Columbus Crew: For Better or Worse, a Team of Firsts

A soccer team in Columbus doesn’t make sense. A city dominated by Ohio State football isn’t one that you would select to be a founding member of a new sports league. But Lamar and Clark Hunt saw opportunity in Ohio’s capital when they established The Columbus Crew, “America’s Hardest Working Team”, as one of the original MLS clubs in 1996. We were the recipients of the first soccer-specific stadium in America. And now we will be another unfortunate first – the first charter team to relocate.

Though unexpected, in the club’s more than twenty year existence, Columbus’ soccer community has cemented itself on the national stage. FOX Sports Soccer Commentator, Rob Stone believes,

if you’re writing a book on the history and the growth of soccer in America and the MLS, Columbus is not a city that anyone would’ve put in the table of contents. You’d think that it would happen in LA, Houston, Dallas, or New York. But no, Columbus was the cradle. It was held and revered in the soccer community and [Columbus] created this monster of ‘Dos a Cero’ that nobody knew could exist.

When you look at the cities that hosted the original MLS teams, mid-major markets like the Hunts’ Kansas City and Columbus both seem like outliers to their larger counterparts like New York and Los Angeles. But both Kansas City and Columbus have built thriving soccer communities. Columbus’ Hooligans have made MAPFRE Stadium a favorite location of the U.S. Men’s National Team when they face our neighbors just south of the border. The presence of the Crew has lifted soccer in our community. And the passion of our community for the sport has lifted the sport’s presence nationwide. The Crew has shown that MLS success isn’t limited to major cities.

And that’s what did us in. We made soccer big enough that now it is desirable elsewhere. 

The unfortunate situation about American sports is that it’s often more lucrative for an owner to move to a new city rather than foster the community in their current location. Seattle Sonics fans saw their NBA team move to Oklahoma City, Montreal Expos fans saw their MLB team move to Washington D.C., and in the NFL the Raiders have moved from Oakland to Los Angeles, back to Oakland and then after threatening to go back to Los Angeles, they’re now moving to Las Vegas. So the relocation of teams isn’t unfamiliar to fans of major leagues sports. But, with the exception of San Jose relocating to Houston, this is uncharted territory for the MLS.

With the continued expansion of the league and the growth of communities in mid-major cities like Columbus, the economics of the league are now similar enough to the other major sports where it can be lucrative for an owner to hold a city hostage for a new stadium under the threat of relocation. It’s easy to blame a greedy owner with no ties to the city, but that’s the current status of sports in America. New stadiums drive revenue and when that’s not an option teams leave. When Crew Stadium was first built in 1999, our city – specifically downtown – wasn’t what it is today. The fairgrounds, with its ample space and parking, seemed the perfect venue for the league’s first soccer-specific stadium. But today with the additions of Nationwide Arena and  Huntington Park within walking distance of a growing, thriving downtown party scene, it is easy for the stadium to feel out of the way. 

Rob Stone puts it this way: “as much as we all revere the stadium and the place it holds in our heart and American soccer lure, I think we all knew, you don’t want to be at a fairground… [downtown] is where [The Crew] need to be successful and viable.” 

We’re not here to justify Anthony Precourt’s actions. His ultimatum is a lose/lose (if we’re even convinced that the stadium has anything to do with it and not just the lure of a new super hip town). But the point is this…  We, Columbus, made the Crew what it is today. And we have an obligation to cheer “America’s Hardest Working Team” even with our final breaths.

We’ve found ourselves in our very own version of the movie “Major League”… So now we need to rally behind our team to show the owners and the rest of the country why there’s a team in Columbus in the first place. Let’s sell out the game tonight to a rowdy crowd because after all, we’re home to The Best Damn Fans in the Land.

Time Magazine's Person of the Year 2006. A connoisseur of being a connoisseur. Also daylights as marketing director for SEEN Digital Media and 1812.