Columbus Crew blunders with fan base could serve as enduring lesson for big league owners



Through what has been a dismal start to a season as reigning MLS Cup champions, the Columbus entry in Major League Soccer has accumulated just three goals in five games. This is an interesting coincidence, because when the team takes the field Saturday evening to play New York City FC, it will do so bearing its third name of 2021.

From Columbus Crew SC to Columbus SC to the Columbus Crew, all inside a two-week period.

There’s no way there’s ever been anything like this in American sports.

As ridiculous as this episode has been, it could greatly impact how U.S. sports franchises make significant decisions in the future.

The team that began the season as Columbus Crew SC changed its name a week ago to Columbus SC, for reasons known only to the people running its front office. Monday, after seven days of protest, criticism and reviews that would have made “Ishtar” and “Gigli” seem like Oscar winners, it was announced that the team had decided to go forward as the Columbus Crew.

MORE: If all MLS owners were like Matthew McConaughey, everyone would be a fan

The Nordecke — the team’s most prominent supporters group — quickly made public its endorsement of the return of the Crew, releasing a joint statement with the team announcing that the two had met and agreed upon that decision and a slight redesign of the new team crest that had been so widely panned.

The Crew name and the numerals “96,” which indicate the year of the team’s introduction as a founding member of MLS, will be added to the large “C” that was the core of the new look.

“We’re super excited about the progress we’ve made and where we’re going was a club,” team co-owner Pete Edwards said in a video released through social media. “We’re going to be the Columbus Crew, and we’re going to be the Columbus Crew forever.”

Ownership of a sports team can be a really fun toy for the wealthy, and they lately have been amazing investments. Jerry Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 for $140 million. If he’d put that money in the S&P 500, he’d have had more than a half-billion dollars by now. That’s a lot of bread, without a lot of worry.

The Cowboys are worth $5.5 billion.

To realize this preposterous degree of growth, however, it is essential that team owners understand two things: 1) Fans are customers; 2) They are far more than this.

There have been occasions when fans were treated as neither, but rather as drones who would accept whatever circumstances were presented to them because of their presumed addiction to the sport or team.

The European Super League was an example of this, a group of a dozen prominent club owners joining forces to create what they perceived to be a more lucrative and reliable revenue stream. And it’s obvious that’s exactly how they thought of it, because there was no apparent consideration regarding whether the competition would be as appealing to fans as the UEFA Champions League, which it was designed to replace, nor how the absence of races to qualify for European competition would affect the interest in domestic leagues.

Fans recognized all of this and rebelled, and the impact of their protests — in the streets, in the media and in online forums — was so profound that 75 percent of the founding clubs abandoned the project inside of two days. The owner of Liverpool Football Club, John Henry, even issued a recorded apology that ran nearly 2½ minutes.

For all its folly, at least there was a clear motivation for the Super League idea: money. Could this be said for the rebrand of the Crew? Perhaps if it had been universally popular, there might have been a rush on new merchandise, but the Super League had been guaranteed billions in revenue by the soccer agnostics at Citibank. There were no such assurances for the “Columbus SC” concept.

Instead, in what research management did with the most ardent supporters, there was a warning from two members of The Nordecke that changing the Crew name could be “catastrophic,” according to the Columbus Dispatch.

The decision to make such major changes to the Crew brand and look always was curious and raised the question of whether any market research had been done. It happened, but the team’s most ardent fans largely were ignored. There was the sense that the people who formed The Nordecke always would be there, that the bond could not be broken.

This is a dangerous and counterproductive approach to ownership. The people who care the most ought to be coveted and engaged, not patronized and ignored. People fall out of love all the time, or there wouldn’t be half as many divorces as weddings.





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