An All-New Crew: Owner seeks to restore former glories of fabled Columbus soccer team

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From the March 6, 2014 edition

Since its founding in 1994, the Crew has been one of Major League Soccer’s premier clubs, from trophies won to winning percentage to attendance, and even as the unofficial home for the U.S. Men’s National Team.

That’s initially what drew Anthony Precourt to purchase the Crew last summer. In a word, heritage.

The last few years haven’t been as kind to the fighting canaries though. Playoff wins, and even appearances, have been rare. Attendance has dipped as the stadium has aged, and the scoreboard even caught fire last year at one game, an obvious metaphor for a team many of its fans felt had been passed by in this new generation of MLS. (Newer, sexier teams have taken off in Seattle, Portland and, gulp, Canada.)

A team calling itself Massive could have, ironically, sunk under all that weight. But, as a large banner on Crew Stadium suggests to passing motorists on nearby I-71, there’s a new Crew sheriff in town, and his sights are set on future glories.

“The Columbus Crew has a tremendous heritage,” Precourt said in a recent phone interview. “And I want to get back to being one of the standard bearers in the league.

“It’s an exciting time for us. We have a new, fresh vision, different priorities than [the previous ownership group] the Hunts, and we want to try to revitalize the interest level in the team with a new coach and ownership.”

An all-new Crew era it most certainly is.

In only seven months on the job, Precourt’s Crew has undergone a makeover about as extreme as any in its long history, and even more massive changes are on the horizon.

For now, though, Precourt said he’s focused on four core improvements: the on-field product, the fan experience, the player experience and the brand.

On-field product

For only the second time in its history, the Crew has hired a coach from outside the club’s ranks. The last time that happened, boom, championship.

OK, so it wasn’t that easy when Sigi Schmid took over in 2006, but Precourt said he has similarly high expectations with his new coach, Gregg Berhalter, because that’s what the city demands.

“Look at the Buckeyes, who are always at the top of the rankings every year in college football,” Precourt said. “Columbus likes a winner.”

To return to those winning ways, Berhalter and his staff will have to be smarter and more efficient than their MLS counterparts. Necessity requires as much from a small market team that couldn’t outbid Toronto FC, for instance, in the race to sign U.S. Men’s National Team player Michael Bradley this past offseason.

“Everything we’re doing, from the way we’re going to approach nutrition and sports science to the way we’re going to run training in practice, will be efficient,” Precourt said.

Berhalter won the job, in part, for his commitment to efficiency through data analysis. And while he declined to talk specifics about how much of a role number-crunching will play in player evaluations and scouting, he said it will have an impact.

“We still obviously evaluate the player based on his quality, but it helps to have some number background to it,” Berhalter said in a recent phone interview. “It’s a tool we use.”

In addition to a roster makeover, Precourt and Berhalter have also replaced most of the team’s staff, bringing in an all-new team of assistant coaches, each with international or World Cup playing experience, a new director of soccer operations, a new trainer and a new equipment manager.

A large focus on homegrown players, those channeled through the Crew’s youth academy teams, will also be prevalent. Berhalter likes the types of players Ohio produces (“I like the quality and the attitude,” he said), but he also likes the ability to sign legitimately talented players without having to outbid other MLS teams. Current Crew midfielder Wil Trapp is a prime example (some expect the Gahanna native to one day captain the men’s national team in a World Cup).

The actual on-field playing style, meanwhile, will be determined largely by what players are available, but some key characteristics will exist, Berhalter said.

“I want my players to be confident, to be aggressive in terms of not being afraid to make mistakes, to be on the ball, to value the ball, to value possession and to be disciplined and have structure,” he said.

Judging merely by preseason results, the approach appears to be working. The Crew, largely through quick, intricate one-touch passes, won the preseason tournament, the Disney Pro Soccer Classic, 4-1 over MLS Cup champs Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, after failing to see defeat in all other preseason games.

And while Berhalter impressed Precourt, in part, with his detailed plan for rebuilding the Crew, the coach said he was inspired to take the job after meeting Precourt and seeing his vision for the club.

“He’s very enthusiastic about making the Crew a strong brand, a good franchise,” Berhalter said. “He wasn’t saying, ‘Listen, this needs to be a winner after a year.’ [He was saying] ‘This is something we want to do right. This team is my priority, and I want to grow the team in these areas, from the player side of it, from the organizational side of it and the youth side of it.’ All that was very appealing to me.”

Fan Experience

As fate would have it, the first Crew game Precourt attended featured the now infamous scoreboard blaze. Replacing that 14-year-old relic wasn’t cheap, but Precourt said the investment was necessary to show fans he was serious about offering a first-class professional product.

“We need to do things to improve our fan experience at Columbus Crew Stadium,” Precourt said. “We have to get people excited about what we’re doing.”

The new main scoreboard is more than twice the size of the old one, and will allow the team to broadcast live video, instant replays and interactive fan promotions. Ribbon displays on the east and west sides of the seating bowl, and an auxiliary display located below the main one, were also added.

Other new upgrades include the newly created Premier East seating, where bench seats were converted to chair-backs, the creation of four new access points to the lower concourse concession stands and restrooms and the doubling of the lower concourse’s square-footage to alleviate fan congestion.

Precourt said he’s also considering other changes to concessions and the overall fan experience, but declined to talk long-term changes to the stadium (or even its location).

The main, long-term goal is for the Crew to once again be near the league leaders in attendance. It’s a goal that doesn’t look as far away as it might have two years ago.

As another banner on Crew Stadium illustrates, the team recently led the league in average attendance growth from year-to-year. Simply put, the Crew now has more season ticket holders than it’s had since Crew Stadium opened in 1999, said Mike Malo, senior vice president of sales & marketing.

“To have that kind of growth in two years, and two years where we didn’t make the playoffs, I think speaks volumes to how the market’s responding to the value of our product,” Malo said.

The main driving force in that change has been not only a renewed focus on selling season tickets, but also on who the Crew’s targeting for those tickets, Malo said.

According to market research, there are more than a half million soccer fans in the Columbus market, and the club’s gotten smarter and more analytical, Malo said, in how it’s targeting those people.

For instance, Malo and his sales team use various demographic data to target potential soccer fans at various price points, all depending on where they shop for groceries, what kind of car they drive, etc. This data allows the team to be smarter in who it approaches for 10-game, half-season and full-season plans.

“We don’t have a lot of financial resources to do multi-million dollar ad campaigns that reach the mass markets,” he said.

By the end of the year, Malo expects the team to be close to the league average of season ticket holders (about 9,000), and once that threshold is reached, the team’s goal of selling 10,000 season tickets should come more quickly.

“Once you get critical mass, when we start putting sell-out signs up, then things happen a lot quicker,” Malo said. “The closer we get to 10,000, that last thousand is going to happen a lot quicker than those last couple years, where we’ve really had to grind it out.”

Player Experience

According to long-time soccer journalist Ives Galarcep, the Crew bid more than $15 million to try to land Bradley, perhaps the national team’s most marquee player. If the report is true, that number is by far more than any other offer the team’s made to a prospective player. Alas, it still wasn’t enough. Not even close. But it solidified Precourt and Berhalter’s goal of remaking the Crew in a smarter, more efficient manner.

One way to do that: Make Columbus a place players want to play.

A 2013 report by Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl asked 18 MLS players which league team they’d not want to play for, and, surprise, the Crew came out No. 1 with five votes. Eighteen isn’t a large sample size, and it’s unclear how much of that had to do with the coach at the time, but the message was clear.

“We’re going to need to be an attractive place for players to want to come and play,” Precourt said. “We’re giving great thought this offseason to what we can do to improve the training facility at Obetz, and we’re also improving the locker rooms.

“I want [the players] to feel like they’re treated like true professionals.”

Another approach to achieving that goal will arrive via a player liaison, which is a role Berhalter established after seeing its success at other clubs around the world.

“It’s effective in keeping the players tied in,” he said. “And you’re giving them a point of contact within the organization … in terms of how the assistant coaches and how the fitness coach works.”

Berhalter said he also wants players to know they can grow while with Columbus.

“When you look at the destinations now in MLS, we want to be a club that players want to come to because they know they’re going to develop and they’re going to play a type of soccer they enjoy,” Berhalter said.

The Brand

All of these changes will come to visible fruition next year when the team unveils a new logo as part of a rebranding effort. Since first taking over the Crew, Precourt hasn’t been shy about his dislike with the team’s construction worker motif. The current logo, while one of the few in MLS to remain unchanged since inception, doesn’t accurately reflect the city’s complex, diverse and progressive citizens, Precourt’s said in interviews.

If you follow Precourt closely through Twitter and other interviews, you gain a sense that this project is the one closest to his heart, but also the one he’s most nervous about implementing. He’s retracted statements from interviews and tried, via Twitter, to further clarify what he was getting at in those interviews. It tends to come across less like an unpolished media pro and more like a nervous boy trying to impress a cute and popular girl.

He nearly said as much during our interview.

“Our rebranding efforts will help bring a greater connection to our team,” Precourt said. “We want to represent Columbus a little better, in terms of our brand identity.

“I feel a tremendous amount of pressure to deliver something everybody will be excited about. We have to do it right. I think the ultimate judgment will come from the reaction to our rebranding efforts. That’s why we’re going to be real thoughtful and thorough.”