When the United States was awarded the 1994 World Cup, it was with the understanding a professional soccer league would be founded in the country as well. Previously, the US had the NASL in the 1970’s that famously had big stars such as Pele and almost as famously went bust. To choose which cities would have the inaugural teams in the league, potential clubs had to secure 10,000 season ticket deposits from fans. While big US cities such as Los Angeles and Washington D.C. were eventually among the first cities with teams in Major League Soccer’s inagural season, a much smaller college town of Columbus, Ohio was the first to secure the necessary 10,000 deposits and thus the Columbus Crew were born.
In their 22 seasons in MLS, the Crew have never had the biggest budget or largest attendances in the league. However, the club has appeared in two MLS Cup finals winning one, has won the Supporter’s Shield (the trophy given to the MLS club with the most points, because MLS decides the league champion in a playoff) three times, and the U.S. Open Cup (the Scottish Cup equivalent of US Soccer) once. Fans in Columbus have been proud of these accomplishments and the “first club of MLS” status.
A year and a half ago though, it appeared that the Columbus Crew may no longer exist as they do today. Owner Anthony Precourt confirmed reports that he was exploring the option of moving the club to Austin, Texas. It seemed it would be the end of Major League Soccer in Ohio’s capital. However a group of fans, backed by city and state officials, refused to let their team be ripped away from them. With new, local ownership in charge, the Crew’s first match of the 2019 MLS campaign promised to be a party. And who doesn’t love a party?
The success of the “Save the Crew” campaign was the reason for this party – which also featured a football game – but what lead to this movement being necessary in the first place? Many of the good folks of Columbus, Ohio would point their figure at a serpent in ownership form in Anthony Precourt. From San Francisco, California, Precourt is the son of a former oil executive who bought the Columbus Crew in 2013. When he bought the club, some Crew fans were nervous that an out of state owner would be looking to move the club but Precourt sought to ease those fears. In a Columbus Dispatch article discussing the sale of the team, the mayor of Columbus said “My first question was, ‘Is the Crew staying in Columbus?’ He said, ‘Absolutely. The Crew is in Columbus to stay … I’ve come to understand his passion for soccer,” Coleman said. “He has a genuine interest and commitment to Columbus.”
Of course this was soon proven to be not true. American soccer journalist Grant Wahl was the first to break the story that Precourt was looking to move the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas. As the story unfolded, evidence pointed that the Silicon Valley based owner’s intention was to move the club to Austin from the outset. It was revealed that in the agreement for Precourt to buy the Crew, there was a clause that allowed him to move the club to Austin. If the owner was “committed to Columbus”, why would he need such a clause?
Further evidence came to light to suggest Precourt was never interested in making it work in Columbus. Under his ownership, the club signed a disastrous local television deal that limited games to an obscure channel that few fans had and “blacked out” local fans who had signed up for the league’s streaming service. The team’s stadium, the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS, had fallen into a state of disrepair, with bathroom facilities that were falling apart, numerous areas of the stadium needing a paint job, and the stadium’s scoreboard famously catching fire. Efforts to try to bring students from the second largest public university in the United States from the neighboring Ohio State University were non-existent. Even an untrained eye could decipher that Precourt either did not know how or did not want to make the Crew successful in Columbus.
As a result of these efforts, or lack of effort rather, attendance in Columbus was among the lowest in MLS. The team was still successful on the pitch, with manager Gregg Berhalter able to guide a team that was pieced together on one of the smallest budgets in the league to the playoff’s multiple years and an MLS Cup Final in 2015. When the announcement that the Crew would be looking to move was made the following season, Berhalter and his squad were preparing for another playoff run, which put the players in the awkward position of trying to win a championship while they did not know where their future in the game would be while a justifiably angry fan base vented its frustration at ownership.
Despite being two hours north of Columbus, I had followed the Crew since its first match in 1996. I was there at Crew Stadium in 2008 when the Crew beat the Chicago Fire to secure its passage to its first MLS Cup final where it would become MLS champions. I watched the heart breaking 2016 MLS Cup Final where that Portland Timbers player was DEFINITELY out of bounds with the ball and it should have been a Crew throw in instead of a Portland attack and game winning goal (though Tony Tchani should have definitely continued to play until the whistle as we all learned in U8s).
The team was part of me, but that part of me seemed to be heading to Texas. I had accepted the inevitability of the Columbus Crew no longer existing. Major League Soccer and commissioner Don Garber seemed complicit in Anthony Precourt’s efforts to move the club. Garber cited “business metrics” as to why a move was necessary, ignoring the mitigating circumstances that lead to those metrics (there were also well researched points that refuted the severity of these claims). With an owner doing his best to create circumstances to justify a move to his preferred location and a league complicit in this stich up, it seemed unlikely that professional soccer would remain in Columbus.
Except no one informed a group of Columbus Crew fans about this inevitability of their club moving. They went on to found the “Save the Crew” movement and a week after the announcement of Precourt’s intention of moving the Crew, a rally was held in downtown Columbus that saw thousands attend to unite in their desire to keep the club in the city. But the fans involved knew it would take more than speeches, banners, and chants to block the move.
Despite being a grassroots movement, the Save the Crew movement’s most impressive work came organizing fans in the stand and engaging political and business leaders both locally and the state level. One of the “business metrics” Precourt and MLS cited as justification for a potential move was the lack of local sponsors the club had. Save the Crew engaged the likes of Alex Fischer, the CEO of local business organization the Columbus Partnership to secure sponsorship agreements from Columbus businesses provided the club stayed in Columbus. Another Precourt/MLS gripe were low ticket sales. Save the Crew secured over 12,000 pledges from fans who promised to purchase multi-game ticket packages from the club if there was a new owner.
Not only did the Save the Crew movement work to prove that soccer as a business could thrive in Columbus, but they also looked to give back to their community. The Save the Crew group organised cold weather clothing drive for the less fortunate, raised money for soccer equipment for local soccer programs that might not have been able to afford such equipment, gather school supplies for local children, and more. The movement wanted to not only save their soccer team, but they also wanted to enrich their local community.
Along with giving back to the community and working with local businesses, Save the Crew also worked with local and state officials to try and find legal options to keep the Crew in Columbus. The result of this work was the Attorney General of Ohio suing MLS and Anthony Precourt, claiming that the owner and league were in breach of the “Art Model Law” (This statute was enacted in Ohio after the Cleveland Browns of the NFL moved to Baltimore in 1996. The law states that owners whose teams use tax-supported facilities and accept financial assistance from the state are prohibited from moving to another city unless they give at least six months’ notice and give individuals who live in the area an opportunity to purchase the team.
Legal experts were unsure the law would be able to stand up to legal scrutiny, but in true Anthony Precourt fashion, the lawyers hired by the owner and MLS were reported to be comically inept in trying to get this lawsuit dismissed. Legal victories started to rack up like Gyasi Zardes goals for Save the Crew, the city of Columbus and the State of Ohio. It seemed this lawsuit would be long and costly for Precourt and the league.
Perhaps sensing this and wanting to avoid an ugly legal proceeding, Anthony Precourt decided to accept an offer to sell the team to a group of investors led by current Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy and Dee Haslam, but more importantly to Crew fans, featuring long time Crew team doctor, Dr. Pete Edwards. This ownership group had deep, NFL pockets as well as someone local who knows exactly what the team means to the community. To borrow a quote Celtic fans will be well familiar with, the war was over, the rebels had won.
2nd March would be the first game for the club under new ownership and the first game since the Columbus Crew fans saved their club. The new owners had already announced plans for a new stadium in downtown Columbus, plans for converting the old stadium into a practice facility and community soccer center, hired a MLS Cup winning manager to replace the old manager (who was named as the US Men’s National Team manager) and hired a MLS Cup winning front office executive to be president of the team. Each one of these announcements helped to confirm to fans the new ownership’s commitment to the team and the city.
The announcements were signficent and very welcomed, but for many Crew fans this new era would officially get underway with the first MLS match against New York Red Bull. After what they had been through, it was no surprise Crew supporters were ready to celebrate. Fans set up tailgates in the early hours of the morning, with owner Dr. Pete Edwards there to toast to a new era of the Columbus Crew. Fans packed nearby bars to revel in their team even having a Crew match to attend. The match had the largest attendance for an opening fixture for the Crew in over a decade.
Many before the match were talking about how the results were inconsequential and they were simply happy to just be at Mapfre Stadium again. It was a cold, grey day in Columbus and of course the match itself was a bit of a damp squid. NYRB went ahead after only six minutes when some shoddy defending by deputizing fullback Waylon Francis led to a cross and easy header for the Red Bulls. Columbus equalised towards the end of the first half when centerback Gaston Sauro met a cross on a corner with his head.
Columbus struggled to create many quality chances after that and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. However, the party atmosphere could not be dampened by the result. Fans were just happy to engage in debate about just what the hell controversial Portuguese winger Pedro Santos was doing in the late stages of the match where he seemed to comically dive trying to win a foul instead of trying to find an open Columbus teammate on a counter attack. It was certainly better than debating about whether the team would even exist anymore.
Since that first match, the Crew have played well under new manager Caleb Porter, winning their next two matches to bring their point total to seven in their first three games. The fans have faith that new team president Tim Bezbatchenko will be able to guide the team to success, as he did when he held the same role with Toronto FC that saw the Canadian club appear in two consecutive MLS Cup Finals and win one. They are comforted knowing they have owners that can afford to spend on and off the pitch in Jimmy and Dee Haslam and connected to the city in Dr. Pete Edwards. With the Crew saved, Columbus and Crew fans in all of Ohio can now worry about their team on the pitch instead of what is happening to their club off of it.