Two years before Cleveland lost its professional football franchise, Columbus, Ohio, got a professional football — sorry, soccer — team.
The Columbus Crew are one of Major League Soccer’s 10 charter clubs. They’ve won a league championship. They play in the first soccer-specific stadium ever built for an MLS team. But with the organization’s owner frustrated over the unwillingness of the city of Columbus and private investors to offer help with constructing a new stadium, the Crew have seemed Texas-bound for a while now.
But on Monday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit against the team’s ownership, invoking a never-before-tested state statute. It’s known as the “Modell Law,” after Art Modell, who moved the Browns out of their longtime Cleveland home and to Baltimore over dissatisfaction with the city’s stadium.
Ohio Revised Code 9.6 was enacted in 1996, the Ravens’ first year in Baltimore. It reads as follows:
“No owner of a professional sports team that uses a tax-supported facility for most of its home games and receives financial assistance from the state or a political subdivision thereof shall cease playing most of its home games at the facility and begin playing most of its home games elsewhere unless the owner either:
— Enters into an agreement with the political subdivision permitting the team to play most of its home games elsewhere;
— Gives the political subdivision in which the facility is located not less than six months' advance notice of the owner's intention to cease playing most of its home games at the facility and, during the six months after such notice, gives the political subdivision or any individual or group of individuals who reside in the area the opportunity to purchase the team.”
Will the Modell Law succeed where Cleveland once failed and keep a beloved Ohio team in the state? On Tuesday, Major League Soccer and the Crew’s ownership said in a statement that they “strongly disagree” with DeWine’s interpretation of the law.
Sports Illustrated legal expert Michael McCann also has his doubts, writing that it’s “mainly because: (1) the Modell Law is arguably imprecise in regards to several key words and phrases; (2) application of the Modell Law in this situation could interfere with federal protections for interstate commerce; and, only adding to the uncertainty, (3) there have been no court rulings on the Modell Law—meaning it will be a legal question of ‘first impression’ for whomever is assigned as the judge.”
The good news, McCann said, is that a locally elected judge likely would decide on the law’s application. Columbus is over 140 miles from Cleveland, but it’s safe to say there are a few Browns fans in the city who know how tough it is to find a good replacement franchise.