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Columbus Crew owner may move soccer team to Austin, Texas

FILE - In this Sept. 16, 2017, file photo, Columbus Crew's Ola Kamara reacts after missing a scoring chance during the first half of an MLS soccer game against the Vancouver Whitecaps in Vancouver, British Columbia. The owner of the Crew SC says the team will move to Austin, Texas, unless a new stadium is built in Columbus. Precourt Sports Ventures, owner of the Major League Soccer club since 2013, said it "is exploring strategic options to ensure the long-term viability of the club." (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)

By MITCH STACY

AP Sports Writer

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) The owner of the Crew SC says the team is no longer sustainable and will move to Austin, Texas, unless a new, privately-financed stadium is built in downtown Columbus.

Anthony Precourt, whose Precourt Sports Ventures has owned the Major League Soccer club since 2013, said Tuesday the Crew need more fan and financial support to compete in the growing league, and a new stadium in the urban center is the only way to make it work. The Crew currently play in 17-year-old Mapfre Stadium, about 4 miles north of downtown Columbus.

The team will be back in Ohio's capital city for 2018, Precourt said, but its future beyond that depends on which city steps up first.

"Despite all the efforts to move the needle beyond on-the-field success, our business is struggling to keep pace with the rising standards of major league soccer," Precourt said in a conference call with reporters. "The club historically and presently has challenges with match-day attendance, with growing our season-ticket base, with demand for corporate sponsorship and with relevance. The stadium and site are challenges in Columbus."

The Crew is 20th in attendance this season out of 22 MLS teams with an average of 15,439, despite making the playoffs. The capacity is 19,968.

Austin is the largest market in North America without a major league sports franchise, and the city is receptive. Precourt declined to comment about any talks that could result in a new downtown soccer-specific stadium there. He dispelled rumors that the team has an agreement to play temporarily at the University of Texas stadium in 2019 while a new stadium is built.

"Exciting news because Major League Soccer would be a huge success in Austin, and the Crew would find tons of support," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. "There is a lot of benefit that being in Austin would give a team, too - though not public funding of a stadium."

Precourt called Austin "the most attractive untapped market in the United States for MLS soccer." The city already has submitted a bid for an MLS expansion team.

Columbus Mayor Andrew Ginther said he had met with team ownership about solutions to keep the team in the city but complained that he didn't get "full engagement." City officials didn't know about a potential move until the public announcement Tuesday, he said.

"We were surprised to learn of their decision in this way," Ginther said in a statement. "Losing the Crew to another city would be a huge disappointment to their loyal and growing fan base in Columbus."

Alex Fischer of the Columbus Partnership, a consortium of CEOs and business leaders, told The Columbus Dispatch that a group of business leaders approached Precourt with offers to buy Crew SC outright and to go into a 50-50 partnership, both of which were rejected. But Precourt said Tuesday that his discussions with potential investors in the team were all attached to a plan for a new stadium.

Precourt said he approached Columbus business leaders last year and was clear about the problems.

"We have engaged the community privately since the beginning of 2016 about our business issues, and made it clear that we would potentially start to explore strategic alternatives if the business didn't improve," he said.

He said three potential stadium sites have been identified in Columbus, but he declined to comment on them.

"We are not asking for public tax dollars, and we are not asking either city to build a stadium for us," he said.

AP sports writer Jim Vertuno in Austin contributed to this report.

Updated October 17, 2017

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