English football fans, as a rule, do not pay very close attention to Major League Soccer. Some English fans pay attention because David Beckham, Ashley Cole, and Robbie Keane have all played for the LA Galaxy, some because Frank Lampard played for New York City FC, and other fans pay attention because lesser known players like Nigel Reo-Coker, Liam Ridgewell, Darren Huckerby, or Danny Dichio have all played for various teams in MLS.
A number of English fans will also be aware that US professional teams often relocate to other markets. Popular teams such as the Seattle Supersonics in the NBA, the Minnesota North Stars in the NHL, the Cleveland Browns in the NFL, and the Montreal Expos in MLB have often moved with little warning, leaving the fans to mourn the loss of their favorite team. Even MLS has not been immune to relocation in the past, as the original San Jose franchise moved to Houston, Texas, and became the Houston Dynamo.
The efforts of the owner of the Columbus Crew SC to relocate his team from Columbus, Ohio to Austin, Texas became apparent earlier this week when a story broke that the team was moving before the 2019 season. This news has been met with a united front from all American soccer fans, as supporters groups from other fan bases have lent their support to fans from Columbus. Many of the SB Nation blogs have written stories about how this move brings back bad memories of previous teams moving, or why all American soccer fans should be concerned by MLS allowing the move.
Leeds United fans might remember Columbus as the team that American Robbie Rodgers came to Leeds from.Abandoning Columbus seems particularly harsh because the Crew were one of the founding members of MLS, and one of the early successes of the young league. Those fans showed up and supported the Crew when most teams played in front of empty stadiums and struggled to be recognized in their own cities. Columbus has had a down couple of years at the gate, but the city has supported the team through thick and a lot of thin over the years.
So what does this have to do with English football and fans in England? Well, there has already been one team that has relocated, but there will be another. As every football fan surely knows, MK Dons were once Wimbledon, a team with a proud tradition and history in South London. Charles Koppel, who had owned the original Wimbledon, was faced with a ground, Plough Lane, that was not up to league standards and was forced to ground share with Crystal Palace. Koppel proposed that the club be relocated elsewhere, and after a number of rulings against the club, on 28 May 2002, an independent commission found that Wimbledon should be allowed to relocate due to extreme circumstances. Peter Winkleman, who had approached Wimbledon about relocating to Milton Keynes, now owns and operates MK Dons in a brand-new stadium in Milton Keynes.
Despite the ire of much of the rest of the country, the MK Dons have averaged over 10,000 fans in League One and the Championship over the past three years, not bad for a team that almost everyone assumed would struggle at the gate. Perhaps time really does heal all wounds?
It’s now assumed that no other team would dare to relocate, given the amount of ire and anger that the relocation of Wimbledon caused. But would a desperate owner really consider the reaction to be an obstacle to if enough money was involved? The money involved makes such a scenario almost inevitable. With the increase in money in the Premier League, more teams will spend too much to stay up and suffer even bigger losses once they are relegated from the Premier League.
Here is the horror scenario in which another relocation could occur. Imagine a “big” club, with a ground that seats over 30,000, relegated from the Premier League with huge debts. Despite the parachute payments, the amount of debt is unsustainable. A fire-sale of players follows, in which all of the team’s players are released and the club sinks into administration. Sound familiar, Leeds fans? However, unlike what has happened in previous cases, where debts have been settled and a buyer is found, no buyer comes forward for the club. A winding up order is issued and the club is liquidated.
Clubs that have had this happen to them, like Chester City, have often had “phoenix” clubs formed after the destruction of the previous club. Chester City has been replaced by Chester FC. Chester FC was incorporated in the North West Counties League, 9th in the league pyramid. But what would happen if a “big” club is wound up instead?
Accrington Stanley chairman Andy Holt refused to back down this past May after making comments about the amount of money that is flowing into the Premier League, leaving lower-league football in what he referred to as a “crisis.” Imagine an owner of League One club, facing a very limited future, wondering how to preserve the future of the team when it seems that every month is a struggle just to make payroll. Now imagine an overseas investor approaches this owner promising to buy the team and relocate it to the now vacant “big” club stadium. Or perhaps an owner sees an opportunity and proposes to move a struggling League One or Two club to take the “big” club’s place. Fans, having just seen their beloved club suffer a meltdown, would be hard pressed to turn down a Football League club coming when the alternative would be a long, hard road up the Football League ladder.
Rangers FC in Scotland, after they went through their own “phoenix” rebirth, started out in the bottom of the Scottish League pyramid. It took them four years to get back to the top division in Scotland, with all of the resources of one of the two “big” clubs in Scotland. And even now, after returning to the top flight in Scotland, they are a shell of their former selves. A “big” club having to start over in the 10th level in the pyramid in England might never make it back up to their previous heights. AFC Wimbledon has risen all the way to League One, but in their 13 year history they have not gotten back to the first or second division of English Football after coming up from the 9th level in the pyramid.
If an owner was willing to move a team to replace a big club, the FA surely wouldn’t stand in their way. Even with new Football League rules to prevent such a move, objections would surely crumble with enough financial pressure. If anything, the Wimbledon experience has shown that owners will be allowed to make unpopular decisions, citing “extreme circumstances.” A big club being liquidated would surely be considered an “extreme” circumstance, and while the fans of the clubs might object, time heals all wounds, right?
Football fans on either side of the pond must stick up for one another, because once one team is allowed by its league to abandon the fans, all teams could suffer the same fate. Even if the pressure on MLS ends up for naught, at least football fans all over the United States and even the world can say they tried. Show your support to Columbus fans and help #SaveTheCrew.