Crew SC's big night soured by ominous overtones

So much went right for Columbus Crew SC at Mapfre Stadium Tuesday night it’s hard to grasp just how wrong things have gone the last four years.

The sale of the team and stadium by Hunt Sports Group to Anthony Precourt's Precourt Sports Ventures for $68 million in 2013 was supposed to usher in a new era for one of the league’s 10 original teams, and the first in MLS that built its own facility. A stadium unveiling in 1999, a U.S. Open Cup title won on its home field in 2002, and an MLS Cup title in 2008 – less than two years after the passing of soccer icon Lamar Hunt -- while led by Argentine legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto is not the most glittering list of accomplishments amongst MLS teams but seemingly sufficient to entrench its existence in Ohio.

Such is not the case. A week and 15 years after Columbus beat the Galaxy, 1-0, in front of about 6,000 fans at Crew Stadium to capture the trophy now named after the team’s ex-owner, a raucous crowd gathered, roared and cheered as a team set aside concerns about relocation to smash a far more glamorous foe, 4-1, and take command of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.

Photo: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Capped and bundled up while watching from the stands, Precourt wasn’t seen on camera to crack a smile as his energized players responded to a boisterous audience to win going away despite committing a laundry list of errors. The overpowering emotion of the event didn’t seem to register. If anything he seemed puzzled about what all the fuss was about.

But of course far more weightier matters are in play than the result of one game, or a playoff series, or the postseason as a whole. When news broke two weeks ago of his dalliance with Austin, one troubling detail emerged: the 2013 purchase agreement specified he had to keep the team in Columbus for 10 years unless he wanted to move to Austin.

The complicity of MLS in this regard was confirmed by MLS commissioner Don Garber, who in his remarks regarding the city and stadium said nothing about Dos a Cero, or Schelotto, or team ambassador Frankie Hejduk, or the pioneering work of Hunt in establishing the league and one of its original teams. The commissioner spoke of the team’s low ranking in the “business metrics,” which translates to revenue for the most part.

Drawing fans to a very spartan facility has long been an issue, as has the lack of money-spinning amenities such as luxury boxes -- real ones, not metal shells open to the elements -- and luxurious VIP sections and snazzy lounges and what-have-you. The notoriously frugal Hunt ownership didn’t splash out money to pretty up the facility or aggressively boost attendances, and so the team’s presence in a market dominated by Ohio State University had always been somewhat marginal.

Those fans that did turn up regularly -- three disparate groups eventually banded together to stand together as the Nordecke -- cheered and chanted hard enough to rival those of many MLS teams, but their numbers didn’t measure up. Fans from many states flocked to Columbus for national team games and so the facility’s modest means were tolerable for a visit every two or three years.

Photo: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Success is supposed to begat success, but Crew SC squandered a great opportunity two years ago when it lost the MLS Cup final at home to Portland. The team continues to lag near the bottom in attendance – in 2017 it was 20th of 22 teams with 15,439 per game – and with the other “metrics” cited by Garber.

By most accounts, Precourt hasn’t done much to move the needle -- other than replacing an aging scoreboard that famously caught fire -- in the marketplace. The team rebranded, sightly, but kept its original name apparently in tribute to its tradition, as if that mattered.

Local leaders said they’ve tried to buy the team to keep it in Columbus, but when the governor of Ohio seems noncommittal, the level of political sport for a team that’s been in place more than two decades, the signs aren’t good.

"I'm not involved in the negotiations here, but I saw there's going to be meetings,” said Ohio Governor John Kasich. “I'll do what I can. But look, at the end of the day it just hasn't created the spark that we would have loved to see here." Thanks a lot, Guv.

Precourt is not a soccer lover, he’s a businessman, and regards the Crew as one of his investment properties. As such, he’s not only empowered but obligated to make decisions in the best interest of his business and from that standpoint he’s within his rights to make smart business decisions.

It’s not right to compare two very different men, but I can’t help but recalling the joy in the face of Hunt as he stood on the field Oct. 24, 2002, watching his son Clark Hunt and the Crew players and coaches and staff members along a few adventurous fans ignore a sharply cold night to whoop it up. All he could speak of was what it meant to the players and the organization and the city to win its first trophy. He was proud, not of himself, but of them.

Last night, watching head coach Gregg Berhalter and his players and a frenzied throng ignore a gloom of doom to revel in a wonderful triumph, I’d like to think the spirit of Lamar Hunt had paid a visit to oversee his creation.

But the past is past. Business is business, yet a sports team is about much more. Peering into the future is grim, for the vision is now that of Precourt and MLS and business metrics and balance sheets. The league’s recent record on the business side is an unbounded success and unless those factors can be addressed, #SaveTheCrew will only be a rallying cry silenced by the forces of good, old-fashioned money.

10 comments about "Crew SC's big night soured by ominous overtones".
  1. John Mcdermott, November 1, 2017 at 9:39 a.m.

    Garber is a business guy, not a soccer guy, no matter how much he tries to be one. He comes from a corporate NFL background and that is the template for everything he does in his role as MLS Commissioner. Following the lead of the team owners, if not downright worshiping them, is part of that. Whenever he praises a team it is always the owner who is first. Even the MLS Cup presentation is to the team owner, as in the NFL, and not to the team captain, as is the case in the entire rest of the soccer world.

  2. beautiful game, November 1, 2017 at 10:33 a.m.

    The Crew fans show up to support their team that plays in a dump venue.

  3. R2 Dad, November 1, 2017 at 11:03 a.m.

    Garber would do well to avoid the itinerant owner disease that affects the NFL. Why isn't Green Bay the model, instead of the Raiders?

    MLS should buy back Crew from their gutless owner and sell to a local group that wants to support the game and will have the means and interest to address the stadium issue.

  4. Wooden Ships replied, November 1, 2017 at 11:53 a.m.

    I agree R2, with the MLS stepping in. I think Precourts misreading the realities of Austin vs the possibilities of remaining. The Gov is a good guy, smart guy, but not a pied piper and thinking that Ohio State, that plays, what 5 or 6 home games a year of eggball, is in direct competition with the Crew seems off. Eggballers are not your market, make your stadium special with an air of exclusivity-sophistication as the game of soccer has much more to offer than the stale and declining interest of eggball. 

  5. :: SilverRey :: replied, November 1, 2017 at 12:42 p.m.

    If you haven't already please help out
    It's over 10k signatures but we need all clubs to pitch in and sign

  6. Wooden Ships replied, November 1, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

    Will do SilverRey, thanks for the link.

  7. :: SilverRey :: replied, November 1, 2017 at 3:54 p.m.

    Thanks for the solidarity! MLS needs to remember that they are nothing without the passion of the fans, and that is not something to be trifled with. If it could happen to the Crew it can happen to any team.

  8. don Lamb, November 1, 2017 at 4:54 p.m.

    Wild Prediction: Columbus moves. Cincinnati joins MLS. MLS comes back to Columbus as a "coming home" moment with a new stadium as expansion goes from 28-32 teams.

  9. Alfred Randall, November 1, 2017 at 8:39 p.m.

    You have to wonder 14,416 for a playoff match might be a bit low. If Atlanta had won the crap shoot the attendance would have been 70k+. Garber sure missed out on a lot of cash there. Can they keep the team there, probably not. They have to win the cup to stay. Berhalter has certainly done a great job of coaching thus far. Good luck from ATLUTD!

  10. beautiful game replied, November 2, 2017 at 11:28 a.m.

    Holloween night play-off game and u expected more?

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