Someone at every sporting event is miserable. Spectator sports were originally intended to be pure entertainment, but they’ve morphed into something much more meaningful, and therefore anxiety-inducing for most people. A crowd shot from any given sports television broadcast is going to show you many more nervous faces than happy ones.
Stumbling upon something in sports that produces nothing but joy feels special. And the Crew Legends game, played on Oct. 28 before the Columbus Crew’s final regular-season home game of the year, was the happiest sporting event I’ve ever seen. Hell, it might be the happiest event of any kind I have ever been to. Everyone was smiling, laughing, joking. There wasn’t a serious or neutral face in the crowd.
It didn’t matter that the weather was horrible, or the game was played on a field that, well, let’s be real, was a more like a drainage ditch than a field.
A month earlier, no one had any idea if the Crew would continue to exist beyond 2018. Most people assumed the team couldn’t be saved once its owner Anthony Precourt made his decision to leave.
But Save The Crew, the fan-led movement to keep the team in Columbus that formed after Precourt’s announcement, never lost hope. To the surprise of many outsiders, MLS and prospective new club owners indicated the the Crew were likely staying put just a couple weeks before that drainage-ditch game.
“The Friday when the news came out was one of the greatest days of my life, just because everything we’ve been working on came to a head and came to a positive conclusion,” says David Miller, director of communications for Save The Crew. “This is the first time this has really happened in major league sports in America, where the fans have fought the system and won.”
This event could have featured very easily just as many tears as it did jokes; it was nearly a sendoff to beloved members of a dying team. Instead, fans got to celebrate the people who helped build the club they’ll get to support well into the future, while also getting treated to one of the greatest plays in the history of world football.
And if you ask anyone associated with Save The Crew what this event was about, they’ll say it was a celebration of their community. The people behind the organization use the word “community” most of all. They’re big soccer fans, but to them, the real value of a soccer team is that it’s a community centerpiece. It’s the thing that makes bringing and keeping people together easy.
MLS and its owners are not ignorant to this. All of the league’s marketing — as well as its sponsors’ in-game marketing — is based on the idea that soccer fans are more dedicated and communal than other fans.
But those powers that be only seem to understand soccer communities as “people who enjoy drinking beer and waving flags in a group,” rather than something that really matters to people. How else to explain Precourt thinking he could pick up the team and move it to Austin, Texas, without meaningful opposition? He and the league didn’t think fans were that serious.
“[MLS] sold the environment in a way that reinforced the roots, which is why we always talk about respect your roots,” says Morgan Hughes, spokesperson for Save The Crew. “They almost just fertilized them, they made them stronger, but they didn’t put them down. We did that. It is how you should sell your product, but you have to fucking mean it. You have to respect it. And you have to know that when a community exists that you built your business around, you can’t destroy it. It’s not yours anymore. You may own it, but it’s not yours.”
Crew supporters bought in 100 percent to the idea that their community is important and their fanbase is unique. It wasn’t a marketing gimmick to them. They took it seriously.
“I don’t know how it is for other teams around MLS, but it’s always been a very tight-knit thing here, from players to front office to fans,” says Save The Crew creative director John Zidar. “It’s never felt like a customer-business relationship for any of us. I feel like it’s unique in the sports world.”
Maybe that’s why they won.
You might remember the extremely broke days of mid-era MLS when the league contracted and more than half the teams were owned by two ownership groups. Things are a lot better now, with billionaires clamoring to get into a league that can pick and choose who it wants to accept $150 million expansion fees from. But only true MLS heads are likely to remember the brief bridge period in which the league recruited a lot of new sub-billionaire owners and about half of them sucked.
Precourt was a member of that group, purchasing the club from the Hunt family in 2013. There was a lot of concern up front about whether Precourt, a non-Ohioan, bought the team to move it, and he adamantly said he wouldn’t.
On the eve of J. Anthony Precourt’s unveiling as the new chairman and operator-investor of the Crew and Crew Stadium, Columbus mayor Michael B. Coleman had one question.
“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.”
Heck, you can hear Precourt’s promise from the man himself. Take it away, Tony.
But Precourt is not from Columbus. He was born and raised in San Francisco, built his business there, and still lives there. “Precourt attended a handful, under 10 games, as owner of the team. He just wasn’t here for us,” Miller says.
The public learned about Precourt’s intention to move the Crew to Austin in October 2017, but according to an article in the Columbus Business Journal, he’d already been working with the league on the team’s relocation for a while before that. And Alex Fischer, CEO of local business organization the Columbus Partnership, was among the aggrieved:
“We offered millions in additional community sponsorships, as well as an offer to buy the team. Mr. Precourt wasn’t interested,” he said. “I guess we are learning why.
“It appears he and others have long had a secret plan to try to move the team to Austin, starting with what has been reported as an ‘escape clause’ in his 10-year agreement that no one was aware of, and months of private discussions in Austin. It’s a shame leaders here in Columbus have been misled for so long.”
Public records of the Crew’s agreements with local government suggest Precourt and the league exaggerated the club’s losses to claim that the team couldn’t subsist in Columbus. And if Fischer’s claims are true, the Crew were being disingenuous about their inability to generate sponsorship revenue as well.
Save The Crew mobilized quickly after learning about Precourt’s plans to relocate, but from the start, the organizers refused to let themselves get pessimistic.
“At the very beginning, we felt like, Oh crap, this is not great. But that only lasted a few days, and then we decided that we had to fight,” Miller says. “Ever since that moment I’ve been confident that they would stay.”
“There was never an option to fail,” Hughes adds. “It meant too much to too many. When you’re a part of this, it’s family, both figuratively and literally. There are [homegrown players] that have grown up here as Crew fans and we know their parents. To watch them go through the emotional process of having their community destroyed ... it was enough to go through it on your own, but to see them go through it? Failure was never an option.”
The hashtag was born almost as soon as it looked like the team was going to leave, and an organized rally was staged just a week later. This is where most fan movements stop, with hashtags and rallies. Save The Crew went several steps further, but it still needed help from people in power to succeed.
Then the “Art Modell Law”, which Ohio attorney general (and now governor-elect) Mike DeWine threatened to invoke last December, delayed Precourt’s plans and bought Save The Crew some time.
Passed into law following the relocation of the original Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, the state statute mandates teams that use public resources in the state of Ohio have to give six months notice of their intention to relocate and give local owners a chance to buy the team. In March, with no sale agreement in sight, the state of Ohio sued MLS and Precourt Sports Ventures.
Throughout the legal back and forth — PSV filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and struggled in September’s oral arguments — Save The Crew kept making noise. That noise certainly helped catch the attention of the AG who had designs on running for governor.
What made Save The Crew special, however, was its determination to actually do the thing stated in its name. They started dreaming up ways to help beyond simply raising awareness. They worked diligently on the assumption that they could prove that the community in Columbus was strong enough for the team to thrive.
One of Save The Crew’s first steps was getting local businesses of all sizes on their side. They got in contact with seemingly every notable business in Columbus.
“We’ve collected over 350 business allies that range from small mom and pop shops to [large corporations],” says Miller. “They’re all allies of ours, and these are power players in the community who have our back and helped make the noise loud enough so that MLS couldn’t ignore us any longer.”
Save The Crew also made templates and contact lists to make it easy for people to get in touch with local sponsors, league sponsors, other MLS clubs, and legislators. But the most impressive thing they pulled off might be their ticket pledge, in which they got people to commit to buying tickets in the future, in support of an ownership group that didn’t exist.
“For a very long time the team was aiming to hit what they called Goal 10K, which even before Precourt was something that they were working towards, to get to 10,000 season ticket members,” says Zidar. “I think we’ve established a good base and really riled up the city, gotten a lot of people more passionate and more engaged in the team than there have ever been.
“We’re over 12,000 multi-game ticket packages. It was meant as a way to get contact information for new local owners so we could give them a running head start.”
On Oct. 12, Fischer announced that the Columbus Partnership, Jimmy and Dee Haslam (owners of the Cleveland Browns), and Pete Edwards — the Crew’s team doctor for two decades and owner of several local businesses — were working on a deal.
It might have helped that MLS — an organization that is about to head into Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations with its players, and has had to defend itself against accusations that its marketing arm is actually a shadowy conspiracy — may have wanted to avoid a trial so its finances wouldn’t be subject to discovery.
So technically, the Crew were saved by the Columbus Partnership and the Ohio AG’s office; a fan organization was never going to have the money or legal power to keep a team from moving. But Save The Crew matters in all this. Their effort demonstrated that the Crew were worth an owner’s time and money.
And Save The Crew’s next task will be backing up their words. With thousands of fans who didn’t want to give money to Precourt for any reason, Columbus has been dead last in MLS attendance by some distance in 2018. The people behind Save The Crew would never scold fans for this — “It’s never been my place for me or anyone else to tell anyone else how to enjoy their time or spend their money,” says Hughes — but they’re also aware the club is going to need a lot of paying customers to succeed, no matter who owns it.
The Haslams are investing in the Crew, but the front man is Edwards, who has been the Crew’s team physician since the team’s founding in 1996, and is stepping down from that position at the end of the season. Edwards is also the chairman of the Columbus-based Edwards Companies, a construction and real estate conglomerate founded by his family.
“He’s everything Anthony Precourt said he was going to be, but Pete doesn’t need to say it, he just is it. He’s a Day 1 guy,” Hughes says.
Edwards showed up to the Save The Crew anniversary party a week after the announcement that he was part of the group in negotiations to buy the team. He kept his speech short, as he has at all of his subsequent public appearances. What he did say resonated: “When Crew fans spoke, we listened.”
“Across MLS, we’ve seen that local ownership is best,” Miller says. “The darling of the league right now is Atlanta and that’s because they have a local owner who has a connection to the community and actually cares about the community.”
There’s evidence that he’s right. As Nate Beckman writes at Massive Report, 10 of the top 12 teams in attendance have local owners, including the top three.
“With local ownership, there’s going to be people who are actually here in town, talking to business owners, community leaders, and actually building the bed of support that this team needs. That’s not something we’ve had in the past,” Miller says.
“Dr. Pete Edwards is heavily invested in this community,” he continues. “He’s a fixture of the community. He’s incredibly connected to Save The Crew. He was there at the initial rally, standing in the front row, supporting this community. We’re excited to have his back going forward. It’s inspirational when you see that the person who owns your team cares about you, wants to interact with you, and wants to be a part of what you’re doing.”
Believing in ownership goes a long way towards motivating a fanbase, not least of all when much of that fanbase is doing pro bono work for the team.
“We’re an unpaid sales team, pitching our family and friends and co-workers to come. I think we’ll just slide right back into that role,” Zidar says. Most MLS fans will relate strongly, though very few have had to become that salesperson during an existential crisis for their team.
“Soccer is still so young in America compared to other sports that everyone is ‘The Crew Person’ at their office,” he continues. “I’ve heard so many stories from people who are like, people who have never really shown that much of an interest are saying they want to come out to games. I think we’re poised for a really good rebound.”
Having players who are engaged and care about the community — like club captain and lifelong Crew fan Wil Trapp — is going to help a lot with getting people to show up in 2019.
The Crew’s players were put in a tough spot this season. Many wanted to show support for the fans, but couldn’t speak out too harshly against the person who signs their paychecks. But when the Crew Supporters’ Union came up with a cool way to show their support for Trapp …
Since @wil_trapp was so cool to share the inside of this with @MichaelArace1 in today's @DispatchAlerts column, I don't have to worry about letting the cat out of this bag. You fight for us. We fight for you. #SaveTheCrew #Crew96 pic.twitter.com/ECbM2F04LJ— Dave Edinger (@SoDaveWasLike) October 31, 2018
... he paid them back by wearing the custom captain’s armband in games.
“It’s an amazing testament to how much fans care. They gave it to me not thinking I’d ever wear it,” Trapp told Michael Arace of the Columbus Dispatch. “It’s cool, huh? I got in a little trouble wearing it because it’s not exactly sanctioned by the league, or something. I’ve worn it twice. The last two home games.”
Soccer fans want a winning soccer team, sure, but more than that, they want something to belong to.
“It’s not necessarily about the 90 minutes on the field,” Zidar says. “That’s a part of it but there’s so much more to it. It’s an all-day thing. It’s a whole community and there’s more to it than just the sport.”
A top professional team is the centerpiece of a greater ecosystem that involves things like the academy system, local youth soccer, supporters groups, tailgates, watch parties, and more. These things all support each other, and every element is important. Precourt took that for granted, and perhaps some Crew fans used to as well. But it’s clear that Dr. Edwards doesn’t, and that Crew fans will never forget about the importance of their larger community ever again.
“Save the Crew can’t just go quietly into the good night, like we won, let’s rest on our laurels and go tell our grandkids about the old times,” Hughes says. “We have to be an active participant in the future because the only future that is going to exist is one that we help create together.”
Save The Crew can serve as an example for other fanbases around the country, too. They might have had the right allies, and they might have gotten a bit lucky, but that’s not really why Save The Crew worked. It only worked because of the fans’ optimism and willingness to try anything they could to increase their influence. Anyone can follow their example and apply it to a different cause if they’re passionate enough about it.
“I hope fans all over the league mobilize and do this kind of stuff,” Zidar says. “Don’t wait for the team to take the initiative if you want to make something happen. I hope that people would see all the things we’ve accomplished this year and have that motivate them.”