New owner Precourt hopes to move Crew into MLS modernity
There's a disconnect between American soccer perception and reality localized about four miles north of the Ohio Statehouse.
There, on the edge of a barren fairground, stands Crew Stadium. For many Columbus residents, that four miles feels like 40. But what that sterile spot lacks in character it makes up in significance. It's the spot where MLS turned the corner. Opened in 1999, the facility paved the way for a construction boom that offered clubs the opportunity to establish roots and revenue streams. Columbus was the vanguard.
Although modest by modern standards, Crew Stadium is adorned with trappings of success. Black signs in the northeast corner commemorate an MLS Cup championship, a U.S. Open Cup title and three Supporters Shields -- more combined major honors than all but three rival clubs. Brian McBride, Thomas Dooley, Brad Friedel and Guillermo Barros Schelotto played there and the late Lamar Hunt, the Crew's original owner and the godfather of American pro soccer, is immortalized in bronze just outside.
Yet that tradition -- notable in a country where soccer is still growing -- hasn't done much for the club's Q rating. Attendance has failed to surpass 15,000 per game every season since 2007. This year's figure of 15,249 represents an improvement but still ranks 14th in a 19-team league.
Moreover, there's an acknowledged sense that the Crew lack the stature now enjoyed by other clubs around the league. Trophies, big names and robust results at the reserve and youth level haven't changed the prevailing perception that Columbus is a small-market club mired in MLS 1.0.
"That drives me insane," long-time Crew president and GM Mark McCullers told SI.com.
"What are we, chopped liver? We've done a lot more than clubs that have that perception. Maybe it's because we haven't positioned ourselves that way. It hasn't been our style to beat our own drum. That wasn't Lamar's style," he said.
"What's interesting to me is that it's a little bit of Columbus as well. I've been in this community for almost 15 years, and there has been a sense of an inferiority complex here. There's a lot of great things going on, but we don't feel like we get the respect and recognition we should. Maybe that's spilled over into our club a little bit."
Wonder where the Crew's slogan, "Massive," comes from? It started among fans "as a self-deprecating joke" according to the club website.
Enter Anthony Precourt, a wealthy investor from Colorado now based in San Francisco, who carries none of that baggage. The son of an accomplished energy industry executive, Precourt forged his own path in private equity and capital management before turning his attention toward sports, a life-long passion. The 43-year-old played soccer, lacrosse and hockey growing up (he was a neighbor of Phil Anschutz) and now coaches his kids in AYSO.
"Soccer goes back to my grandfather, who played at the Naval Academy. His father worked for Texaco and spent a lot of his childhood in England and France," Precourt said. "Soccer has always been a part of our dining room conversation."
Precourt developed an interest in MLS and originally began talking with the Hunt family about taking a minority stake in the Crew. But as he investigated further, he discovered some promising potential in Columbus. The area was home to six Fortune 500 companies last year, more than could be found within the borders of 27 U.S. states. Honda is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into its local operation and over the past year local employment has increased 1.8 percent, easily outpacing the rest of the state. Nearly 2 million people live in the Columbus metro area -- it's around the same size as Kansas City and San Jose. According to McCullers, a market that for so long has been beholden almost exclusively to college football finally is ready to embrace pro sports as it becomes younger and more diverse.
"These things just don't come together in a lifetime in this business," the GM said. "What a wonderful opportunity to make your mark on something."
Precourt concurred and made a surprising offer to buy the whole thing. He paid a reported $68 million for the team, the stadium, all that history and all that potential -- a record for an existing MLS club.
"We want to be the Green Bay Packers of Major League Soccer, a small market team that is globally relevant and has a consistent winning tradition," Precourt told SI.com. "We very much recognize that to do that, we have to be more relevant here and we have to connect better to our market and make them proud."
In other words, in order to close that gap between the Crew's tradition and its current standing, Precourt and his team will have to work harder, spend more money and take more chances.
Precourt took control of the Crew on July 29, had dinner with the mayor that night and then met with coach Robert Warzycha and technical director Brian Bliss the following morning. The new owner then flew to Kansas City to lead the Columbus delegation at the MLS All-Star game. Several government and community leaders made the trip along with McCullers and Precourt in order to get a sense of how K.C., a similar-sized market, came to love its soccer team.
When Precourt returned to Ohio, he threw himself into strengthening the Crew's bond with fans and local businesses. He said he intends to reach out "to the top 40-50 companies in Columbus" during his first month in charge, and a few days after the All-Star game he found himself at a bar with McCullers, Crew legend Frankie Hejduk and sales and marketing chief Mike Malo hoisting beers with the denizens of the Nordecke, the name given to the corner of Crew Stadium where the team's most ardent supporters stand and chant. On Aug. 10, he spent part of the Crew's 2-0 win over the New York Red Bulls sitting and cheering with them.
"He's energetic, he's young. This is the first property that he's been involved with, so he's excited about all of those things," McCullers said. "Anthony is going to be a great fit in this community and he understand the importance of people being involved and being engaged."
Launched in the fall of 2011, the Crew's "Dare to be Massive" ticket drive has progressed gradually toward the goal of 10,000 full-season tickets (they're now just short of 7,000). A five-year jersey sponsorship contract with Barbasol was inked 18 months ago. McCullers still is working on a stadium naming rights deal and said there are "some interesting and encouraging conversations taking place, and I use that in the plural."
Crew Stadium needs more than corporate money, however. America's first soccer-specific facility has been lapped by the likes of Sporting Park and Red Bull Arena when it comes to amenities. Precourt knows that and already is working on improvements. He'll start by spending around $200,000 to replace bleachers with 2,400 seats on the stadium's east side and said he's committed to "benchmarking ourselves with our peers in MLS."
There's not much he can do about the location, however. At least for now.
"I think if we were to do it all over again, if we'd been in Columbus since the beginning, being closer to downtown in an urban environment is what's most important," he said. "Crew Stadium isn't a destination place right now. You want to have bars and restaurants and things around, nightlife, retail. People can go out to the fairground and tailgate and go to the game, but it would be nice if they had a local pub nearby. It's something we're considering and talking about. The supporters have asked us about that. They want their own pub at the stadium."
McCullers said that the Crew is looking to "accelerate the conversation" with the city about either upgrading the fairground site (there are 11 years left on the club's lease) or finding a new one.
Just about everything else is under review as well. McCullers claimed that the term "status quo" amounts to "profanity" at Crew Stadium. "We talk about change. We initiate change," the GM said. In Precourt, he has an ambitious boss with no ties to the old way of thinking.
"We're going to be thoughtful and thorough," the owner said.
Precourt also is targeting the team logo, a shield featuring three construction workers that is one of only two originals remaining from that train wreck of a uniform unveiling back in 1995.
Precourt doesn't have to be from Columbus to know that the badge is a laughably incongruous symbol for the state capital.
"I anticipate making changes," he said. "It's not a working class, blue-collar town. It's more of a white-collar town."
The logo doesn't even say "Columbus" on it, which is a problem for a club searching for ways to connect with a city still aiming for big-league status.
"We don't want to have to attach the "OH" after "Columbus" when we're mentioned in the paper," Precourt said, adding that he can "guarantee" that the city will be represented somehow in the club's branding going forward.
"The name and the colors are great," he said. "The crest, it's one of my highest priorities. Man, it's one of my obsessions. When I go to the league office and look on the wall and see the different logos, I want ours to be really relevant and local and contemporary."
As for the quality of the men wearing that new crest, that's something Precourt won't be able to affect as easily. The club has continued to lift trophies at the reserve and youth level but the senior side hasn't advanced past the opening round of the MLS Cup playoffs since winning it all in 2008. At 8-11-5, Columbus currently is in eighth place in the Eastern Conference and in danger of missing the postseason for the second-straight year.
The Hunts, who still own FC Dallas, put loyalty and stability first. Warzycha played for the Crew at the club's inception, retired as a member of the team, and now is in his fifth year as head coach. Bliss, also a former Crew player, is in his sixth year as technical director. Their contracts expire at the end of this season.
"We'll be evaluating. We're already evaluating. I understand that changes might be necessary," Precourt said. "We are asking around about who might be able to give us a good third-party evaluation, and we have a shortlist of folks. That's something we're focused on, getting a third-party perspective on the style of play, the roster, our coaching staff, our technical staff."
He lauded both Warzycha and Bliss for their contributions, which include the 2009 Supporters Shield, a run to the 2010 U.S. Open Cup final and two consecutive trips to the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The Crew's academy has produced U.S. Youth Soccer national titlists and five homegrown professionals. But Precourt didn't spend nearly $70 million to settle for that.
"We're not getting into this for any other reason than to be one of the best teams on the field, year in and year out. We want a culture of consistent winning, playoffs and hopefully win a championship or two," he said. "I'm not the type of person who' s just going to spend our way into success though. We want to build our organization the right way over time, making patient, long-range decisions. I would imagine that the Crew are going to become more competitive (with player signings). Federico Higuaín is our only DP right now and I'd like to get a little more aggressive in building out our roster and fielding high-quality talent. Are we going to be competing with the Galaxy, New York and Seattle? I wouldn't expect that."
According to the most recent figures released by the MLS Players Union, the Crew's average base salary is the fourth-lowest in the league.
A "little more aggressive" probably sounds great to Crew supporters, who surely understand that a club doesn't have to drop millions on a single player to compete in today's MLS. Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, the Portland Timbers and the Houston Dynamo all spend to within $400,000 of Columbus. A second designated player and a few smart raises could make all the difference in the Crew's quest for relevance.
"We have to have the right attitude and embrace it and say, (Precourt) is an opportunity to have a fresh set of eyes on what we're doing," McCullers said. "So I think everybody's looking at it that way. We're open to change. We're open to looking at things in a different way...It can be disconcerting and a little scary, but in the end it gets your blood flowing and the adrenaline pumps and then you see the opportunities that come with change and that gets very exciting."
Adrenaline. Excitement. These are not the qualities associated with "America's Hardest Working Team", despite its past success. But Precourt is betting big that perceptions can change. Those tired old construction workers now have an ambitious new foreman.