NEXT: Three Scenarios for the Columbus Crew
I was one of the first people who entered Crew Stadium. In the spring of 1999, about a week before the first official game was to be played, the Stadium was opened up to the general public, to walk around and marvel and gaze at. I arrived with my family in tow near the front of the line.
Owing to a mistake made by a staff member, the gates were opened a little too soon, because it was clear that the suited VIPs who were already in the stadium had yet to exit before the hoi polloi were permitted in.
As I walked up to the second level, I ran into none other than the team owner Lamar Hunt himself. He was startled to see me, but was nevertheless gracious when I said, “Thank you, sir, for this investment in our team and our city.”
As you are probably aware, Hunt spent $26 million of his own money to build Crew Stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in the country. Columbus was the model for the rest of Major League Soccer.
I recount this story to burnish my Crew fan credentials. I was there at Ohio Stadium for the home opener (4-0 over DC United) and have attended every Crew home opener since the team was founded in 1996.
I do not want to see this team be ripped away from our city.
As I think about the immediate future of the club, I see three scenarios:
Scenario 1: The current owner and the League get their wish, and Columbus moves to Austin, Texas. We are left without a soccer team, and Mapfre Stadium is permitted to deteriorate, before it is torn down by the State to make room for more parking for the Quarterhorse conference.
There is very little evidence supporting the idea that professional sports teams are a net economic benefit to a city. They do not generate enough revenue, whether in wages to non-athlete staff nor in taxes, to justify the resources cities pour into their professional teams. However, there is some evidence that suggests that there are non-economic benefits to a city having a professional team, in terms of PR and brand image for a city.
The Crew has definitely provided that boost to the city’s image. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that without the early success of the Crew, the NHL would have had very little interest in expanding to Columbus. With the Crew gone, the brand identity of the city will no doubt suffer.
Scenario 2: The Save the Crew movement is successful. New ownership steps forward, especially after a number of legal challenges prevents the current owner from moving the team.
With his dream of flipping the team made harder and harder, and prospective owners from other cities pushing back against the League for allowing the Crew’s owner to sidestep the League’s expansion process, the current owner cuts his losses and sells the team to a local owner of the caliber and integrity of Lamar Hunt.
Scenario 3: The Crew are permitted to leave town, but the void is filled by a new ownership group that secures an expansion team in the second-division United Soccer League.
The new owner buys half of the club, the other half coming from community ownership, a la the Green Bay Packers (a model at one time tied to BrewDog). Crew fans line up to become part owners of the new team, also called Columbus Crew, the team retaining the name, records and legacy of Lamar Hunt’s team.
The team retain the colors of the original Crew team, although the kit will be different: the #savethecrew kit with Compton Construction as the kit sponsor, and the new logo featuring the Leveque Tower and the arch. Community ownership becomes the new model for soccer clubs in the U.S., and Columbus points to the new model for the development of soccer teams.
Save the Crew received pledges from over 8,000 fans for season tickets: this group forms the nucleus of a fan base that regularly draws 10-12,000 a game to Columbus Crew games in the USL. The 15,000 or so loyal fans who attended Crew matches this season (even in the face of poor marketing and customer service from the current ownership, and the imminent departure of the team) are the same ones who regularly attend USL Crew games. The Crew Academy does not follow the team to Austin, and instead stays in Columbus to form the backbone for player development for the new club.
Bruce Arena complains in his latest book that MLS teams waste money on youth academies since most do not have a plan in place for bringing these young players onto the first team. The new Crew, an outgrowth of the Academy, is built from players developed through its very successful player development program.
Of course, some of the players that play on the first team are then coveted by MLS and European teams, and so they may stay with the Crew for only a few seasons. But, like OSU football players, Columbus develops this talent and the community wistfully watches as players we’ve nurtured achieve success elsewhere. Those players who do remain make Columbus one of the top teams in USL, and a regular contender for the US Open Cup.
The team becomes a beloved expression of the community, no longer merely a franchise of MLS. From its community ownership to its player development, to its civic pride, the Columbus Crew are an expression of the Smart City.
Scenario Two is, of course, my preferred scenario, although I fear that there is little we can do to prevent Scenario One. However, Scenario Three might well prove to be a very favorable outcome.
In Scenario Three, the statue erected outside Mapfre Stadium to honor Lamar Hunt proudly remains standing.
David Staley is interim director of the Humanities Institute and a professor at The Ohio State University. He is president of Columbus Futurists and host of CreativeMornings Columbus.
The next CreativeMornings Columbus will be Friday, July 20 at 8:30 a.m. at The Ohio History Center. Deja Redman will speak on the theme “Intention.”
The next Columbus Futurists monthly forum will be Thursday July 26 at 6:30 p.m. at the Panera Bread community room (875 Bethel Rd.) The topic for the evening will be “China’s Social Ranking System.”