At the last home game of the 2019 season, a puff of yellow smoke fills the air in the Columbus Crew’s Nordecke supporter section, as fans donning black and yellow wave banners and flags.
“Because we support Columbus! Columbus! Columbus!” a few fans chant. The cheer eventually spreads throughout the section, people jumping up and down. “And that’s the way we like it! We like it! We like it!”
For Columbus resident Sam West, the #SaveTheCrew movement was a wakeup call. Its success is why the team remains in Columbus today, and so he locked down on his support.
“Casually went over the past 10 years, and then obviously when Save The Crew kicked in, that’s when it really kicked into high gear, the fandom, because obviously had to save the team,” West says.
West and his family pledged to buy 2019 season tickets to ensure the team’s success this year and in the future. He says it’s been worthwhile.
“Absolutely,” West says. “It’s been so cool seeing the city kind of circle around the team and see the new stadium that’s gonna be built.”
Beginning two years ago, a concerted grassroots effort helped prevent the Columbus Crew from being moved to Austin, Texas by former owner Anthony Precourt. This past season was the first following the Crew's transfer, although things have changed a lot since then, attendance numbers still fall near the bottom of the league.
The Crew didn't make the postseason, despite winning their last home game against Philadelphia Union 2-0. A loss in Toronto on October 6 closed out their season with a record of 10-16-8.
With new owners in charge, they still have plenty to look forward to, including a stadium groundbreaking later this week. Executives hope to open the "modern and iconic" arena by the 2021 Crew season, with a canopy to cover all attendees and the first-of-its-kind beer garden in Major League Soccer.
When it comes to attendance, though, Crew officials haven't seen as much movement as they might hope. New Columbus Crew general manager Tim Bezbatchenko says about 9,000 people bought season tickets this year, a figure he intends to improve.
“We need to grow that, we want to grow that,” Bezbatchenko says. “With the support of the community and the city, we think we can get to a point where we’re selling out the new stadium every game.”
That point is still far away. MAPFRE Stadium currently has a capacity of 19,968, almost the same as the planned $230 million Crew stadium, which will be built in the Arena District just west of Huntington Park.
But the team’s average home attendance this year was just 14,856 people per game. Columbus Crew ranks 21 out of 24 in attendance for Major League Soccer teams.
That’s up from last year's average of 12,447, when the team was dead last in the league, but still lower than the 15,439 average of 2017, before Precourt threatened a potential move.
Compare that to Minnesota United, which just opened up its new soccer stadium Allianz Field in April. That stadium seats 19,400 people, and the team sold out seats multiple times this year. They also boasted 14,500 season ticket holders in both 2018 and 2019.
Andy Greder, soccer reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, says the stadium relocation benefitted from an already high fan interest.
“It seats 23,000 people, and for all 17 home games in MLS they sold it out, as well as some standing room only," Greder says.
Cincinnati FC, which went pro in the 2018 season, had 18,007 season ticket holders that year. This year, they had over 20,000 – more than double the number of season ticket holders for the Crew.
The Crew declined to share season ticket numbers from previous years, citing that they were not public under the previous membership.
Save the Crew spokesman Morgan Hughes says the grassroots organization still has a role as the team prepares to transition to a new stadium. This year, their goal was ensuring there were "butts in seats."
“We started a program called community assist where you could donate your tickets to us, and we would then in turn take that block of tickets and donate it to local nonprofits,” Hughes says.
He plans to continue creating new efforts to introduce new people to soccer.
Of Standings And Stadiums
The Crew finished its season ranked 10th in the conference. Bezbatchenko says key starters like Milton Valenzuela were injured pre-season, which resulted in a rough go for the team.
“The second half of the year, we turned a corner,” Bezbatchenko says. “We only lost one in 12. And I think you’re starting to see the team respond to how Caleb Porter wants to play.”
Porter took over this year as the new Crew coach. According to Bezbatchenko, he wants his players to be more aggressive on the field.
But sports attorney Bret Adams thinks the team’s performance is lacking.
“We’re subsidizing an owner that has net worth of almost $5 billion,” Adams argues in reference to the planned stadium. “And I don’t think as taxpayers, even with me being intimately involved in the sports arena and very supportive of pro sports, we should not be funding a billionaire owner.”
The new team owners include Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, along with the Edwards family of Columbus. Adams says that the city paying $140 million for development of the future Confluence Village amounts to investment in the MLS franchise it will house, although the city argues otherwise.
“The city committed this money to purchase that land, and that’s part of a stadium construction, that’s not infrastructure,” Adams says.
Adams hopes that the Crew investment ends up being worthwhile.
“We should have as taxpayers reinvested in MAPFRE," he says. "That stadium has tremendous visibility off 71. You’ve got an existing practice facility in the village of Obetz, you wouldn’t have needed frankly any taxpayer money if the Haslams had come in and spent their original commitment on a new downtown stadium.”
No plans are set in stone yet for MAPFRE, but Crew stakeholders say they want to convert the old stadium into a community sports park and practice facility.
Finding New Fans
Bezbatchenko believes MLS is growing and that the Crew in turn will attract more fans.
“Next year we have Nashville and Miami coming in,” Bezbatchenko says. “Those are great cities. We have 24 teams now, we’re growing to 26 next year and the League has plans to continue growing.”
Potentially fans like Christian Hines, who attended her first professional soccer game on September 29. Ohio State University was selling discounted tickets to the last Crew home game of the season, so she decided to give the sport a try.
“Probably, I mean I’m going to be in Columbus for four years. Why not?” Hines says. “If I enjoy the game today I’ll come back.”
The Crew plans to break ground on its new Arena District stadium October 10. The land for the stadium has not been purchased, but Bezbatchenko says it will be “very soon.”