COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam said Friday they are part of a group trying to buy the Columbus Crew to keep the MLS team in the city.
The group, which also includes Columbus-area investors, said in a statement it is moving forward to acquire the team, which appeared headed to Austin, Texas, after this season. A new stadium in downtown Columbus is part of the plan, although no details were provided.
The agreement also provides that Austin, whose city council had approved plans for a new, privately owned 20,000-seat stadium, will get an MLS expansion team no later than 2021.
"MLS is committed to keeping Crew SC in Columbus should we continue to make progress on these critical components and agree to key terms with the investor group," the league said in a statement.
Anthony Precourt, the San Francisco-based investor who owns the Crew, had courted Austin for a potential move since last year, contending that the team was no longer financially viable in Columbus without bigger crowds and a new stadium. Precourt and Richard Suttle, the Austin lobbyist who helped negotiate terms of a stadium deal there, did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday.
In Columbus, the announcement touched off wild celebrations among Crew fans, who had been working to save the team since Precourt made his plans public last year.
"This is truly a historic moment," said David Miller, a spokesman for the Save the Crew group. "Over the last year, we've proven that a community of invested individuals has the power to make a big difference."
Everyone involved acknowledged that there are many details still to be worked out. The league's statement said that success for the Crew in Columbus will require "strong local partners, long-term corporate support, a strong season ticket base and long-term plans for a stadium, practice facilities and associated sites."
The MLS expressed its commitment to expand to Austin, saying "regardless of any scenario in Columbus, there is a clear path forward for (Precourt) to operate Austin FC as a Major League Soccer club."
Austin is the largest metropolitan area in the country without a major league sports franchise.
"What a wonderful win/win/win solution!" Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. "The MLS commissioner and Anthony Precourt both reaffirm that Austin will have major league soccer opening the 2021 season in the new, McKalla stadium."
Ohio and Columbus officials had sued Precourt and MLS to stop or slow down the move. Ohio law requires teams that use tax-supported facilities and accept state financial assistance to give six months' notice and give local investors a chance to buy the team. The law was enacted after the NFL's Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996.
The Haslams, owners of the Browns since 2012, are still seeking on-the-field success in Cleveland. Their tenure in Cleveland has included numerous coaching and front-office changes as the Browns have been one of the league's worst teams for several years.
Cleveland became just the second franchise to lose all 16 games last season, when the Haslams again swept out most of their management team but retained coach Hue Jackson despite his 1-31 record over two seasons. They brought in former Kansas City general manager John Dorsey to handle personnel, and the Browns are already showing major improvement this season.