Saving the Crew just the start for the Haslams: While We’re Waiting

Happy Tuesday, WFNY!

The Cleveland Browns may have lost last Sunday, but sports life is good in Ohio these days. Despite the loss, there’s still plenty of encouragement to be found in the Browns. Young players are developing and showing progress and the team won two-out-of-three games and it took all the refs’ effort to keep that from being a three-game winning streak.

The Cleveland Cavaliers start their season tomorrow in Toronto. Obviously, without LeBron James, things are going to be different. Any hopes and dreams of more NBA Championships are completely evaporated. Yet there’s still reason to anticipate this season if you’re a basketball fan. For the first time in four years, the regular season should be interesting again. Every game matters, whether it be for chasing wins, developing players, or learning lessons.

Yet perhaps the most exciting thing for sports fans in Ohio in a broader sense is the news that came out last week that the Haslams were stepping up to help keep the Columbus Crew in Columbus.

There’s a certain poetic justice to this story, what with the owners of the team that was stolen by Art Modell over 20 years ago stopping it from happening to another Ohio sports franchise. Anthony Precourt tried his damnedest to move the Crew to Austin, TX come hell or high water, but in the end, it was Jimmy and Dee Haslam who prevented the Crew from leaving. Precourt will still get his Austin franchise, but it won’t be the Crew. The Columbus Crew will live on. For now.

Ohio sports fans deserve a lot of credit. Their passion helped preserve the Cleveland Browns name, colors, and records. And the dedication, outrage, and action of the #SaveTheCrew movement helped put pressure on the situation and was part of what led to the resolution we have today. So kudos to the fans. Enjoy this moment.

However, before we get too carried away, there are some larger concerns at hand. Namely, making the Crew a larger part of the Columbus identity so a situation like this one won’t arise again. Yes, for now, the Haslams did their part to save the Crew. But they quickly put out a statement through the Browns.

“We would invest in a strong infrastructure within the Crew organization so that we can continue our focus and commitment to building a winning Cleveland Browns football team in Northeast Ohio.”

In other words, we love you, Columbus. Happy to do our part. But don’t expect us to be hands-on in running the team. Our priorities are elsewhere. Indeed, this is a bit of a shrewd business move by the Haslams. Saving the Crew builds a lot of goodwill in Columbus, a large city with no shortage of football fans with split loyalties between Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, and other cities. This is a great move to extend the Cleveland brand further south and push back the Cincinnati and Pittsburgh influence, specifically.

But as far as running the day to day of the Crew? That’s a job for someone else. And whoever that might end up being, that person and/or entity will have some work to do. There’s no question the Crew is an important part of MLS history, but more needs to be done to grow the Crew brand inside Columbus itself.

I can think of no better case study than, well, myself. I have lived in Columbus since I came to Ohio State for college in 1998. I have lived in Columbus longer than I have any other city in my life. And I am a pretty big soccer fan. So surely I must be a big Crew fan, right? Well, I am not. I can probably count the number of Crew games I’ve been to on my fingers. My favorite Crew game I have ever been to was when they hosted the Premier League side Newcastle United, which is the club I root for the most in soccer.

So why am I not a bigger fan of the Crew and what can be done to get my support?

For the first question, part of it is MLS in general, and I need to be honest and upfront about that first and foremost. I do not especially love the brand of soccer being played at the MLS level. Don’t get me wrong, it has dramatically improved over the last 15 years or so. It’s a growing league and it keeps getting better. But it’s still lagging behind European club leagues in terms of quality of players and quality of play. So that aspect is not specific to the Crew.

But when it comes to the Crew, there are specific things holding me back. First, and not surprisingly to anyone who has been there or who has followed why Precourt wanted to move in the first place, the stadium. It’s a historic building, being the first soccer-specific stadium in the United States, but it’s a boring venue with almost no character and it’s in the worst location imaginable. Parking is a disaster and with I-71 being the only access point for getting in and out, it creates a logistic nightmare.

Second, if I don’t want to go to the games, I can’t watch. Somehow, the Crew agreed to a TV deal that would only allow Time Warner customers to watch. I remember once upon a time they were on Fox Sports Ohio, allowing anyone in Ohio to watch them. Now only people who have TV through one specific provider can watch. As someone who doesn’t have cable, I have no ability to watch.

Finally, there’s a general lack of brand awareness locally. While any sports fan in Columbus is aware they exist, there is almost no way of getting information about the team into the ether. For example, I am also not a Blue Jackets fan, but I know how the team is doing, what the key talking points are, etc. You see them on TV, they get talked about on sports radio, there are marketing campaigns blanketing the city, seeping Blue Jackets knowledge into the subconsciousness of sports fans here. Even the Columbus Clippers do a better job of running promotions and getting their name into the minds of residents. The Crew is an afterthought outside of the incredibly passionate die-hard fans.

So how do the Crew fix these issues? How do they draw local soccer fans such as myself in?

For starters, a new stadium in a new location is an absolute no-brainer. That’s going to happen. It has to. Going to Clippers or Blue Jackets game in Columbus is a treat. Great buildings located downtown with tons of options for getting to various freeways. Getting to and leaving the games there couldn’t be easier. The Crew need to work with Columbus to find a location that offers similar amenities and then they need to build a beautiful stadium with a welcoming environment that adds to the experience of attending matches.

Then, the Crew needs to step up their marketing efforts. Offer promotions for attending games, whether it be cool giveaways or reduced prices under certain circumstances, and then just blast this information all over Columbus. Advertise heavily on TV and on local sports radio. Quadruple the amount of billboards being used in Columbus. Get your message out there.

But most importantly, whatever it takes, get a new TV deal. Tear up your arrangement with Spectrum and go back to Fox Sports Ohio. Or maybe SportsTime Ohio is the play. The Crew did expand their TV deal a bit this season, with games appearing on local ABC and Fox affiliates, but this is not a simulcast thing. It’s just a game or two being shown on those channels. The vast majority are still limited to Spectrum customers. That’s not good enough.

I’m a soccer fan, and I will frequently watch random matches when I come across them on TV. That should be the Crew, but it’s not. If you get the Crew on TV where everyone can watch them (and on channels that people are aware of and are watching anyway), you can slowly get people to start watching, developing ties to the players, and eventually loyalty to the club itself. Furthermore, a deal with FSO or STO would allow them to cross-promote with the Indians and get more visibility not only in Columbus but across the state in general.

The Crew have made plenty of mistakes over the years leading to where they are today in the hierarchy of Columbus sports fans. This situation of saving the team feels like a fresh start. A chance at a do-over. I hope new ownership can identify some of these weaknesses and work on fixing them. I’d love to be a bigger fan of the Crew. I’m willing to give the Haslams and their new executives a chance to win me over. I hope they take the chance to do so.