Columbus Crew, Major League Soccer and relocating the idea of the community football club

Columbus Crew, Major League Soccer and relocating the idea of the community football club

IN ACT 1 OF SHAKESPEARE’S TWELFTH NIGHT, we’re introduced to the character of Orsino, and the pursuit of his idealised Olivia. In a noble speech, Orsino’s love of Olivia seems to be legitimate and worthy of respect. This is until we push aside the web of metaphor and cadence to unpack the content. Shakespeare’s lead isn’t pursuing Olivia for romantic fulfilmenthe’s the hart, and his desires are the hounds. Orsino doesn’t love Olivia. He’s merely in love with this romantic idea of himself. She’s only the vestige which he uses to express it.

It’s a bit of a roundabout way to discuss Major League Soccer, but one that has been put into context by the past month in the American game. A few weeks ago, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl released a story about Columbus Crew owner and oil-heir Anthony Precourt, who was planning to move from the Ohio capital to Austin, Texas. While his pretence was to force Columbus to subsidise a new downtown stadium, much of the rhetoric surrounding the potential move made it sound as if it was already a done deal.

Since Wahl reported his scoop, the response has been swift and furious among American fans. A founding club, Columbus Crew has traditionally been one of the most respected franchises in MLS. Yet, since his arrival, Precourt has cut funds for advertising, marketing and stadium infrastructure, as well as paying his designated players some of the lowest salaries in the league. Despite these problems, the Crew have consistently been one of the most successful in the league, recently reaching the MLS Cup final in 2015.

While Precourt’s move garnered significant backlash from fans, Major League Soccer’s response has been decidedly in support of the owner. MLS commissioner Don Garber released this statement on the potential relocation: “As attendance league-wide continues to grow [at] a record-setting pace, and markets across the country seek to join MLS, Columbus’ situation is particularly concerning. Despite [Precourt’s] significant investments and improvements on and off the field, Columbus Crew SC is near the bottom of the league in all business metrics and the club’s stadium is no longer competitive with other venues across MLS.”

Essentially, Garber blamed Columbus for not supporting a team he and its owner couldn’t be bothered to back. It certainly wasn’t the fault of the Crew supporters. The club is tied to the city of Columbus in a way most MLS franchises could only dream of.

They turn a tidy annual profit, Mapfre Stadium is a famous American soccer arena, and the Crew’s Nordecke remains one of MLS’ most vibrant supporter sections. Their average attendance of 15,439 isn’t a negative indicator of their value as a club; it’s relative to Columbus’ size as a city. So while a move to Austin will probably net Precourt and MLS larger bank balances in the near future, what message does even considering killing a profitable, successful and historic club send to the rest of the country? It should be that the pretence of caring about the community in American soccer is over.

When MLS first came into being, there was a hope that all of the best things that the game has to offer would be on display in the United States – namely, that clubs would become rooted in local populaces and in turn become an expression of their civic areas. The notion of the football club has always intrinsic held a sense of passion, identity and validation – the feeling that you belonged.

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Columbus was one of the first cities to embrace this conviction, taking what was first a fairly vague idea about what American soccer could be and turning it into a meaningful community in the Crew. Now, with Wahl’s report, any semblance of respect for Columbus’ contribution to the American game has been destroyed in the league’s search for marginally higher returns.

Every current and prospective MLS club needs to take the warning from Precourt and Garber. Once you push past the flashy marketing and high-minded rhetoric, MLS doesn’t care about its individual teams. Clubs like Columbus aren’t seen as institutions with legitimate roots in their city – they’re merely the Olivias that Orsino uses to promote the true goal: its brand.

Recently, Nashville approved a taxpayer-funded $275 million stadium project, putting the city in a good position to secure one of the two mid-December expansion slots. There was absolutely no semblance of irony that as one mid-sized capital was pushed out of the fray, another excitedly joined in. This callous disregard of Columbus is not only wrong, it’s potentially dangerous for the development of soccer in the country, especially when MLS has a not-so-distant history of endangering clubs on the whim of the market.   


[divider]Chicago, 1997[/divider]


With a neat dink over the onrushing goalkeeper, Frank Klopas validated the Chicago Fire’s place in the growing annals of American soccer history. The first ever expansion team to join the league, the Fire showed they meant to stay by winning Major League Soccer’s first ever league and cup double. Led by Bob Bradley and an established core of Eastern European players, the Fire were hailed by some as the most successful expansion team in the history of American professional sports.

For a few years the club cemented those expectations as a reality as they consistently made deep runs into the playoffs. They won the Open Cup again in 1998, 2000 and 2003, bringing in top internationals and producing future US stars, while fans showed up en masse downtown to watch the team at Soldier Field. During renovations, they even packed Naperville’s North Central Stadium 35 miles to the west. Despite the move, the Fire turned the small arena into a fortress, winning the Supporters’ Shield for the best regular season record in 2003.

It was a carefully-constructed model for success led by ownership group AEG Sports. The club was founded on 8 October, the same day as the Great Chicago Fire it was named after. It was a symbolic act, as general manager Peter Wilt attempted to intertwine the Fire with the unique history and demographics of the city, knowing that if the club invested in Chicago, the city would back the newcomers in return.

The line-up of the 1997 team was reflective of this local character. Behind Warsaw, Chicago is home to the second-largest Polish population in the world. The club recognised that in building it around them, they could potentially awaken a sleeping giant of support. Before the season, the Fire recruited Polish stars Piotr Nowak, Jerzy Podbrożny and Roman Kosecki.

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The gamble paid off, as the Polish community responded by forming Section 8, Chicago’s first band of ultras. Coach Bob Bradley remarked that “the Fire had an Eastern European flavour”, and appealing towards the population “was the club’s most important moment” in creating the electric atmosphere that propelled them to their early success. At a time when soccer was not popular across the country, Section 8 was groundbreaking in creating something new and unique in the American game. Its supporters truly cared about the club. They wore red scarves, lit flares and sang throughout the game, creating an atmosphere unlike any other in the MLS. 

By 2005, everything seemed like it was going right for the league and its model franchise in Chicago. On the back of a wildly successful 2002 World Cup, the MLS had expanded to 10 teams, with even more on the horizon. Using television ratings and rising youth enrollment as evidence, the league directors began to see soccer as a real competitor in the world of traditional American sports.

They believed that the future of the game was suburban and white, as opposed to its traditional niche for first and second-generation immigrants. Banking on this prediction, the MLS called for its clubs to build soccer-specific stadiums in the commuter districts. Land was cheap, parking was simple, and families would easily be able to get to the fields.

Joining the urban exodus of MLS clubs across the country, the Fire invested over $100 million in Toyota Park, a permanent stadium on the south-west outskirts of the city. The move isolated the club from their traditional support in favour of the access it offered nearby suburban families. With the loss of their fan base, it was little surprise that the club suffered as a result.

Section 8 became a shell of what it once was, while the relocation signalled the end of fan-favuorite Wilt. The Fire thoroughly believed that with this new stadium in place, they could become more than just a successful team with a distinctly ethnic character. To do this, they replaced Wilt with the New York Metrostars’ VP John Guppy under the impression that a good salesman could create a new identity.

It’s one that the club is still looking for today. Unfortunately for the Fire, the league’s market-based prediction did not hold true. Despite some attendance increases, these suburban-centric fan bases have ultimately been proven to maintain a low ceiling for expansion. Those same children that grew up with the game have now moved into the city. Instead of looking to sit quietly and watch an MLS match, they want to emulate that same atmosphere that the Fire originally brought to the league.

According to a popular study by the University of South Carolina professor Mark Nagel, an MLS match loses 260 potential fans for every mile its stadium is located outside of the city centre. And the league has taken notice. New expansion teams like Orlando and Atlanta are building urban stadiums intertwined with the city and its demographic structure in the same way the Fire first envisioned. These clubs are now the ones driving up net attendance and league value.

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Today, Toyota Park sits as a massive white elephant of what American soccer was supposed to be. To make matters worse, the Fire still has 20 years left on the lease, languishing in their $100 million prison while the rest of the league flies by. So why does this matter?

Professional soccer in the country is growing faster than any sport ever before. Demand for MLS expansion franchises remains high. Cities across the United States compete for the right to host top-flight soccer teams, fighting to pay expansion fees approaching $100 million. However, few owners believe that soccer is close to meeting its potential, making buy-in fees worth the risk in exchange for the potential profits.

Still, some nagging doubts persist. Television ratings remain low, while criticism over the quality of play endures. The biggest problem for the league, though, is what to now do with the original clubs. As long as the MLS keeps adding new teams, economically they can turn their back on Columbus, Chicago and the senior clubs that shaped the league in the first place. So they have, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Of the first 11 MLS teams directed out of the city, eight of the remaining 10 stagnate at the bottom half of MLS attendance charts.

In 20 years, no one knows what American soccer will look like, but one thing is for certain: MLS has been incorrect about the future before, and certainly has the potential to be wrong again. At a national level, the league shows little interest in admitting their shortcomings in places like Chicago. Instead, they seem hell-bent on making the same mistakes all over again with the Crew.

There is no doubt that if MLS continues to value the idea of new business over the real, unique fan bases that built the league, the professional soccer bubble in the country will continue to face serious challenges. More importantly, why do any of the new expansion teams think that they are immune to the fates that befell the first clubs?

Leagues and identities don’t grow on the whims of a capricious market, eventual franchise fees, and a steady succession of low-grade Juninhos. They thrive because people in places like Columbus care. A few decades prior, United States professional soccer was next to nothing. Today it’s something average, but then again, these things take time.

To demean the lack of a soccer culture across the United States, and then neglect the process of actually creating it, is counterproductive. For MLS, building legitimacy organically in places like Chicago and Columbus shouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness, but rather a testament to the commitment that maybe in the future we could have a country full of clubs that mean something to the cities and fans that support them. Like we first imagined it 

By Ryan Huettel  

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