In a plot twist worthy of the the worst of novels, the 1996 theft of the Cleveland Browns by the universally detested Art Modell may end up making it impossible for Don Garber to steal the Columbus Crew.
Irony, thy name is SoccerDon.
There Garber was yesterday in his ultra-luxe suite high above fifth avenue in New York, whistling a happy tune, deciding between the scampi and the scallops for lunch and getting ready for the MLS Board of Governors meeting where he's going to give the increasingly impotent owners their marching orders on which two cities they will grant the high privilege of handing over, collectively, a $300 million payday.
Plus, with Columbus finally out of the playoffs he was finalizing his trip to Toronto to attend the MLS Cup game without having to decide between a) lying about being stuck in traffic and b) trying to pretend that he doesn't hear 22,000 people loudly suggesting he perform anatomically impossible acts on himself.
Then an obscure state legislator from Central Ohio named Mike Duffey (R - BiteMeDon) rolled a stink bomb into the Don's perfect day.
It seems that Duffey discovered an obscure law dating from the 1996 outrage over Modell's craven betrayal which may wreck Don and Tony's plans for being named Kings of the SXSW parade next year. It's a very short, concise law so I'll quote it in full:
Restrictions on owner of professional sports team that uses a tax-supported facility.
No owner of a professional sports team that uses a tax-supported facility for most of its home games and receives financial assistance from the state or a political subdivision thereof shall cease playing most of its home games at the facility and begin playing most of its home games elsewhere unless the owner either:
(A) Enters into an agreement with the political subdivision permitting the team to play most of its home games elsewhere;
(B) Gives the political subdivision in which the facility is located not less than six months' advance notice of the owner's intention to cease playing most of its home games at the facility and, during the six months after such notice, gives the political subdivision or any individual or group of individuals who reside in the area the opportunity to purchase the team.
Effective Date: 06-20-1996 .
MAPFRE stadium sits on fully tax-abated land with well-below market rate rent and gleans considerable income from the state built and maintained paved parking lots surrounding the place. There's no question they're "tax-supported".
Since MLS has already turned down a very legitimate $150 million offer for the Crew, there's no question that Columbus is fully prepared to pony up the cash tomorrow and shortly thereafter build the downtown stadium which Garber and Precourt claim the Crew needs to meet whatever ethereal "business metrics" they demand.
However, as we all know, that's not what TheSoccerDon wants; he wants out of Columbus. Period.
Now in point of fact this law - which nobody knew about until just yesterday but which, in another signal achievement of Don Garber's tenure at the helm of MLS, if it sticks could quickly sweep the land from sea to shining taxpayer-funded stadium - has not, we're told by the legal types, been through the courts yet and nobody can say for sure how it will play out.
We can be fairly certain though that one of two things will happen here:
1) Various Ohio courts - tough luck on that one, eh? - will decide that the Crew will stay right where it is, thanks
2) An ugly, protracted legal battle which could take years to adjudicate will make a bunch of lawyers very rich and Don very unemployed.
Of course, as per usual, MLS has no comment whatsoever. Their media office has spent the last couple months refusing to answer the phone and that's likely to continue. They ought to let them spend the Winter in Florida.
However, from whatever bunker Fratass Tony is cowering in came this dispatch, without a header or a signature:
“Precourt Sports Ventures has seen the public remarks made by State Rep. Mike Duffey and PSV will not have further comment at this time."
Now in truth it would be hard to match Garber's craven public act of cowardice from last week's Eastern Conference semi-final match in Toronto when, after promising FoxSports that he would appear for a pregame interview with Alexi Lalas and "extensively" deal with questions surrounding the Crew, he then had his people tell them that he was "stuck in traffic" and wouldn't be appearing.
(Their eyerolls were, however, well worth tuning in for)
Apparently he was still "stuck in traffic" at halftime and during the postgame as well. Hell, Lalas would have gladly met him in the parking lot or the hotel bar or the SkyLounge at Toronto Pearson. Say what you want but Roger Goodell or Adam Silver or Rob Manfred, as arrogant as they are wouldn't dare pull a stunt like that.
The problem may have been that, earlier that day, the Mayor of the City of Columbus sent Garber and Precourt a very nice letter offering various routes to a stadium solution and inviting them to talk with him. MLS/PSV sent an insulting one sentence response - without header or signature - basically inviting His Honor to F*ck himself and possibly that didn't fit DonnyG's carefully vetted "extensively" prepared comments.
One other result of Rep. Duffey's letter to the Ohio AG will almost certainly be the torpedoing of Cincinnati's shot at being named one of the two expansion teams to be announced next week.
It looked very much like they were a front-runner, but a big part of that was always going to be a tacit statement about replacing Columbus with another Ohio team, thus proving that it's not about flyover country but "business metrics". However, with the Columbus legal issues up in the air it says here they're not going to give Cincy a damned thing.
In addition, they're going to want to take a serious look at locating a team in a state where it appears the law says they can never be removed. That takes away a big chunk of the league's (read: Garber's) power over a team, something they're not likely to cede without serious thought.
So unless the league is going to change their minds about not wanting to play at cavernous Ford Field in Detroit, this likely means "Welcome to MLS, Sacramento".
We'll look forward to seeing you play the Crew for many years to come.
Over the past few weeks I've heard the same question from a number of people which, to summarize, goes something like: "Archer, you ignorant slut, why do you keep blaming Garber for this mess? Isn't it really Precourt doing all of this?"
By way of an answer:
In Austin Texas there's a lawyer named Richard Suttle and I'll let the Austin Chronicle describe who he is in a 2010 article entitled "Suttle as a kick in the head":
Better count your chickens, Austinites, because Richard Suttle is loose in the henhouse again. Everyone's favorite developers' attorney is at City Council today ...
Now, the very fact that Richard Suttle is involved in this project should give everyone pause. He's the developers' equivalent of criminal attorney Roy Minton: the guy you go to when you're guilty, when you want to get something approved or subsidized that you really don't deserve."
This is the guy who appeared before Austin City Council last month getting them to agree to do an "inventory" of city parks to see which ones might have enough space for a soccer stadium.
Now in most places, if City officials want to know something like this, they call up the Parks Commissioner and ask him to fax over a list. Maybe 20 minutes, tops.
But apparently not in Austin. In Austin they need to send scout cars up and down the streets, tracking down signs that say "City Park" on them because, apparently, the Parks Department doesn't have a sheet of paper which lists, you know, City Parks.
The question is, who does Suttle work for down there? Well, here's a letter from Don:
Garber himself says that Suttle works for him. Precourt, PSV and the Crew are not mentioned.
And here, via the Austin City Clerk's office, and the indispensable Massive Report, is a list of registered lobbyists working in that city, all of whom are employed by Suttle's law firm - Armbrust & Brown - and all of whom report that they are working on behalf of "Major League Soccer, 450 Fifth Ave. New York:
There's lots more, like the PR firm Elizabeth Christian Public Relations, which has been retained to represent this whole charade down there - they admit to having hosted a series of "get acquainted meetings" for city officials and soccer reps, although the real question, as posed by Massive report is:
Does MLS have similar operations in any of the 12 expansion candidate cities?
And the answer of course is no. None at all. 12 other cities are knocking themselves out, spending significant amounts of money and time and other resources in an effort to land an MLS team. Meanwhile, Austin Texas is doing nothing, asking for nothing and contributing nothing: Don Garber is spending large amounts of league money and time trying to force the Columbus Crew down their throats.
However, the really instructive point is the date on Garber's letter: August 7.
Note that the MLS Board of Governors met at the All Star Game on August 2, and within a week MLS, in addition to giving Suttle what amounts to MLS credentials also registered two proposed team names including the monumentally unique and exciting "Austin FC". Meanwhile, PSV started the "MLS2ATX" website ("a community of supporters working together to bring Major League Soccer to Austin, TX.") and at least two astroturf twitter accounts purporting to be run by grassroots supporters.
(Deadspin called these astroturfing efforts "oafish" and I can't top that so I won't try, except to note that, since the people running them apparently didn't know how to turn "location" off on a Twitter, everyone saw that they were all being run out of Columbus Ohio, unquestionably by Crew employees working at MAPFRE Stadium offices.)
As I said, all this and much more happened immediately after the August 2 BoG meeting, making it appear very much like something was decided then that gave Precourt the green light.
So today as the suddenly gutless, suspiciously silent owners gather in Toronto - I hope someone makes sure Don gets there in time - they're going to get to review the fruits of that decision.
Now there's a wall well-worth being a fly on.
* BigSoccer Commandatore @Smithsoccer1721 informs me that an unknown local citizen was the one who told Rep, Duffey about the law.
(*UPDATE* Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says that after a review of the applicable law,
"should ownership of the Columbus Crew initiate a move of the team without complying with Ohio law, I am prepared to take the necessary legal action under this law to protect the interests of the state of Ohio..")