Why the Columbus Crew sell is big news for MLS

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KANSAS CITY – Hunt Sports Group has seemed on the verge of selling Columbus for years, never in a particular hurry, but apparently willing to entertain the right offer.

So while Tuesday’s big news was a surprise in its timing (happening with so little warning), the announced ownership handoff from HSG to San Francisco businessman J. Anthony Precourt was not wholly surprising in the bigger picture.

It is certainly historic in the bigger picture. Here’s why:

For the first time in league history, Hunt Sports Group presides over just one MLS club, as the ownership diversification – such an important initiative for MLS commissioner Don Garber just a few years ago – is nearly complete.

The Hunt family originally owned Kansas City and Columbus at league launch in 1996. Later, HSG also gained control of Dallas. For the 2004 season the Hunts controlled 30 percent of Major League Soccer’s club.

Back then, essentially, only the Hunts and billionaire Phil Anschutz stood between the league and total financial collapse. Clearly, that’s not the kind of stable footing an operation with strong survival instincts wants.

So Garber worked hard to create that critical ownership diversity. Gradually over the last decade, Major League Soccer has gone from five owners to about 19, depending on how you count Houston Dynamo minority owner Oscar de la Hoya.

For the first time in league history, Hunt Sports Group is down to one team, which is FC Dallas.

I ran into Clark Hunt today at the MLS hotel in Kansas City, offering congratulations over the sell – and then immediately wondering about the appropriateness of such a thing. We had a quick laugh about it, but Hunt told me there were definitely some mixed feelings about it all.