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
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.