COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – In an attempt to keep a Major League Soccer franchise in Columbus, the city and Ohio filed a lawsuit claiming the league and team are subject to a state law imposing restrictions on sports owners who use taxpayer money.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Columbus sued the MLS and Columbus Crew SC in the Franklin County Common Pleas Court to stop the team from moving to Austin, Texas. The complaint was filed late Monday but was not made available by the court until Tuesday.
The lawsuit against the league and team operator Precourt Sports Ventures LLC is brought under Ohio Revised Code 9.67, better known as the Art Modell law, a statute enacted after National Football League team owner Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996.
According to the complaint, Modell, who did not believe the city would upgrade Cleveland Stadium, announced he was moving the Browns to Baltimore one day after voters approved a tax to make the improvements.
“The Browns to Baltimore move spawned litigation, congressional hearings and a nationwide debate about the use of public funds to build and upgrade facilities for wealthy owners of professional sports teams,” the complaint states.
The Modell law requires owners of pro sports teams that use tax-supported facilities and get financial help from the state to give six months’ notice of a planned move. It also allows local entities a chance to buy the team during that six months.
In December, DeWine claims he sent a letter to Precourt CEO Anthony Precourt reminding him of his obligations under the Modell law and urging him “to keep the Crew in Columbus.”
“The statute is a narrowly written, common-sense response to owners who accept taxpayer benefits from one location and then shop their teams to the highest bidders elsewhere,” the attorney general’s lawsuit states. “It applies only to owners whose teams use ‘tax supported’ facilities and accept ‘financial assistance’ from the state or a political subdivision, and it applies to in-state and out-of-state moves alike.”
The Columbus Crew joined the MLS in 1996 as one of 10 teams in the league. The franchise entered into a 25-year lease with the state in 1998 to use land owned by the Ohio Expo Commission to build the soccer team’s stadium, according to the lawsuit, which became MLS’s first soccer-specific stadium in the U.S. It is now known as Mapfre Stadium.
The Crew has seen success in Columbus and has a large fan base fighting to keep the team from leaving town. It won the MLS Cup Championship in 2008, in addition to conference championships and other awards.
DeWine and Columbus claim Ohio granted the team tax exempt status in 2006.
“As a result, all taxes, penalties and interest paid by Crew soccer for the years 1998 through 2005 were remitted, and Crew Soccer has not paid property tax on the land or Mapfre Stadium since 2005,” the complaint states.
The state and city say the team and its affiliates have also accepted about $5 million in state taxpayer-funded improvements to the stadium parking lots, as well as property tax exemptions.
Columbus extended roads and used taxpayer money as part of the construction of the stadium, the lawsuit states.
When Precourt Sports Ventures bought the Crew in 2013, its CEO allegedly promised then-Mayor Michael Coleman that the team would stay in Columbus.
“Mr. Precourt later said, ‘I think it was very important to the [previous owners] and to Major League Soccer that the Crew would remain in Columbus. We’re very committed to that,’” according to the complaint.
However, last October, Precourt “announced his intention to move the Crew if the city or private investors could not guarantee him that a downtown stadium would be built for the team,” the lawsuit states.
DeWine and Columbus claim MLS Commissioner Don Garber has endorsed Precourt’s exploration of Austin as a potential new home and has spoken with city officials there about possible stadium sites.
The city and state allege Precourt has had discussions with at least one potential local investor about keeping the Crew in Columbus, but that investor has not been identified and neither the team nor MLS have indicated the team will stay in town.
In addition to an injunction barring the relocation, the lawsuit seeks a court declaration that the Modell law applies to the Crew and MLS and that they cannot move the team to Austin or any other city without giving the required six-month notice. Columbus and DeWine also want potential buyers in the area to have a chance at purchasing the franchise.
The team and league said in a statement that they “are disappointed that the Ohio Attorney General and the City of Columbus have chosen to commence litigation rather than encouraging public officials in Columbus to engage in constructive discussions about the future of Columbus Crew SC.”