’s wrong with the “expansion possibility” in Austin it’s not aimed at the city, its respected soccer community, former Austin Aztex supporters, USLAustin or even the conscientious Austin soccer fans who acknowledge San Antonio’s rightful place in the MLS expansion process, but shrug that if MLS is coming to Austin then they might as well support it.
What I want to discuss is a small group consisting of Precourt, PSV officials and lobbyists and its band of paid “organic grassroots supporters.” More specifically – how PSV is trying to manipulate MLS and use Austin as a “shield” to arrogate San Antonio’s rightful MLS expansion slot.
Having said that, however, at very least Austin should acknowledge its affair-like affiliation in this process of ripping one of MLS’ founding franchise out of Columbus and away from its legion of fabulously loyal fans, while simultaneously damaging San Antonio’s expansion bid. C’mon.
Also, San Antonio supporters are in disbelief whenever we hear PSV supporters say Austin couldn’t qualify as an expansion city on its own so taking the Crew is its only / best chance to ever get MLS. Huh? You’re also in favor of smash and grab robberies?
No, you can’t blame the majority based on a small minority, but can we at least submit Austin Hijack FC in the upcoming obligatory fan-submitted name contest?
If not, then here’s a quick analogy: it’s halftime on a sweltering night and you’re in a long, slow-moving beer line. You’ve been waiting patiently for 25 minutes with money in hand. Then, out of the blue, some raging jackass blows in elbowing his way to the front of the line. Then, he turns around and berates the people in line, calling them suckers. In real life, the jackass is grabbed and probably gets his butt kicked, right? (So when does karma show up, man?) By the way, did you guess who’s MLSinSA in this analogy?
Media contacts who’ve studied PSV’s past have told me when Dave Greeley, president of PSV, approached Precourt that Austin was the largest American city without a pro sports franchise (apparently shortly before the SA Scorpions formed), they did not recognize or did not care there was a pro sports company already in the market. It didn’t have its headquarters there, but SS&E has always considered Austin critically important growth territory in its hyphenated market strategy. So, if PSV brings MLS to Austin, it could well be the start of a turf war.
Consider this – both organizations eventually will be in a daily fight for the precious 18-to-65 demographic segments for season ticket sales, game day tickets, merchandise and brand loyalty. That whole hearts and minds concept.
For SS&E, is the timing of this scenario especially troublesome since its 5-time NBA champion – the Spurs – may be entering a significant rebuilding process, while Austin Highjack FC would be the shiny new franchise just up the road? Different sports, of course, but partial seasons overlap and the specific fans and their disposable income are very similar consumer personas.
We’ll get back to PSV’s grand scheme in a minute, but have to take time to address all those San Antonio soccer fans at tailgates, SAFC games or who stop me on the street asking: “what the hell is going on with MLSinSA and why isn’t SS&E doing something?” They’re angry and frustrated and I stand there nodding as if I’m hearing their complaints, theories and solutions for the first time.
For the sake of time, I don’t want to get into the library of various conspiracy theories of whether SS&E did or did not commit its full weight behind the MLS expansion process. Seemingly tens of thousands of SA soccer fans have a varied opinion one way or the other. To be concise, most come down in one of two camps – SS&E did fully commit and was derailed by PSV, but damn well better keep trying. Or SS&E wants to stay in the minor leagues because of the $150-$200 million expansion fee and another major league team would threaten the “crown jewel” Spurs.
When it was revealed SS&E chose to drop back from this first round of expansion and go after the last two expansion spots, many theorists said they now had proof. Regardless of whether you believe any theories, SS&E is an extremely shrewd sports marketing and management company and it knows that no one is going to potentially lose more money over a longer period of time than it is if PSV brings MLS to Austin.
SS&E has harvested the apple orchards of San Antonio, Austin and the surrounding Central Texas areas for decades and always with plans to expand. Now there’s going to be another potential peer-to-peer harvester in the orchard with slightly different equipment going after the exact same apple every season? SS&E could have two franchises threatened in two different leagues.
In fact, the historical significance of what could happen to the San Antonio sports market within the next five years is most concerning. Legions of SAFC fans pledge undying support with righteous indignation and claim they’ll only attend USL games. But SAFC won’t have the luxury of growing in a vacuum unaffected by changes swirling around it.
Righteous indignation fades over time, and if MLS prospers in Austin every facet of the SAFC organization will eventually change. Maybe not next season or even in two, but give it 3-6 years and year-over-year changes could be, well, heart breaking.
MLSinSA was started with the brick-by-brick vision of developing a minor league team to ascend into MLS. The goal was to build the infrastructure – front office, major local sponsors, supporters’ community, rabid fans, growing attendance, etc. – to prove out the concept for MLS. I’ve said a million times selling the “hope for the future” is what it’s all been built on. It was not to add another minor league franchise to San Antonio’s sports landscape.
Also for the sake of time, I’m not going to get into rumors of MLS-brokered meetings between PSV and SS&E or the possibility of a SAFC affiliation to an Austin MLS franchise. Many SAFC fans pledge to storm the gates of Toyota Field with torches and pitchforks if that happens, so only time will tell. But what if it’s SAFC’s opportunity for survival? Will that matter?
Using history as a guide, SS&E will continue to run SAFC like a business and make those decisions accordingly. As good as Tim Holt is as SAFC managing director, he’s an even better guy. If anyone can lead SAFC through this maze of madness, it’s Tim.
Through the years I’ve also gotten to know many of the former and current SS&E executives who are all sharp capable guys. Since only they know the day-to-day fluctuating status of where the bid stands, we as fans have to assume they remain poised “to get back into the game.”
With regard to MLS expansion, that “trust the process” line was never believable in the first place – even before we found out there was no process to trust. But that doesn’t stop fans from constantly asking how did Nashville and Cincinnati blew past San Antonio for expansion slots?
To be fair, the current situation in Austin has to be resolved one way of the other. When that happens, the assumption is SS&E is coiled like a rattler ready to strike. So assume they’re preparing and ready – behind the scenes in radio silence.
Let’s face it: SS&E makes the NSA look like College Night at Fiesta. Even secrecy thinks SS&E should be more transparent. But they’re not.
So assuming SS&E is still engaged – you do assume that, right? – but “forced” to wait on the sidelines for favorable developments, then let’s look at what PSV is trying to do to Austin, I mean, in Austin.
No wonder PSV wants an answer by the end of June, right? It’s the salesman with his hand in your back pushing the pen in your face to sign before you have a chance to read the contract. But aren’t Austin’s city officials too astute for that clumsy tactic?
So let’s help them plow through that massive 189-page report PSV released the other day with the attractive stadium renditions. I must admit those luxury suites overlooking the beachfront property are killer. Wait, beachfront property wasn’t promised in the proposal? Oh sorry, maybe I misunderstood, but you have to admit many parts of the proposal were about as realistic as beachfront property in Austin, Texas.
So grab a couple of chairs and pull them up to the roundtable, put some beer on ice and let’s ask the red-hot probing questions that might draw a smile or two from everyone not on PSV’s payroll.
San Antonio is waiting for Austin Mayor Andy Adler and the esteemed members of the Austin City Council to start digging into PSV’s proposal and ask the tough questions to get actual answers. C’mon already – it’s time to dig.
Columbus Crew fans will tell you the only things that smell worse than McKalla’s topsoil samples are Precourt’s promises.
So to make it easier on Mayor Adler and the council members, here are The Four McKalla Questions that’ll cut to the chase and help make decisions before Summer recess:
1) If moving the Kramer rail station is estimated at $13 million and PSV doesn’t want to pay for it, then what’s the answer for fans who want to take rail to a game, and who’s paying for it? This rail station is about a half mile from the stadium. Considering all other transportation options this is a hop, skip and a jump. Remember that when you’re reading Question #3.
2) Who came up with the estimate and who’s paying for the reported $25 million needed for significantly increasing infrastructure in and around McKalla? Does anyone believe that’s an accurate figure considering the narrow streets and easements in and around the lot that will be forced to handle traffic flow for a 20,118-seat stadium? Has anyone told Burnet Road what’s being planned? Why hasn’t the Austin Transportation Department performed a comprehensive traffic management and impact study? But why worry about soul-crushing traffic when PSV promises to landscape the area with English walking trails? This crowd will be walking – that’s for sure. Might want to look into the cost of helicopter rentals.
Husband: “Hey honey, want to go to the MLS game in Austin Saturday night?
Wife: “Sure, what time’s the game start?
Husband: “It’s a 7:30 kickoff.
Wife: “OK, when do we need to leave to get there on time?”
Husband: “Wednesday morning.”
3) What’s the solution for parking at a 20,000-seat stadium shoehorned inside a warehouse district? Seriously, this seems to be the big hairy question that no one has an answer for yet. How are you going to sensibly and adequately park thousands of cars and trucks pouring in to fill a stadium this size? Is PSV going to build a humongous parking garage? Are they going to park thousands of vehicles on top of the surrounding warehouses? I saw where they’ve designated 1,000 parking spots for the team, VIPs, officials, influentials, etc. Awesome. That’s a great start. Now, about those other 19,118 people who bought tickets?
a. There’s rampant speculation fans are going to be forced to take the rail, shuttle buses, bikes, skateboards, donkeys, hot air balloons and walk from nearby microbreweries that range from a mile or longer from the stadium. That sounds great because from late May to late September temperatures only hover in the high 90s late afternoon into early evening. Is there going to be a water park inside the stadium so fans can cool off as they enter?
b. A more recent report (Amy Denney) about traffic numbers from PSV’s proposal presentation “estimated 10,000 (will have to board) shuttles, 3,000 in remote parking, 500 bikes. Residents here are very skeptical of this plan. Many laughs.” Hey PSV: never a good sign when residents’ first reaction to your proposal is laughter. How about FC Shuttle or Traffic Trauma FC for that name contest?
c. And what about when the game’s over at 10:30p? You’re going to have massive amounts of people walking back to their vehicles in the dark of night in a warehouse district because they don’t want to wait for the shuttle? Or, if you’re a fan from San Antonio, the game ends at 10:30p and you stand in line for 45 minutes to board a shuttle that takes another 45 minutes to reach your vehicle before you pull out and spend another 45 minutes in traffic driving from McKalla 14 miles south into downtown Austin where you hit more traffic? So just a bit of quick math here – it might be 1:30a Sunday before you’re even passing through San Marcos. Man, that helicopter idea sounds better all the time.
4) Who’s paying for possible environmental cleanup costs? According to the Austin American-Statesman: “Chemical companies have been located at McKalla since 1957 and archived stories reveal a history of explosions, unstable ground and chemical dumps in the soil, giving off foul odors as recently as 2004. The city purchased the property in 1995 from Reichold Chemicals for the bargain-basement price of $1.4 million. Reichold used extremely flammable chemicals at the site, including benzoyl peroxide.” So how many businesses in the past 20 years considered McKalla and passed? Reports say McKalla has been cleaned up and tested. Sure, OK, so after decades of chemical dumps there’s nothing deep in the soil that’s released once they start digging up acres and acres?
a. Who knew the EPA might become the first major sponsor for Austin Carcinogen FC? Or maybe the Austin Odors?
But not to worry, PSV has an answer to all four of The McKalla Questions – the Austin taxpayers. How else do you explain that proposed clause that PSV doesn’t have to pay any property taxes and lease the site for $1 a year?
What you may know by now is Precourt is an absentee owner who desperately wants out of Columbus and expects Austin to pay for all the major hidden costs of his new home. Thanks for the memories Columbus and sorry about all those broken promises. Hello Austin – I promise to keep my promises to you.
San Antonio has built a nationally recognized, passionate soccer market in the past 15 years brick by brick by brick. Through the years, Garber repeatedly pointed to the Seattles and Portlands as markets that grew a minor league team into a MLS contender as the model for expansion.
While the minor league Aztex tried to make a go of it in the Austin market during two separate failed attempts, San Antonio has been growing in stature for more than a decade. Here’s a quick bulleted list of “historic firsts” that helped lift the city into national prominence:
- 1st MLS Exhibition in SA – 2-2 draw NY/NJ MetroStars v. Colorado Rapids (2004)
- Texas Pro Soccer Festival – Cibolo – 4 MLS teams in round-robin exhibitions –
Houston Dynamo; D.C. United; Toronto FC; Chivas USA (2008)
- First soccer supporters group is formed – The Crocketteers – supports U.S. teams (2009)
- U.S. Men’s National Team watch parties – 2010 World Cup – Crocketteers host in large movie theaters – sold out crowds with heavy media coverage (2010)
- Gordon Hartman announces pro soccer in San Antonio – San Antonio Scorpions FC – NASL franchise (2010)
- 1st SA Scorpions news conference introducing Tim Hankinson as head coach (2011)
- 1st Scorpions NASL home game – 4-0 loss v. Puerto Rico – in Heroes Stadium; 13,151 attend (2012)
- 1st Scorpions U.S. Open Cup victory vs. MLS – 1-0 v. Houston Dynamo – Heroes Stadium (2012)
- 1st Scorpions NSAL Game In New Toyota Field – 2-0 loss v. Tampa Bay – 8,177 attend (2013)
- 1st Scorpions NASL Championship Game – 2-1 victory v. Ft. Lauderdale Strikers – under Scorpions’ 2nd coach, Alen Marcina (2014)
- Massive San Antonio supporters group march to Alamodome in support of USMNT v. Mexico – 2-0 USA victory – 64,369 attend (2015)
- U.S. Women’s National Team watch parties – 2015 World Cup – culminating in 5-2 USA victory v. Japan for WC title / USWNT play in Alamodome on national “victory tour” – 6-0 victory v. Trinidad & Tobago (2015)
- 1st SAFC news conference at Toyota Field introducing Darren Powell as head coach (2016)
- 1st SAFC USL game – 3-0 victory v. Seattle Sounders2 – SAFC supporters rock Seattle (2016)
- 1st SAFC U.S. Open Cup run – all-San Antonio matchup – 3-1 victory v. SA Corinthians FC – Toyota Field (2016)
- 1st SAFC U.S. Open Cup game vs. MLS – Houston Dynamo at BBVA Compass Stadium – 4-0 loss (2016)
- 1st SAFC USL Playoff game – 2-1 victory v. Tulsa – Toyota Field – 7,019 attend (2017)
- 1st SAFC USL Playoff Semifinal game – 1-1 draw / 4-1 loss on PKs v. OKC Energy – Toyota Field – 7,032 attend (2017)
- San Antonio hosts group stage doubleheader for 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup in Alamodome – Jamaica v. El Salvador (1-1) – Mexico v. Curacao (2-0 MX) – double-header attendance 44,232 (2017)
- 1st SAFC game vs. MLS in Toyota Field – U.S. Open Cup – 1-0 loss v. FC Dallas – June 6, 2018
Look at that bulleted snapshot of San Antonio’s soccer history. That’s what I meant when I said earlier that it was purely ambitious civic effort to bring another major league team to a primed and deserving city.
San Antonio is everything an expansion city should be and as that historical recap shows it’s everything that Austin is not in terms of proving out a market’s strength.
I’m proud to say I’m one of the lucky ones who either worked on or was in attendance at each one of those bulleted events. It’s also my honor to see longtime supporters and fans at the SAFC tailgates or games and meet new ones all the time.
So for now, San Antonio’s soccer future continues to unfold every day with the latest courthouse news from Columbus or the vetting process of PSV’s proposal for McKalla.
Either way, know this: MLS would be lucky to land San Antonio as an expansion market – one of the best sports owners in the United States with an established USL team and front office operating in a beautiful soccer-specific stadium that’s expandable today.
I’m not the only one who suspects several current MLS owners feel the same way. Many are the same owners who believe the Columbus-Crew-to-Austin fiasco needs to be resolved sooner than later.
Maybe the windmills haven’t won yet after all. Unfortunately though, our future remains clear as mud.