COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said Friday they are part of a group trying to buy the Columbus Crew to keep the MLS team in the city.
The group, which also includes Columbus-area investors, said in a statement it is moving forward to acquire the team, which appeared headed to Austin, Texas, after this season. A new stadium in downtown Columbus is part of the plan, although no details were provided.
The agreement also provides that Austin, whose city council had approved plans for a new, privately owned 20,000-seat stadium, will get an MLS expansion team no later than 2021.
"MLS is committed to keeping Crew SC in Columbus should we continue to make progress on these critical components and agree to key terms with the investor group," the league said in a statement.
Anthony Precourt, the San Francisco-based investor who owns the Crew, had courted Austin for a potential move since last year, contending that the team was no longer financially viable in Columbus without bigger crowds and a new stadium. Precourt and Richard Suttle, the Austin lobbyist who helped negotiate terms of a stadium deal there, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.
In Columbus, the announcement touched off wild celebrations among Crew fans, who had been working to save the team since Precourt made his plans public last year.
"This is truly a historic moment," said David Miller, a spokesman for the Save the Crew group. "Over the last year, we've proven that a community of invested individuals has the power to make a big difference."
Meanwhile in Austin, Austin F.C. supporters say they were on edge all day, worried this would mean no more professional soccer in the city. But that worry turned to relief when the statements came out saying the league and PSV are committed to bringing a team to Austin.
"Today there was a lot of rumors swirling around the internet," said Ryan Riggins, the Director of Art and Brand for Austin F.C. supporter group, Austin Anthem. "From our perspective, there's no downside because we're getting a team. If they were out here March 2019, we'd be out there, ready to support. If it turns out to be 2020, 2021, in our brand new stadium in McKalla Place, doesn't matter to us. We're excited."
Everyone involved acknowledged that there are many details still to be worked out. The league's statement said that success for the Crew in Columbus will require "strong local partners, long-term corporate support, a strong season ticket base and long-term plans for a stadium, practice facilities and associated sites."
The MLS expressed its commitment to expand to Austin, saying "regardless of any scenario in Columbus, there is a clear path forward for (Precourt) to operate Austin FC as a Major League Soccer club."
Austin is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a major league sports franchise.
"What a wonderful win/win/win solution!" Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. "The MLS commissioner and Anthony Precourt both reaffirm that Austin will have major league soccer opening the 2021 season in the new, McKalla stadium."
Riggins echoed this sentiment from Adler.
"Definitely a win-win for both Austin and Columbus. Columbus has been fighting hard in order to keep their team in their city, and we respect that and are happy for them. Likewise, we're excited that Austin FC looks like it's going to be the first Major League Soccer, and major league sports team in Austin, Texas," Riggins said.
Precourt Sports Ventures released the following statement:
With the recent news of a possible investor group stepping into Columbus, Austin FC is on the verge of becoming the first major league sports franchise in the history of Austin.
PSV has made remarkable progress in Austin, and when the definitive agreement with the City of Austin is finalized, MLS in Austin will be a reality. Regardless of the possibility of any bona fide investor group in Columbus closing on a transaction to assume operating rights to Columbus Crew SC, Austin FC will be playing MLS matches in the Texas state capital in the near future. The club will likely begin playing at a date no later than the spring 2021 opening of the new, privately-financed stadium and soccer park at McKalla Place.
Although the process is not yet final in Austin, a successful outcome is within reach and PSV remains grateful for the patience and support of all involved.
The strength and resiliency of Austin supporters and elected officials have helped create a successful foundation for Austin FC to be a proud community platform, and PSV is incredibly excited for what lies ahead.
Ohio and Columbus officials had sued Precourt and MLS to stop or slow down the move. Ohio law requires teams that use tax-supported facilities and accept state financial assistance to give six months' notice and give local investors a chance to buy the team. The law was enacted after the NFL's Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996.
The Haslams, owners of the Browns since 2012, are still seeking on-the-field success in Cleveland. Their tenure in Cleveland has included numerous coaching and front-office changes as the Browns have been one of the league's worst teams for several years.
Cleveland became just the second franchise to lose all 16 games last season, when the Haslams again swept out most of their management team but retained coach Hue Jackson despite his 1-31 record over two seasons. They brought in former Kansas City general manager John Dorsey to handle personnel, and the Browns are already showing major improvement this season.
AP Sports Writers Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas, and Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.