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Potential Crew relocation to Austin prompts San Antonio to send threatening letter to MLS

A judge wants clarification on the MLS expansion process after citing potential conflicts of interest.

MLS: Atlanta United FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

San Antonio is bidding for an MLS expansion team, and the people involved with its bid are not happy about the news that Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt is planning to move his team to Austin. The San Antonio bid feels it was misled by MLS, is seeking clarification on the status of its bid from the league, and is apparently looking into whether or not it has any legal recourse.

On Friday, Bexar County judge Nelson Wolff sent a letter to MLS commissioner Don Garber asking him to clarify the timeline of events that led to Precourt’s pursuit of a move to Austin. Here is Wolff’s letter in full, via KENS 5 San Antonio.

The letter says that Precourt’s presence on the MLS expansion committee “presents a clear conflict of interest” if San Antonio’s information about the timeline of Precourt’s interest in a move to Austin is correct.

San Antonio says it is their understanding that Precourt “obtained a legal right to relocate the Columbus Crew to Austin when he purchased the franchise in 2013,” though the San Antonio bid was unaware of any plans for him to do so. When San Antonio met with MLS president Mark Abbott in 2015, they made it clear they would only pursue the bid “if there was a clear path” to getting an MLS team, and Abbott indicated the league would not place teams in both San Antonio and Austin while encouraging the San Antonio group to bid.

After meeting with MLS, the the city of San Antonio and Bexar County moved to purchase Toyota Field, a soccer-specific stadium that currently seats 8,296 people, but is designed to be easily expandable. The San Antonio bid says that the local governments would not have spent the $18 million they did on purchasing the stadium if they were informed that Precourt was considering moving the Crew to Austin.

“I would appreciate a prompt response to these concerns,” Nelson writes in the conclusion of his letter, before getting into the threatening stuff. “In the meantime, I have asked the Bexar County criminal district attorney to thoroughly investigate the matter and report his findings to the Bexar County commissioners court.”

Did MLS mislead San Antonio?

This is going to be hard to prove. According to the Columbus Dispatch, Precourt’s purchase agreement for the Crew included a promise to keep the team in Columbus for 10 years, but with one out — Austin. If that is indeed in the terms of Precourt’s purchase agreement, MLS certainly knew about it. However, that doesn’t mean the league believed that Precourt intended to pursue relocation in November 2015, when Abbott encouraged San Antonio to bid for an expansion team.

In October 2016, the Crew hired a consulting firm to put together a report evaluating the demand for a new stadium in Columbus. Previously, the team had asked for state funds to update Mapfre Stadium, which it was not granted. These are indications that Precourt was looking for ways to make the Crew financially viable in Columbus.

Expansion bids were due by February 2017, and the two names that MLS trademarked for potential Austin teams were registered in August of this year. MLS and Precourt are likely to argue that — both in November 2015 and February 2017 — MLS and the Crew wanted to keep the team in Columbus, and were not yet seriously pursuing relocation options.

However, if the Dispatch’s report about Precourt’s purchase agreement is accurate, the league was aware of his interest in Austin in 2013 and neglected to inform the San Antonio bid. MLS might have believed the possibility of the Crew’s relocation to be an extremely remote one, but they still should have told San Antonio about Precourt’s option to move the team.

Why was Precourt on the expansion committee?

It’s curious that Precourt had any influence over the placement of expansion teams. Bexar County might not find evidence of wrongdoing on the part of MLS, but that won’t make the league’s decision to put Precourt on the expansion committee any better.

Precourt was one of five owners who were initially announced as the ones that would decide the fate of the bids for MLS expansion. One of the bids, San Antonio, is competition for the new franchise Precourt wishes to establish in Austin. Another bid, Cincinnati, has likely drawn the eyeballs and dollars of casual Crew supporters away from Columbus and closer to their own city. The other four members of the initial committee — Jonathan Kraft of the New England Revolution, Andrew Hauptman of the Chicago Fire, Phil Rawlins of Orlando City, and Jay Sugarman of the Philadelphia Union — would not have their teams affected in any way by any of the expansion candidates.

Even if Precourt has made no attempt to negatively influence the expansion chances of either San Antonio or Cincinnati, and has acted in a completely objective and ethical fashion throughout the process, it’s clear that he shouldn’t have been on the committee in the first place. San Antonio’s concerns about a potential conflict of interest are valid.

UPDATE: Here’s MLS’s statement on Judge Wolff’s letter.

“Major League Soccer has received the letter from Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff. We are in the process of reviewing the letter and preparing a formal response. Although that review is not yet complete, we strongly disagree with Judge Wolff’s assertion that we misled either him or any public official about the prospects for San Antonio acquiring an MLS expansion team.”

MLS also issued a statement on its revamped expansion committee, of which Precourt is no longer a part.

“Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt is no longer a member of the MLS Expansion Committee. Changes were made to many of our ownership committees earlier this year. Below is the current MLS expansion committee:”

MLS Expansion Committee

Jonathan Kraft (chair), New England Revolution

Cliff Illig, Sporting Kansas City

Bill McGuire, Minnesota United

Andrew Hauptman, Chicago Fire

Jay Sugarman, Philadelphia Union

Joe Roth, Seattle Sounders