Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Silence and Roar

The Columbus Crew slipped past Atlanta United last week in the opening knockout game of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs. Next up for the team is a home / away matchup against NYCFC tonight.

No question that this is a different type of midweek playoff matchup for Columbus. The game has become a take a stand, of sorts, for fans of the team who are trying to keep the Crew in town. With few other options to keep them here, the solution has become to prove to investor/operator Anthony Precourt that there is support for the team in town by getting as many people as possible to the game.

Precourt and Don Garber have stated that Columbus trails the rest of the league in many key business metrics. It's not a revelation to any longtime fans of the team, but for the first time it is being used as one of the reasons to move the team to Austin, Texas for a fresh start instead of putting it up for sale (which is how Precourt jumped into MLS in the first place).

For Precourt and MLS it's about improving the overall health of the league. It's the American way in regards to professional sports leagues. Team movements happen fairly often in the top four in the US (at least a dozen in the last 20 years). While it has only happened once in MLS, league followers will note that practically every team has gone through a number of rebrands and restarts in the effort to re-energize fledgling metrics.

This word: Metrics. It's become a rallying cry for Crew support. As it should. It's impossible to measure the heart of one fan, let alone hundreds. This fact strikes the soul of any fan of any team. With this in mind, fans have decided to prove that there is a market to be had here in Columbus by selling out a traditionally sparsely attended midweek match. To an outsider, this may seem counter-intuitive. Why give the investor of a team on the move more money as he skips town. But to a fan of the team, it makes sense. A show of force with feet. To prove the bad guys wrong.

The fact of the matter is that Columbus does leave a lot to be desired in terms of support for the team over the years. You can draw this back all the way to the 2008 MLS Cup and its aftermath. For reasons only known to the Hunt family, the Cup win was not capitalized on. The head coach left and the next season things became business as usual with the belief that a trophy might magically bring in more fans without any effort to bring them in.

Support did not show up, and by the time 2010 rolled around you had the team burning the contracts of very good and well-liked players. "Money-balling" it, as it was called back then. That drastic and abrupt change brought in thoughts that the team might be for sale and that the Hunts, after the death of the family patriarch now a few years on, were looking to scale down to just a couple pro teams (Kansas City Chiefs of the NFL and FC Dallas of MLS).

Turns out those gut feelings were correct. The team was on the market and was sold in 2013. One can ask the question of whether or not that damaged support for the team in the years between 2009 to the time it finally found a new investor willing to take it over. Anyone going to games in those years will tell you that the stadium was barely half full and the buzz around town was just not there.

Looking at it this way might make it seem like Precourt and company had a mountain to climb in terms of regaining solid local interest in the team. They launched a successful rebrand off the pitch and made it to the MLS Cup final on top of that. Two very successful events. When 2016 rolled around, crowds were better and sellouts increased. But for them, something was missing. It wasn't enough. Was it a new stadium? Is it just that Precourt doesn't like Columbus? Or is he wanting to start from scratch with a new group of fans and business leaders?

Precourt has been nearly silent save for a couple passive aggressive tweets. One would like to think that it is the loud roar from Crew fans that have him holding his tongue and waiting it out, but as we have seen with recent relocation of Stan Kroenke's St. Louis Rams of the NFL - silence is golden.

Because of the singular nature of MLS and it's business structure - Columbus Crew fans face a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation in regards to the rest of this season and next. For tonight's game, they have chosen the former.

No comments: