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Jul 31, 2013

Columbus Crew gets new ownership

The original ownership group of the Columbus Crew wasn't looking to sell. Instead, Hunt Sports Group was seeking a local investor to purchase a minority share in the MLS franchise.

Once businessman Anthony Precourt began to learn more about the club, though, it was only a matter of time before he could convince Hunt Sports Group to sell the entire franchise.

The deal was announced on Tuesday, the day before the league's annual All-Star game. Precourt Sports Ventures LLC will take over operating rights to the franchise from the company run by Clark Hunt, whose late father Lamar Hunt helped establish the league nearly 20 years ago.

"We have all the resources we need to make the Crew increasingly relevant locally and nationally, stronger financially and more competitive on the field," Precourt said. "I'm going to take this job extremely seriously. It has really consumed me, and trust me, I've had many sleepless nights over the past few months, thinking about and dreaming about our future together."

The Crew, which won the MLS Cup in 2008, was one of the charter members of the league, and Hunt called it a "bittersweet" day for his family and company. But he also made it clear that Hunt Sports Group will remain active in MLS through its ownership of FC Dallas.

"We were initially very taken back by his interest," Hunt said, "but after we got to know Anthony, we concluded that he was the right guy to lead the Columbus Crew."

During the early days of Major League Soccer, every team was owned by just a few different groups. But over the years, those teams have slowly taken on more local ownership -- Hunt Sports Group sold the franchise in Kansas City in 2006 -- in an attempt to diversify the league.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said following the dedication of futsal courts in Kansas City, Kan., on Tuesday that the sale of the Crew represented a "great development" for the league.

"It's been a long time from our days when we had three owners," Garber said, "and now we're soon to have 20 teams and with the exception of the 50 percent ownership that Phil Anschutz has in Houston, we have one team and one owner, and that's been a goal of this league since 2002."

The Crew, the only MLS club in Ohio, has experienced plenty of success since its founding. Along with capturing its first MLS Cup five years ago, it also won the U.S. Open Cup in 2002 and the Supporters' Shield for the league's best regular-season record on three occasions.

The club was also groundbreaking in that it opened the first stadium built specifically for an MLS team in 1999. The facility has been used by the U.S. national team for several competitions and has served as a blueprint for other soccer-specific stadiums across the league.

Garber said that Precourt, whose Precourt Capital Management provides investment management services and private equity investing in the energy sector, began to express interest in expanding into the sports and entertainment realm more than a year ago.

Precourt was drawn to MLS and began discussions with Hunt about four months ago on purchasing part of the Columbus franchise. Over time, Precourt became more enamored of the league.

"We weren't pressuring them to sell the team," Garber said, "but as discussions proceeded and Anthony got more involved in MLS and did his due diligence, he said, 'Hey, I want to own all this team,' and he was able to convince the Hunt family to sell him 100 percent interest in the club."

Precourt said that while Columbus is "a very healthy franchise," he has plenty of plans to make it even stronger. The club has close to 7,000 season ticketholders and would like to reach 10,000 in the near future. The new ownership will discuss naming rights options, and that he'll look at the Crew brand to see if there are ways to make it more exciting.

"I'll tell you that we're going to be thoughtful and thorough about the decisions we make," Precourt said. "We're not going to make knee-jerk reactions. Our intent is to come in and have it be status quo here for a while and just assess the situation -- learn, ask a lot of questions, and by season end, we'll start to build our business plan for the following year."

Precourt said that while he lives in Northern California, he plans to establish a second home in Ohio and made a promise to Crew fans that he will "by no means be an absentee owner."

"This club, and any sports franchise for that matter, should be a sacred community asset. That is how we're going to treat the Crew," he said. "Our goal will be to take the Crew to be one of the standard bearers in the league."

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