By Ridge Mahoney
Major League Soccer has turned a page with the selling of the Columbus Crew to Precourt Sport Ventures.
Safe to say, the era of frugality is over. There’s a new regime in town.
The deal announced Tuesday at an undisclosed price further reduces the influence of Hunt Sports Group, which after selling Kansas City in 2006 and Columbus now runs only FC Dallas. As one of the league’s original 10 teams, the Crew cost Hunt Sports Group the buy-in price of $5 million.
No one can dispute the importance of the organization led by the late Lamar Hunt, who spearheaded the league’s formation in the wake of the 1994 World Cup and just five years later completed construction of the first MLS soccer-specific stadium for the Crew. Yet HSG could never nail down a naming-rights deal, a problem that none of the MLS stadiums built since have encountered, and as aggressive ownership groups bought teams and erected facilities to house them and thus increased their resources and finances, Columbus slowly drifted farther and farther off the pace.
In August, 2006, HSG sold Kansas City to Ongoal LLC, a company headed by Cerner Corporation co-founders Neal Patterson and Cliff Illig. Ongoal has rebranded the team as Sporting Kansas City and built Sporting Park, a state-of-the-art stadium that cost $200 million and is filled to its capacity of 18,467 for nearly every league game. And on Wednesday hosts the MLS All-Star Game.
The Wizards won an MLS Cup in 2000 – with current head coach Peter Vermes and ex-U.S. international keeper Tony Meola as mainstays of a record setting defense -- but they never grabbed hold of the market as the current regime has done. Walking into Sporting Park, which has more large-screen TVs than an electronics store, a raucous atmosphere and sleek amenities push memories of games in cavernous Arrowhead Stadium -- or the minor-league CommunuityAmerica baseball park -- with crowds in the high four figures deep into the memory.
SKC has been transformed into a flagship franchise: sparkling facility, raucous crowds, a successful team that comes to entertain as well as win. Can something of the same ilk happen in Columbus? Owner Anthony Precourt attended his first game April 27, 2013, which is more famously known as the night the Crew’s scoreboard caught fire. Yes, it’s about time for an upgrade of everything: the facility, the organization, perhaps the team itself.
Despite a great playing surface, a family atmosphere within the club, and two trophies -- the 2002 U.S. Open Cup named after Lamar Hunt and 2008 MLS Cup -- the Crew has worn the stigma of small-time. Since Lamar Hunt died, Ongoal has been joined by big-spending ownership groups in Toronto, Philadelphia and Montreal that have raised the stakes even if they don’t splash money as does Red Bull GmbH, and there’s been an ownership change for D.C. United as well.
Coach Robert Warzycha took over for Sigi Schmid after the Crew’s 2008 championship season and under his leadership the Crew has slid from Eastern Conference champion (2009) to wild-card team (2011) to postseason observer (last year). Can he break through the gauntlet of powerful Eastern Conference foes under a more aggressive, less thrifty ownership, or will he or Precourt dissolve their newly minted affiliation once the season ends?
Lamar Hunt liked everything about the Crew: the team colors of yellow and gold, its motto as “America’s Hardest Working Team,” the curious crest of three hatted men that evokes strong reactions pro and con, and of course, the stadium, for which he personally guided visitors to its unveiling the day before it hosted its first league match in May, 1999.
In his first press conference as team owner Precourt hinted the crest might be among the changes he envisions. Lamar Hunt would have turned 81 on Friday; if he felt his once-prized possession was in good hands, he probably wouldn’t object.