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Fight to keep major league soccer in Ohio continues

By Andrew Erickson • Mar 7, 2018 at 2:00 PM

Precourt Sports Ventures, which owns Crew SC, and Major League Soccer, said in a statement Tuesday night they "strongly disagree" with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and the city of Columbus' use of the so-called Modell Law to try to keep the team from relocating to Austin, Texas.

The statement came in response to DeWine and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein announcing Monday they had filed a lawsuit against PSV and MLS in Franklin County.

"Precourt Sports Ventures and Major League Soccer are disappointed that the Ohio Attorney General and the City of Columbus have chosen to commence litigation rather than encouraging public officials in Columbus to engage in constructive discussions about the future of Columbus Crew SC," the statement read.

The city and state's complaint, MLS and Precourt Sports Ventures argue, ignores fact and law. The statement cites "significant investments" PSV has made "both on and off the field" in an attempt to make the Crew a viable business operation in Columbus.

"Despite these efforts and the on-field success of the Club, Crew SC has been at or near the bottom in the League with respect to box office results and corporate support," the statement read. "Marketplace challenges have existed in Columbus for 22 years since the club's founding in 1996."

Precourt Sports Ventures announced in October it would explore relocation to Austin "while also continuing to see if Columbus can be a successful MLS market, and in particular, whether there is a path to a new stadium."

MLS and PSV went on to say they remain willing to engage with public officials and possible private investors to gauge whether a path to viability, which would include a new stadium, exists in Columbus.

"Throughout this process, PSV and MLS have complied, and will continue to comply, with all relevant laws, but we strongly disagree with the AG's and City's interpretation of the Modell Law, its applicability to Columbus Crew SC, and the remedies they seek," the statement read.

The law in question, enacted in 1996 after Art Modell moved the NFL's Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, prohibits owners of professional sports teams who use tax-supported facilities or receive public assistance from leaving without either receiving government consent or giving six months' notice and providing locals a chance to purchase the team. It has never been tested.

"Loyal Crew fans in Columbus have invested their time and loyalty in this team, and they have allowed the Crew SC to capitalize from financial incentives paid for by their tax dollars," DeWine said in a statement Monday. "I am left with no other choice than to file this suit to ensure our laws are followed."

The complaint alleges the Crew has received public benefit in the form of about $5 million in taxpayer dollars to improve the Mapfre Stadium parking lot, a state property tax exemption for Mapfre Stadium, a below-market stadium lease agreement with the State of Ohio, $300,000 in storm sewer relocation and water line construction costs reimbursed with city tax dollars and $1.3 million in tax increment financing for improvements to Silver Drive near the stadium.

Crew investor-operator Anthony Precourt last week published a statement to the PSV-operated mls2atx.com and conducting an interview with the Austin American-Statesman.

"We are still in the process of identifying the right stadium site in Austin, TX. We recognize some would prefer if this process were to move faster, however we believe that ultimately there is value in being thorough as opposed to being fast," Precourt said in the statement. "And although we are willing to dedicate significant time and expense in this effort, we are not in a position to move to Austin if the right site is not identified."

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Below is the press release issued Tuesday from DeWine’s office:

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, along with the city of Columbus, today filed a lawsuit against Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV), the operator/investor of Columbus Crew SC, and Major League Soccer (MLS), to protect Ohio taxpayers’ interests and ensure the team’s owners follow Ohio law should they seek to move the team to Austin, Texas.

“Today I have filed a lawsuit in Franklin County to try to #SaveTheCrew and keep the black and gold in Columbus,” DeWine said. “Loyal Crew fans in Columbus have invested their time and loyalty in this team, and they have allowed the Crew SC to capitalize from financial incentives paid for by their tax dollars. I am left with no other choice than to file this suit to ensure our laws are followed.”

“As I have said, we believe Columbus Crew SC belongs in Columbus. We have a rich history of professional soccer and some of the most loyal and dedicated fans in the league,” Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. “Just as importantly, the team plays in a taxpayer-supported facility, and Precourt Sports Ventures and Major League Soccer have accepted financial assistance from the state of Ohio and the City of Columbus. State law provides us with this protection.”

“I am very pleased that our state’s top law enforcement officer is vigorously enforcing longstanding Ohio law,” said state Rep. Mike Duffey (R-Worthington), a leader in the #SavetheCrew effort. “The Crew SC is our team. Our town. Neither the MLS or Precourt Sports Ventures can operate above Ohio law.”

In 1996, following the relocation of the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, the General Assembly enacted Ohio Revised Code 9.67. The narrowly written, common-sense statute applies to owners whose teams use tax-supported facilities and accept financial assistance from the state and its localities. It prohibits these owners from moving their teams elsewhere unless they give at least six months advance notice of the intention to move and give the city, an individual, or group of individuals, who live in the area an opportunity to purchase the teams.

The lawsuit alleges that the Crew SC and its affiliates have:

• Accepted the benefits of approximately $5 million in state taxpayer-funded improvements to their parking facilities.

• Accepted state property tax exemption for the land on which the Crew SC’s home field, Mapfre Stadium, sits.

• Leased that land from the state at a below-market rate.

• Accepted more than $300,000 in city taxpayer-funded reimbursements of their costs in moving portions of a storm sewer and constructing a water line.

• Entered into a Tax Increment Financing and Economic Development Agreement with the city of Columbus to extend Silver Drive to increase access to Mapfre Stadium currently costing the city $1.3 million in tax revenue with the potential total cost of more than $2.1 million.

DeWine and the city of Columbus seek to prevent a potential move of the Crew SC from Columbus to Austin, Texas or any other city without giving Columbus officials notice at least six months before any contemplated move. The suit also asks that during the notice period as outlined in the statute, PSV and MLS offer the city of Columbus and any individual or group of individuals from the Columbus area a reasonable opportunity to buy the Crew SC or negotiate an agreement under which the Crew SC would be permitted to move.

Also named in the lawsuit are Team Columbus, LLC, the owners of the Crew SC’s stadium, and Crew Soccer Stadium, LLC, the organization that leases the stadium property from the state.

The suit was filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Franklin County.

A copy of the lawsuit is available on the Ohio Attorney General's website.

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©2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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