The state rep behind the legal strategy to keep the Crew in Columbus.

If central Ohio soccer fans derail Anthony Precourt's threat to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, they may owe a big thank you to a wonkish Statehouse-reporter-turned-state-rep.

In some ways, Mike Duffey, a Worthington Republican who's finishing his fourth and final term in the Ohio House, is an odd choice to emerge as a potential savoir to the Crew fan base. “I'm not a guy who watches a lot of sports,” he says. But he has earned a reputation for a scrappy and somewhat quixotic approach to legislation during his nearly eight years as a representative. In other words, he's someone willing to dive into a controversial issue and find a creative angle no one else notices. “I see opportunities to swing for the fences, and I'm willing to do it,” he says.

Duffey's Crew crusade began at an early November barbecue at his home. His nephew, a big soccer fan, mentioned to him a state law passed in 1996 in the aftermath of Art Modell's decision to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. The law states that if an Ohio pro sports team uses a tax-supported facility or receives financial assistance from the public, then the team must give local officials and leaders six months to make an offer to purchase the team.

At first, Duffey, like most politicos who were aware of the law, assumed it didn't apply to the Crew, whose previous owner, Lamar Hunt, paid for the construction of its longtime home, Mapfre Stadium, from his own pocket. Then Duffey did some legwork and discovered some under-the-radar public benefits that the Crew has received, such as a below-market lease on state land and $5 million in state-funded parking upgrades.

“I'm prepared to take the necessary legal action under this law to protect the interests of the state of Ohio and the central Ohio communities which have all invested to make the Columbus Crew a proud part of our Ohio sports tradition,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in a statement, agreeing with Duffey's findings.

How all this will play out remains unknown, of course. The law has never been tested in court before, after all. But the legal obstacle may be the most significant one for Precourt, and it could have lasting impact in Ohio and elsewhere. “If we save the Crew, we could save the soul of professional sports nationally,” Duffey says. “We could change the way that people view public subsidies and the taxpayers' relationship with professional sports teams' owners and investors.”

Dave Ghose is the editor.