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Monday, November 13, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

MLS team’s ambitions cast shadow over Austin’s other soccer hopefuls

The possibility of the Major League Soccer club from Columbus, Ohio, relocating to Austin has brought attention to other lower-profile but still ambitious soccer-related projects in the area. And one of the central questions surrounding Columbus Crew ownership group Precourt Sports Ventures’ goal of building a large soccer stadium in Austin is whether, metaphorically speaking, all the air has been sucked out of the room.

That was one of the main points of discussion at Thursday’s City Council meeting during consideration of a resolution to have city staff look for city-owned land that could suit a stadium. Council Member Leslie Pool spent several minutes expressing concern over specific mentions of Precourt in an early version of the resolution – amended to add another non-MLS group and applying to soccer clubs in general – because of the possible appearance of favoritism.

“If we’re going to have a professional team here, and I am definitely interested in that possibility, I don’t want to limit it to just one,” she said. “I understand that particular one is the one that seems to be available at this time but I don’t want to preclude any other teams or other options.”

In the lead-up to Thursday’s meeting Council members Ora Houston and Ann Kitchen said they’d received inquiries from or had discussions with multiple groups interested in bringing a new soccer team to Austin, though those would be in leagues below MLS in terms of professional standing.

Houston’s amendment to the soccer resolution, which passed 10-0 and will result in a report by mid-December, added the group Austin Sports and Entertainment as a named party interested in establishing a new soccer team in Austin.

Sean Foley, a former University of Texas swimmer and sports executive with the Raptor Group that owns the A.S. Roma soccer club in Italy, spoke at Thursday’s meeting about his new company’s plans to create a multipurpose sports facility in District 1 that could potentially feature a soccer stadium.

“We hope if Columbus or any other configuration of Major League Soccer wants to come here that they would think long and hard about District 1,” he said. “District 1 needs lots of infrastructure and transportation help. Our plan can accomplish a lot.”

Foley said his project would be located on private land and built using only private investment dollars.

Precourt’s Austin ambitions have at least stalled a planned relaunch of the Austin Aztex soccer club, which had been slated to begin play in 2019 at a new 5,000-capacity stadium at the Circuit of the Americas.

Bobby Epstein, chair at COTA and majority owner of the United Soccer League franchise, said all work on the stadium and hiring team staff have come to a “dead stop” because of the attention the possible MLS relocation has attracted. The team’s agreement with the USL states it needs to be ready to take the field and compete by 2019, meaning the assorted delays could put the team’s existence in jeopardy.

Epstein said he hasn’t had any contact with Precourt yet and that a partnership likely wouldn’t work because Epstein’s goal is to build a soccer facility at COTA instead of in the urban core of Austin.

“I don’t know that we have that much to offer because we don’t have a location close to the core,” he said. “If the city finds land they think is appropriate for a stadium development, I’d sure like a chance to do something with it if Columbus doesn’t.”

Epstein dismissed Precourt representatives’ assertion that relocating the Columbus team is Austin’s only shot at getting an MLS club, and said his conversations with league officials over the past two years make him confident Austin will become an MLS city soon.

Epstein said the best business opportunity related to establishing a soccer club in Austin would come from being an investor in the team’s stadium because of the other events the facility could hold to generate additional revenue. He estimated an open-air stadium for an MLS team would cost around $150 million, while a covered facility would be more than $200 million.

“The stadium up in Arlington cost more than $1 billion and they’re paying it off early,” Epstein said of the home of the Dallas Cowboys. “In the long run, the stadium investors would do very well. The team itself could be a moneymaker as it becomes more valuable and eventually sold, but I’m not sure that you’re going to make money from team operations.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.

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