By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 31, 2020) US Soccer Players – If traumatic experiences bring people closer together, there might not be a more united fan base in Major League Soccer than that of the Columbus Crew. Crew fans, to put it kindly, have been on a ride over the last two years. Watching and enjoying their team was secondary to merely holding onto it.
In 2018, then-owner Anthony Precourt attempted to relocate the original MLS franchise to Austin, Texas. The threat to the club’s existence in Ohio kicked up a local campaign to save the Crew. That campaign reinvigorated interest in the team in Columbus and eventually led to a sale of the team to new owners committed to the city.
2019 was, by necessity, a year of transition on- and off-the-field. The new investor/operator group, led by Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam with longtime Crew team doctor Pete Edwards in the fold, brought in former Toronto FC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko to push the club forward.
Coach Caleb Porter didn’t have the tools necessary to compete in the highly competitive Eastern Conference. The relieved, but fatigued fan base focused on plans for a new downtown stadium in the city’s Arena District. For all of MAPFRE Stadium’s history, the bare-bones nature of the venue and the removed location from bars and restaurants presented barriers between the Crew and success in a rapidly changing MLS.
The issues caused by MAPFRE Stadium gave credence to Precourt’s claims about the club’s future as a business. The Save The Crew movement proved enough enthusiasm exists in the city to support the team, but it couldn’t fix everything wrong with the club’s situation in Columbus. That work would have to be done by the people who put the money down.
It seems only natural that any new ownership group would take stock of their new purchase and ponder changes. Beyond finding a way to build a new stadium, everything is on the table. The danger lies in crossing certain lines in the quest for greater local relevance. The Crew’s new ownership found out the hard way this week where that line lies. Columbus Dispatch columnist Michael Arace reported that the team was considering a rebrand.
The word “rebrand” is enough to give American soccer fans chills in 2020. The recent efforts by the Chicago Fire and Louisville FC serve as cautionary tales for what can wrong if a rebrand is handled poorly. Even including the fan base in the process of revamping a club’s image isn’t a panacea when the passion of soccer fans is involved. No fan base is a monolith, and the methodology of collecting opinions can vary widely from process to process.
The best example of a well-done rebrand is The Kansas City Wizards turning into Sporting Kansas City when their new stadium opened back in 2011. Whether it was because the old name was just that bad or because the club struck a perfect shot with the identity, the change worked.
Whatever outreach the Crew might have done before the news broke in the local paper, the team now has to deal with an angry fan base on the even of the season. It was fascinating from an outsider’s perspective to witness the full cycle of events. The story, the fan reaction, the club’s response to that reaction, and the simmering unease that remains.
The fan backlash was fierce, rightly expressed dismay that the club would consider changing the colors and name of a club that was so nearly taken from them just 18 months prior. MLS history isn’t long by world soccer standards. Still, 25 years is more than enough time for an identity to take root. The Save The Crew movement only served to harden the connection between the fans who fought and the name of their team.
A discussion of what constitutes a “club” is germane, though it’s difficult to express succinctly. In the modern sense, a club is whatever the fans decide it to be. It could be a mode of operation, an on-field style of play, or a place like a stadium. It can also be as simple as the colors and crest the team uses to distinguish itself from its competitors on the field. The shared community of sports is more concept than reality. Turnover ensures that no team keeps the same individuals from year-to-year.
Mere hours after the news broke through Arace’s column, the club issued a statement saying that the colors would not be changed. Edwards himself wrote in a tweet the ownership’s recognition that the colors are sacrosanct. Though he did not explicitly reference the controversy, his meaning was clear.
Further reporting at the Columbus Dispatch eventually mollified the fan base with word that the club wasn’t considering a possible name change. What started as a five-alarm fire was nothing more than some smoldering ashes 24 hours later. The club saved enough face to think that nothing significant was lost. Maybe the initial story was a trial balloon meant to test the appetite of the fan base for a change. Maybe it was a misstep. As long as the owners keep their word, most will see no harm and no foul.
“The colors Black & Gold and the moniker ‘The Crew’ are critical parts of our club’s identity and have been beloved by supporters since 1996,” club president Tim Bezbatchenko told the Columbus Dispatch. “Discussions regarding overall brand identity include critical supporter feedback, and any reports suggesting a departure from the above by the club would be inaccurate.”
For Crew fans, the name and colors signify not just 25 years of history, but the fight to keep the team in Columbus in 2018. It’s the soccer fans of Columbus that truly embody their identity.
More From Jason Davis:
- Gridiron lines in MLS stadiums
- Inter Miami’s immediate future
- The Galaxy, Atlanta, and Toronto face preseason pressure
- Seattle in the Champions League
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com