Taking Out A Mortgage On The Future The Columbus Crew has a home that may be the model for the sport in the U.S.

May 30, 1999

The world's most popular sport has long been in search of a
proper American home. Soccer in the U.S. has either been
miniaturized to fit inside basketball arenas, or it has been
presented in cavernous baseball and football stadiums, where it
has been dwarfed by the silence of empty seats. Now, after so
much yapping about the game's potential for growth in the U.S.,
someone has finally taken out a mortgage on its future. Lamar
Hunt, owner of MLS's Columbus Crew and American pro soccer's
most resolute investor for three decades, has built a model home
for the sport. Columbus Crew Stadium seats 22,485, though when
it opened on May 15 an extra 2,256 fans found a way to wedge
themselves in for a game against the New England Revolution.

For its first three years the Crew played in Ohio State's
89,841-seat football stadium, which is certainly no slum. "As
good as everything was for us there, every time we walked into
Ohio Stadium it was as if we were saying to them, Thank you for
letting us play," Columbus coach Tom Fitzgerald said last
Thursday night after his players had finished training on the
floodlit bluegrass of their new stadium. "It's nice to come into
a place and not have to say, Sorry for being here."

While his teammates were practicing, the Crew's injured captain,
Brian McBride, acted as an impromptu tour guide of the new
facility, which Columbus christened with a 2-0 victory over the
Revolution. McBride was proud of the stadium amenities, which
are taken for granted by richer athletes: the air conditioning
in the locker room, the stylish merchandise shop and the gentle
eight-inch crown built into the field for drainage. "Sometimes
when we play on football fields the crown is so huge that the
ball rolls out of bounds on its own," McBride said. The
floodlights are attached to four angled towers that lean over
the field from each corner. Under normal football lighting,
McBride said, "when you look up for the ball on a corner kick
all you see is a row of lights. You won't get that here--all
you'll see is a lit soccer ball."

The new stadium took nine months and one day to build, at a cost
of $28.5 million to Hunt. As with baseball facilities
constructed early in the century, including Fenway Park and
Tiger Stadium, the Crew's digs offer fans an intimate
relationship with the game. Even the concession stands overlook
the field, permitting customers to stay on top of the action as
they feed themselves. As a matter of economics few expensive
gimmicks have been included; the so-called luxury boxes are
open-air with cinder-block walls. The stadium was modeled after
the parks of medium-sized first-division clubs in Europe, where
fans tend to watch their soccer in intense 45-minute blocks
without music, videos or other artificial additives. It may be
unpretentious by NFL standards, but then its mission is to help
the sport create an American identity.

"This will be what our soul is all about," says MLS commissioner
Doug Logan, who predicts that similar cozy stadiums will be
built in Denver, Los Angeles and New York in the next five
years, though none of the stadium projects in those cities are
beyond the talking stage. In the meantime the Crew hopes to lead
the way by establishing the strongest home field advantage in
MLS. If the stadium happens to have the airs of an unfinished
warehouse, then that fits nicely with Columbus's hard-hat logo
and its self-proclaimed image as "America's hardest-working
team." (Despite having to play its first seven games on the road
while the stadium was being finished, Columbus is tied with D.C.
United atop MLS's Eastern Conference standings.) The stands are
made of aluminum, which resounds loudly when 20,000 fans stamp
their feet in mass approval. With an average seat price of
$13.50, the Crew hopes to increase its league-high season-ticket
base of 9,000 for the 16-game home season.

"What this stadium does is get people involved," says McBride, a
U.S. team striker who earlier this month had fractured his left
cheekbone. The doctors told McBride he would be sidelined until
late June, but as he walked around the edges of the stadium, he
kept glancing toward his teammates on the field. It was too much
for McBride. He went into the Crew's locker room and five
minutes later reappeared on the field in his practice uniform.
He ran behind one of the goals and kicked a ball to himself
against the low concrete wall, as if he were in the backyard of
his parents' house, playing at home.

COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SABAU

With their new 22,485-seat stadium, Andy Williams and the Crew
have a jump on the rest of MLS.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)