Steve Lyons is tasked with making the Crew relevant in the corporate world

“It’s a special evening,” Tim Bezbatchenko said, “because it’s the first iteration of Hell Is Real.” The Columbus Crew president was beginning a press conference at Mapfre Stadium about two hours before his club hosted FC Cincinnati for the first time, inaugurating the in-state rivalry that takes its name from a billboard along I-71.

Bezbatchenko was right: Mapfre was buzzing Saturday. Partially thanks to an army of 5,000 Cincinnati fans who marched in chanting like they owned the place, the Crew posted its first sellout crowd of the season. Blasts of fire accompanied the lineup introductions, and there were more figurative pyrotechnics once the game kicked off, including a Pedro Santos golazo that tied the score at 2-2 in minute 62. It was an awesome experience to behold, one that will surely be repeated in Cincinnati when the Crew visits on Sunday, Aug. 25.

The Crew organization is hoping every home match can be such an event someday, which brings us to the real reason we were gathered: so Bezbatchenko could officially introduce Steve Lyons, the club’s new executive vice president and chief business officer, who the team hired away from its friends at the Columbus Partnership.

Bezbatchenko oversees both soccer and business operations for the Crew. When he began the job in January, he had to fill dozens of open roles in the front office due to workers jumping ship at the end of Anthony Precourt’s tenure, as well as those who left for Austin with Precourt. Since then the staff has expanded from about 30-40 people to more than 70. “In a lot of ways, I think it could have been easier to shut down for a year or two,” Bezbatchenko said.

The disarray left behind by Precourt Sports Ventures extended to the club’s external relations, as well. Precourt, an outsider from California, maintained a famously strained, distant relationship with the local business community. So when it came time to select a leader for the business side, Bezbatchenko and the Crew’s investor-operators, the Haslam and Edwards families, sought to find someone who could connect extensively with the community. “I think that’s how this team was saved and that’s how we’re going to proceed going forward,” Bezbatchenko said. “It’s going to become part of our identity.”

They soon realized the person they were looking for was Lyons, who was centrally involved in saving the Crew and who Bezbatchenko said “is connected more than anyone else in the city, in a lot of ways.”

Bez isn’t kidding. Lyons used to work for HNS Sports Group overseeing events such as the Memorial Tournament. He’s a trustee at Capital University and serves on the boards of Experience Columbus and Ronald McDonald House Charities of Central Ohio. Since 2010, he’s been at the center of Columbus business activity as Vice President for Member & Community Engagement at the Columbus Partnership, a coalition of local CEOs that stands as the city’s most powerful civic organization.

Not only is Lyons embedded at the highest levels of Columbus commerce, he also has a deep personal investment in the future of the Crew. “I was a part of the behind-the-scenes team with Alex Fischer at the Partnership helping to keep this team in Columbus,” Lyons said at the presser. “And when it became a reality that I could actually be a part of the organization, it was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up — something that I think was personal to me, and that allowed me to carry forward and finish something that we started.”

Once alienated from the people who control the city’s corporate purse strings, the Crew now has an inside man.

Lyons said his immediate goals include listening to local business leaders to determine how partnering with the Crew can benefit them. He seeks to reposition the Crew as a big deal ahead of the new Arena District stadium set to open in July 2021.

“Ultimately, long-term, we have some pretty audacious goals. And we’re just getting started,” Lyons said. He declined to provide specifics about those “audacious” goals, but he did say they involve positioning the Crew and Columbus itself as a standard-bearer for American professional sports.

Everything on the business side seems to be building toward the new stadium. The Crew hired Legends, self-described as “a holistic agency that specializes in delivering solutions for legendary brands,” to, in Bezbatchenko’s words, “help tell the story of what the new stadium can be” to decision-makers in the corporate world. They also hired IBM iX, which helped optimize MLS stadiums for Atlanta United and LAFC for the modern fan experience in terms of design and technological enhancement. And season ticket memberships for 2020 went on sale last week with the promise of first dibs on seating in the Crew’s new home.

Until that facility opens, Lyons will be on his grind, leveraging the many relationships he’s established among this city’s movers and shakers. For a franchise that has perennially struggled to move the needle with the most powerful people in Columbus, the possibilities are intoxicating.

“This role, it was important to get it right,” Bezbatchenko said. “We know we nailed it with Steve.”