The owner of Columbus Crew SC is considering relocating the team to Austin, Texas, unless the city of Columbus, Ohio, can come up with a plan for a new downtown stadium.
Anthony Precourt, the CEO of Precourt Sports Ventures and the chairman of Crew SC, said he intends to explore concurrent paths towards a stadium in both markets -- a plan that has the support of Major League Soccer.
However, Precourt told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview that "we're going to need to see a dramatic change" in attendance and other factors to keep the team in Columbus.
Precourt has been frustrated at the team's inability to increase revenue streams in terms of overall attendance, sponsorship and season tickets. With one week to go in the regular season, Crew SC's attendance ranks 20th out of 22 teams.
Precourt also has grown weary of playing games at aging MAPFRE Stadium, a no-frills venue about four miles north of downtown that opened in 1999 as MLS's first soccer-specific stadium.
"Despite our investments and efforts, the current course is not sustainable," Precourt said in a statement. "This club has ambition to be a standard bearer in MLS, therefore we have no choice but to expand and explore all of our options.
"This includes a possible move to Austin, which is the largest metropolitan area in North America without a major league sports franchise. Soccer is the world's game, and with Austin's growing presence as an international city, combined with its strong multicultural foundation, MLS in Austin could be an ideal fit."
MLS backed Precourt's plan to explore his options, with the club's statement including commissioner Don Garber calling Columbus' situation "particularly concerning."
"Despite PSV's significant investments and improvements on and off the field, Columbus Crew SC is near the bottom of the league in all business metrics and the club's stadium is no longer competitive with other venues across MLS," Garber said.
"The league is very reluctant to allow teams to relocate, but based on these factors, we support PSV's efforts to explore options outside of Columbus, including Austin, provided they find a suitable stadium location."
At a news conference on Tuesday, Precourt 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.
Precourt purchased the team from previous owners Hunt Sports Group in 2013. According to the Columbus Dispatch, he paid a premium price of $68 million for the team because he intended to move it, but the purchase agreement contained a promise to keep the team in Columbus for at least 10 years.
However, that agreement critically included an out clause in case Precourt wanted to move the team to Austin.
The possible move to Austin would involve playing in a temporary stadium for two seasons until a new stadium is completed in around 2021. The Dispatch reported that a deal to host home games at the University of Texas is "all but done" for 2019, though Precourt later said no deal was done. MLS would have to approve any stadium plan.
University of Texas athletic director Mike Perrin told the Austin American-Statesman that the school was open to working with MLS to play at the 20,000-capacity Myers Stadium, the home of the Longhorns' soccer and track teams. Columbus played a pair of preseason friendlies at the venue in 2015.
Columbus mayor Andrew Ginther said a meeting with Precourt and club officials to find a way to keep the team in Columbus did not yield results.
"Unfortunately, we did not receive full engagement from the team's ownership," the mayor said in a statement. "We were surprised to learn of their decision in this way. Losing the Crew to another city would be a huge disappointment to their loyal and growing fan base in Columbus."
Austin Mayor Steve Adler said a potential move was "exciting news because Major League Soccer would be a huge success in Austin, and the Crew would find tons of support. There is a lot of benefit that being in Austin would give a team, too -- though not public funding of a stadium.''
Precourt said he has engaged Columbus civic and business leaders for the last four and a half years, talks that he described as "extensive, exhaustive." In early 2016 those talks focused on the difficulties that Crew SC was having in attaining revenue targets that are in line with its peers.
The Dispatch and Sports Illustrated both reported that a consortium of local businessmen have also been trying to buy the team, but Precourt had rejected all offers to sell even a partial stake to local investors.
"We met with ownership a month ago to discuss their stadium study and plans and ideas for a new stadium in Columbus," Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a group of 60 Columbus business leaders and CEOs, told SI.com.
"Those conversations turned up the fact that ownership had been in extensive conversations over the last number of months with leaders in Austin about a possible new stadium and moving the team there."
Austin is not among the 12 locations vying to win one of four expansion slots from MLS, but in August the league registered two trademarks for club names -- Austin Athletic and Austin FC.
Also in August, the second-tier USL announced plans to bring soccer back to the city with a team that will play at a 5,000-seat venue at the Circuit of The Americas racetrack, where Barcelona opened a training academy this year.
The Austin Aztex played in the USL from 2008-2010 before moving and evolving into current MLS club Orlando City. A new Aztex team, which was affiliated with Crew SC, stopped playing in 2015 after struggling to draw fans to a number of high school football stadiums.