Maybe I’m part of the problem.
I’m not a huge MLS fan, or even a huge Columbus Crew SC fan. But I am from the city, and I know enough that losing this team is a major blow not just to the growing soccer community in central Ohio, but to Cbus residents and natives elsewhere.
It’s appearing more and more likely that this will happen. News broke in the past weeks that the team’s owner, Anthony Precourt, would not receive help (read: tax dollars) from Columbus to build a new stadium and was seriously considering moving the team to Austin, Texas after next season. On Wednesday, after public outcry, Precourt announced that he would refund season tickets for next season. It was a nice, if forced, move from Precourt but seemed to confirm beyond all doubt what was happening: Crew SC is leaving Columbus.
Columbus is, obviously enough, a college town. But there are pro rooting interests here. Despite technically being closer to Cincinnati, most folks I knew in Columbus growing up rooted for Cleveland’s professional sports teams. Even to a kid, that felt a little strange.
As a Columbus native, you watch enough Cleveland sporting events on TV, you know what comes next. There are the regional commercials for car dealerships or hamburger joints where you don’t live. The panning over the skyscrapers that aren’t in your city. And you read about industrial blight, or how Cleveland’s river caught on fire, or how Cleveland’s sports misery is magnified by the fact that it’s one of those places that Bruce Springsteen sings about.
But that just isn’t Columbus.
Columbus doesn’t have the same industrial history as northern Ohio. There are still factories, but the big industries have always been related to the Statehouse, to Ohio State, and lately, insurance and medical research. Latching on to the whole grit-and-grind of greater Cleveland, when you’re secretly a cowtown, never felt quite right. And still doesn’t.
And that’s what Columbus really was when I was growing up: a cowtown. That isn’t just because the place had a sleepy reputation and a solid agricultural school. I mean, that’s literally one of the old nicknames for the city: Cowtown. And while adding a professional sports team to your city doesn’t actually elevate it outside of cowtown designation, no matter what the local billionaire might argue in the opinion pages of the newspaper, to a 10-year-old kid, yeah, it does. The maps in elementary school are full of cities with pro sports teams. If it wasn’t a state capital map, Columbus wasn’t there.
So getting the Columbus Crew, and especially getting Crew Stadium, really was a big deal for everybody. It was a big deal for MLS, for sure. Moving out of the cavernous Ohio Stadium was a requirement to ever building a stadium experience worth attending, and for the city, and the Hunt family, to work together to build the first MLS soccer-specific stadium, in our city, was a huge step to giving the league credibility. After all, in the late 1990s, nobody was certain this MLS thing was going to work. But Crew Stadium showed that at least some people had enough faith to actually pour some concrete.
And it was a big deal for us, too. Now we had a real stadium and a chance to create a civic athletic identity outside of Ohio State, the massive behemoth that dominates everything. Sure, it wasn’t the NBA, but it was something, and ours. And in retrospect, it’s a little funny that the stadium ended up being built just outside the State Fairgrounds, right down the block from monuments to the city’s cowtown reputation: butter sculptures.
The location of the stadium is now one of the key sticking points in this entire affair, but it is, after all, what MLS wanted. Crew Stadium offers massive parking lots and is right off a highway, making it an easy commute for a legion of potential suburban fans, the sort of folks MLS was targeting early on.
But after the league saw success in places in the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, the flaws of the stadium and the location became more apparent. It’s not close to any fun bars. It’s not particularly walkable. The stadium doesn’t have the same shiny bells and whistles. And thanks to its location, development around that area would be very difficult.
But let’s not pretend this stadium was in Siberia, or that a less-than-perfect location prevented success, or fun memories. Columbus gave us “Dos a Cero” and became one of the de facto homes for the USMNT. Crew have won the Supporters’ Shield three times, and in 2008, the MLS Cup. They helped turn dudes like Brian McBride, Jeff Cunningham, Frankie Hejduk, and Stern John into huge soccer names while they played in a hardcore college football town.
It sucks to potentially lose that. Not only an American home for the beautiful game. It sucks to lose the memories of yelling and singing with a bunch of scarf-wearing strangers while eating a bratwurst. It sucks to lose a stadium that gave our country some of its biggest soccer moments … even if it did have a goofy, permanently affixed concert stage in the back.
And it would suck even more to lose that team to Austin, a move that seems specifically built to prey on the insecurities of Columbus civic leaders. The Austin metro area is barely bigger than Columbus, and the two cities are demographically similar — state capitals dominated by college football with plenty of affluent young people. Austin wasn’t even a major candidate for an MLS expansion team, and it felt like half the country was lining up trying to get a squad.
Keeping a team isn’t worth spending public money to build another stadium, and it appears business and political leaders back in Columbus recognize that. But that doesn’t mean that losing a team, and losing a city, like Columbus wouldn’t be a huge error for American soccer and a major disappointment for sports fans in Ohio, many of whom already went through a team relocating, once the Browns left for Baltimore.
Not much about the Crew was perfect. The uniforms and logo were sometimes ugly. The stadium had a few rust spots. The supporters’ march to the stadium was only as long as the walk from the parking lot. The local press still cared more about Ohio State spring practice than a match report. But it was ours. And even if you weren’t a Hudson Street Hooligan, you could appreciate it and love it.
This could happen to anybody. It’s happening in Columbus. And it sucks.