The Contradictory Case of the Columbus Crew

In what industry are customers blamed when a business fails? Who has ever regretfully said “boy, diners should have kept eating the lousy food at that closed restaurant” or “passengers should have kept putting up with the subpar service at that defunct airline.” We of course never say such things because they’re counterintuitive to the inherent goal of any for-profit endeavor: to earn customers’ business.

And when it comes to soccer in Columbus, there is definitely business to earn. Ohio’s capital is the epitome of a soccer town. Columbus runs through the very veins of American soccer history. With its passionate fanbase and electric atmosphere, the rally cry of “Dos-a-Cero” against arch-rival Mexico was born in Columbus out of many dramatic US National team victories here. It’s a place that legendary goalkeeper Tim Howard describes as having its own mystique, as playing in US soccer’s spiritual home has become a rite of passage for national team players. But soccer to Columbus is more than just our national team. It’s the type of place where over 80,000 people will show on a Wednesday when top European clubs like Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain come to town for an ICC exhibition. Fans here will even wake early on weekend mornings to watch top professional soccer from overseas, as evidenced by Columbus being a top TV ratings market in the U.S. for the English Premier League.

Columbus likes soccer.

The passion for soccer in Columbus is what made the October announcement of the Crew’s potential relocation to Austin, Texas such a punch to the gut. As my initial shock began to fade and it became apparent our fanbase would rise to fight for our club, I wondered what I could do to help. I had my answer when I read the official press release from Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV), the Crew’s owner (or investor/operator, to be precise). It mentioned “disparity in attendance and corporate support” and the curiously unspecified but evidently damning “business metrics” as reasons for exploring their Austin option. I realized no matter what form the emerging grassroots Save The Crew movement might take, this perplexing narrative of a city not supporting its club must be refuted. After spending my professional career as a marketing researcher and analyst, I thought I would pose PSV’s claims as hypotheses and measure them with publicly available information. What I found led me to question not only the validity of these allegations, but the very credibility of Major League Soccer itself.

A sudden loss of interest?

The lone business metric immediately known at the time of the announcement was a decline in Crew attendance for 2017. After growing steadily over Precourt’s ownership tenure, last season saw a surprising drop in attendance. What were the causes of this unexpected decline- did Crew fans suddenly stop supporting the club? Hardly. If a club and league wanted to purposefully, but quietly, reduce its attendance as a justification for eventual relocation, the 2017 Columbus Crew season would be a textbook example.

When beginning my analysis, I had a few personal flashbacks to the 2017 season. The first was of a Wednesday home match against the LA Galaxy. At one point during the match, I recalled looking around the less than capacity MAPFRE Stadium crowd and thinking to myself how it was unfortunate the Galaxy weren’t playing here on the weekend when they would’ve drawn a bigger crowd. It was a fleeting thought, immediately forgotten until I began gathering attendance data. This recollection made me wonder what the drivers of MLS attendance actually were and could the Crew’s home schedule itself have played a role in the attendance decline.

Using a dataset of MLS match data from the 2013 through 2016 seasons, I constructed a simple linear regression model to predict match attendance. The inputs to this model were data which would be known prior to the start of a season including…

  • Month of the match
  • Day of Match — Weekday (Mon-Thur) vs Weekend (Fri-Sun)
  • Time of Match — Day vs Evening
  • Stadium capacity of the match
  • Number of Designated Players of the home club that season
  • Average Home Attendance as a percentage of stadium capacity across years
  • Average Road Attendance of the visiting club as a percentage of stadium capacity across years
  • Prior season ranking of the home club in MLS standings

The model performed well, predicting ~70% of the variance in match attendance despite not including obvious influencers such as weather, current club performance, and match-specific promotions (i.e. things which are unknown at the time schedules are set pre-season by MLS). The model was then applied to the 2017 Crew schedule. The predicted total attendance was both disappointing and noteworthy. Because the model was based on factors known prior to the start of a season, it meant MLS assigned the Crew a home schedule they should have expected to result in about ~500 fewer fans in attendance per match, which accounted for nearly a third of the year-over-year decline in Crew attendance. This seemingly contradicts claims that MLS is a league looking to do what’s in the best interest of its clubs, especially if the Crew has been struggling financially for several years as Anthony Precourt now claims. While it could be argued such a pessimistic prediction of attendance is a mere statistical anomaly, closer examination of the most significant inputs to the model suggest this resulted from intentional decisions.

One significant input of interest was the day of week of the match (i.e. weekday vs weekend), as weekday matches league wide from 2013–2016 averaged ~8% less in terms of stadium capacities. The Crew were assigned three weekday matches in 2017, as were nine other clubs. The number of weekday matches was not necessarily an issue; however, the scheduled opponents for these specific matches were. Another significant input to the model was the fact that certain clubs clearly draw more fans when they play on the road. With players ranging from David Villa to Kaka to Clint Dempsey on their rosters, matches against such top road draw clubs on weekends typically average ~89% capacity. So who were the Crew’s three weekday opponents in 2017? Seattle, Toronto, and the aforementioned LA Galaxy- all among MLS’ top road draws in recent years. I wondered if this was an unfortunate fluke…..until I looked at other clubs’ schedules and learned no other club in the last five seasons had home weekday matches scheduled against three top road draws EXCEPT the 2017 Columbus Crew.

Intent- the fine line between incompetence and sabotage

Another personal research flashback to the 2017 season was craft beer. In 2016, the Crew held two Craft Beer Festivals as promotional events. I recalled being disappointed last season when I realized after April’s Craft Beer Festival that no others were scheduled at that time for the rest of the season. This too was a seemingly irrelevant observation until I began studying the impact of such promotions on attendance. Why are promotions important? Matches in recent years with ANY type of promotion (regardless of day of week, month, or opponent) have averaged over 2,300 more fans.

After being assigned such an attendance-challenging schedule by MLS for 2017, the Crew did the opposite of what most businesspeople would expect- it scheduled far FEWER promotional events. For the first time in recent years, over half of the club’s home matches featured no special promotion. Even worse, in 2017 the club didn’t hold its most popular promotion in recent years (Dollar Beer/Brat Night) which coincided with many of its largest crowds.

But the most perplexing aspect of the 2017 promotional schedule was early in the season. In August 2017, club President Andy Loughnane addressed the Crew’s lack of early season sell-outs, stating “I’m not sure if any other club holds that distinction, but it’s a challenge that both eats me alive and serves as motivation.” For a club that is “motivated” to address low early season attendance, it was odd that only one promotion was held during March and April (the Craft Beer Fest)….and even that wasn’t announced along with other 2017 promotions during the pre-season. The Crew inexplicably held no promotional events during its first FOUR home matches of 2017 when they were most needed, as the average attendance bump with promotions in these early months exceeds 2,700. Rhetorically, why would a club struggling with business metrics undertake fewer proven promotional activities in a season with an attendance-challenging schedule?

The questionable decision-making of Crew leadership also showed in its attitude towards renewing season ticket holders in 2017- yet another front office-induced driver of last season’s attendance. After reaching the MLS Cup championship match the prior year, the club slid to ninth place in 2016, missing the playoffs. On the heels of such a disappointing season, rather than building goodwill with fans, the Crew chose to RAISE its prices for renewing season ticket members (e.g. by 11%+ for Premier East seats and 10%+ for Upper Midfield). This was an odd course of action given the past histories of other clubs considered to be MLS “standard bearers” in similar situations. For example, after a bad year in 2013, Toronto FC did not raise prices for existing season ticket holders in 2014, while also delaying the date they had to commit to the tickets so they could first monitor the club’s off-season moves. And this was after another unsuccessful year in 2012- when TFC ROLLED BACK prices for existing season ticket holders to 2007 levels. The Portland Timbers chose not to increase any of its season ticket plans for the 2013 season after a frustrating 2012 campaign. This decision, as described by their owner Merritt Paulson, “to once again keep prices steady is in the best interest of our long-term relationship with our fans.” This was quite the gesture, as the Timbers had more than 7,500 fans on their Season Ticket Waiting List when this decision was made!

Business metric dog tricks

A great example of the shenanigans of the Crew front office’s 2017 promotional efforts was the “Pups at the Pitch” event. Fans could bring their dogs to the home match against Seattle in May. This match drew fewer than 13,000 fans and was the least attended of any 2017 match with a promotional event. Strangely, the Crew chose to repeat this event later in the year for the September match versus Sporting Kansas City. I have to admit- finding this in my research bothered me for quite a long time. Why would the club repeat a promotion that failed to draw a large crowd against a top road draw like Seattle? It made no sense until I looked at the specifics of the promotion. Fans in attendance (including season ticket members) couldn’t just bring their dogs. They had to purchase a more expensive ticket allowing them to bring their dog, or if they already had a ticket for the match, they were required to purchase a dog add-on ticket for an extra $10. To be admitted, each dog and human was required to have its own ticket. So essentially, the club was marketing a promotion that would generate revenue by selling tickets which wouldn’t count towards increasing the match’s attendance total…….because, after all, they’re dogs.

Sorry pups, your tickets don’t help attendance.

A sense of entitlement

Aside from fan support, the other accusation made against Columbus was its lack of corporate support for the Crew. Studying this claim was the easiest part of my research- all I had to do was count. Most MLS clubs acknowledge their corporate sponsors on a dedicated page on their respective websites. A simple count of the number of sponsors of each club showed the Crew had 40% more corporate sponsors than the average MLS club. The number of Crew corporate sponsors is even more impressive as a ratio of the total number of businesses in the Columbus metropolitan area, as a greater proportion of its business community sponsors the Crew than nearly every other MLS market in the USA. When combined with large numbers of local businesses signing on as Business Allies of Save the Crew, the findings reflected the strong support the Columbus business community ACTUALLY has for the Crew.

But while the sheer number of supportive businesses is impressive, large dollar corporate support for the Crew is the alleged shortcoming of concern to MLS. But even this has been shown despite such data not being made available by the club. The Columbus Partnership is a civic alliance bringing together the heads of roughly 50 leading organizations in central Ohio. Its mission is to develop, advocate, and support high-impact strategies to ensure the Columbus Region continues to thrive as one of the most vibrant, innovative, and globally competitive regions in the world. Alex Fischer of the Columbus Partnership has said the group of business leaders approached Precourt with offers to buy the Crew outright or to go into a 50–50 partnership, both of which were rejected. The reported bid to purchase a half stake in the franchise was $75 million. PSV maintains its claim of lack of corporate support despite the most prominent business leaders in Columbus extending an eight-figure offer of partnership to support the Columbus Crew. But is the claimed lack of support in reality an indictment of Anthony Precourt himself?

A fact that has been under-reported during the Save the Crew movement is the acknowledgement that Precourt himself is a member of the Columbus Partnership. The networking opportunities this affords him should be invaluable for attracting potential sponsors for the club; however, only six members of the Columbus Partnership sponsor the Crew officially in some capacity: Honda (through its Acura jersey sponsorship), OhioHealth, Scotts, AEP (through its AEP Energy subsidiary), Cardinal Health, and Nisource (through its Columbia Gas of Ohio subsidiary). That’s it- SIX of the over sixty companies and organizations represented by the Partnership’s members. It begs the question of just how entitled Precourt feels to sponsorship support from his fellow Partnership members. Because he owns a sports franchise in their city, the prevailing perspective of sports leagues suggests such companies automatically owe him their support. Given Loughnane’s description of Columbus at the time of his hiring as “a region that emphasizes relationships, philanthropy so strongly,” the lack of sponsoring Partnership members most likely reflects their views of Precourt himself. Perhaps they don’t see Precourt supporting the community personally? A review of the 2016 recipients of donations granted by The Precourt Foundation (for which Anthony Precourt is Director) shows only three Columbus-related non-profits: the club’s own Crew Foundation (surprisingly for a mere $10,000), Nationwide Children’s Hospital Foundation, and the Columbus Partnership. If Precourt wants the corporate sponsorship of Columbus, he should have logically started earning it by reciprocating such support to the many great local causes led by Partnership members. Frankly, if he doesn’t support Columbus, why should they support his club?

A lack of ambition

The most infuriating part of my research, however, dealt with Precourt’s claims of ambition regarding Designated Players. Such players are considered outside a club’s salary cap, allowing MLS teams to compete for star players in the international soccer market. In his October announcement of potential relocation, Precourt was quick to point out “We have demonstrated our commitment to being successful in Columbus ….getting to three Designated Players for the first time in club history.” While technically true, this boast was still very misleading. At the time of that statement, the Crew had the maximum of three Designated Players for LESS THAN THREE MONTHS of Precourt’s four-plus year tenure. In comparison to other clubs, this was unusual. Under Precourt, the Crew was the lone MLS club to have three consecutive seasons with only a single Designated Player on its roster.

Ambition indeed!

The linear regression model showed that having the maximum allotment of three Designated Players in a season results in greater home attendance, a trend observed league wide. But its bigger impact is actually felt in another business metric- jersey sponsorship. Part of the value proposition of sponsoring a club’s jersey is TV exposure. An Acura marketing executive alluded to this at the time of their Crew jersey sponsorship announcement, stating “That’s the great benefit of a jersey buy. Every game is televised. That says a lot for this type of sponsorship when your billboard is traveling town-to-town with you.” At least that’s the way it’s supposed to work. But when you are in one of MLS’ smaller markets and you aren’t signing multiple marquee players, your club isn’t going to appear on national TV as often. This is certainly what the data shows- among clubs in markets with populations under 4 million, the Crew averaged fewer than four national TV appearances per season (counting both English and Spanish networks) from 2013 through 2016.

Why pay more for a jersey sponsorship if you’re not on national TV?

If PSV had taken advantage of Designated Player allowances earlier in its ownership tenure, the Crew would have performed better on multiple business metrics. Only Anthony Precourt — the business owner — deserves blame for this lack of ambition, not Crew fans or the Columbus corporate community.

Why lie?

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth” ― Albert Einstein

As sports fans, we’re not wired for this. We’re not predisposed to be suspicious when a major sports league starts to question the viability of one of its own markets. Why? Generations of sports fans have been conditioned that when a team moves, fans are to blame for not supporting it- either directly through attendance or indirectly through stadium subsidies from their local governments. And the history of professional sports in the U.S. and Canada is littered with the carcasses of bygone teams that helped entrench this narrative. Who remembers the Cincinnati Royals, the Washington Senators (either iteration), the St. Louis Football Cardinals, or the original incarnations of half the NHL? In such cases the respective league, as the authority Einstein described, is always quick to remind us fans that “it’s a business after all.”

In a league that is a single-business entity like MLS, where the financial returns of all investor/operators are inextricably linked, wouldn’t the most reasonable excuse to relocate a team be that it alone is the biggest financial drain on the league’s overall bottom line? And if that were the case, logically, wouldn’t that be the first reason given to justify relocation? This is why MLS and PSV never claim the Crew to be the least profitable club in MLS- because it isn’t. Instead, they select a few specific items and try to deflect the public perception of blame onto community support as had been done by so many other defunct sports teams.

On or before November 15, 2017, a Sports Illustrated journalist sent (and subsequently deleted) a Tweet detailing “business metric” rankings regarding the Columbus Crew. It appeared MLS sent this information privately for the purposes of providing background information to provide context for his work covering the Crew’s potential move. I was thankful for the quick thinker who took a screengrab of the Tweet before it was deleted. The information contained a series of alleged rankings of the Crew in comparison to other MLS clubs on what presumably are the mysterious “business metrics” that MLS refuses to publicly identify. All but one of these rankings were presented without context- actual data or relative differences to other top or average clubs were omitted. The lone exception was a reported “Average Ticket Price” of $20.02, placing the Crew last among MLS clubs. Aside from attendance, this is the only known example of an actual metric on which the Crew is allegedly being evaluated.

$20.02?!? I was immediately skeptical of such a low number. To ascertain the feasibility of such a number, I collected a variety of data including ticket price points, early bird season ticket renewal prices, and past claims of season ticket sales by the club. Using this data, I attempted to back into this $20.02 number by making all sorts of ridiculously low conservative assumptions, such as all seats in the premium Center Circle & Premier East sections selling at their lowest possible renewal prices, the Scott’s Field Level Seats which have a season ticket price of over $2,000 a seat/$110+ per match being completely ignored and excluded, as well as including thousands of free complimentary tickets at a $0.00 price. Detailed analysis showed that even when making all of these ridiculous assumptions, it was still not possible to arrive at the $20.02 number. This meant the Average Ticket Price that MLS reported was mathematically impossible as a weighted average of all tickets sold. It was also not an average price point, even when considering only the lower per match prices of season tickets. Furthermore, when reviewing per match prices of comparable seats across MLS clubs, the Crew were not ranked last in any of the comparisons. By attempting to influence the reporting of the Sports Illustrated journalist with a metric that was so inaccurate, MLS claims of poor Crew performance on other business metrics lose all credibility.

But would they really lie? Was there a pattern of deception? The Average Ticket Price was not the only dubious number distributed by MLS in the weeks after the announcement of possible relocation. In its first home match since the announcement of possible relocation, the Crew hosted NYCFC for a playoff match on Halloween night. Given fans’ concerns regarding the club’s recent announcement of possible relocation, the Crew’s marketing efforts for the match were watched closely. Some fans began consistent, daily tracking of ticket sales for the match on Ticketmaster. Analysis of this Ticketmaster data, combined with photographic evidence from the match, show that attendance was AT LEAST 15,718 while still not accounting for most “walk up” sales on matchday. To the shock of Crew fans present at the match, MLS and the club ultimately announced an attendance of 1,300 fewer fans. This count was likely the turnstile count at time of kick-off, as the club limited timely access to the stadium by changing its security and entry procedures. Having fewer fans seated at the start of the televised broadcast helped the MLS narrative that the Crew lacks local support. After dedicating considerable time into analyzing the attendance of this match, I felt vindicated (if not a bit incredulous) when Commissioner Don Garber subsequently confirmed the attendance counting difference in a December 2017 interview with ESPN, when he completely contradicted the statements made by the Crew’s front office on the matter.

Sadly, the most deplorable part of the security fiasco from this match was not realized until weeks later at the Crew’s next home playoff match (Nov 21st vs Toronto FC) when the smear campaign against Columbus crossed the line. Having acknowledged this match would be a sell-out, the club chose to repeat its entry procedures despite anticipating (using their under reported count) nearly 7,000 more fans. By continuing these entrance procedures, the club callously put the safety of its fans at risk as lines wrapped into oncoming parking lot traffic (with reports of at least one fan being struck by a vehicle) without proactively setting up queues or having traffic directed. Through this dereliction of duty, MLS and PSV proved it values its public relations narrative FAR MORE than the lives and physical safety of its supportive fans. Any doubts about the character and morals of those who Save the Crew opposes were made clear after that match.

Not surprisingly, the misleading narrative regarding the Columbus Crew has not been limited to the reporting of dubious numbers. Since PSV’s announcement, Commissioner Garber has hardly been an objective bystander. Rather than diplomatically refraining from belittling the league’s charter club and deferring to PSV, he has taken numerous opportunities to unnecessarily criticize the Columbus community. Perhaps his most outlandish and insulting such statement against Crew supporters follows, when he literally contradicted himself in a single response in a manner fit for the greatest of hypocrites…..

“I very much respect the fact that fans don’t want to have their teams leave. They’re not wrong, I don’t blame them, they didn’t put themselves in this situation. The league and the owner did, and I understand it. But you need more than three or four thousand people who are real core supporters for the club. And we’ve been struggling to get corporate support, we’ve been struggling to get local television support, we’ve been struggling in all the things that teams need to be successful. But I’m not in anyway going to blame the fans. And I’m not blaming the city.” — MLS Commissioner Don Garber in December

Yes, this is the steward of top flight professional soccer in the USA and Canada.

THE metric that matters

After all of the bluster, rhetoric, and smearing by PSV and MLS, followers of the Save the Crew saga should only really focus on a single metric- revenue, the ultimate measure of support for a club. Forbes’ latest annual financial analysis of MLS clubs, legitimized by MLS participation and subsequent promotion, shows the Crew tied for 12th in total revenue ahead of seven other clubs. At first glance, being ranked 12th out of 20 may not seem overly impressive but, as with so many other aspects of this story, context is needed.

Last in everything that matters?!?

In 2006, Crew founder Lamar Hunt passed away, leading his heirs in the Hunt Sports Group to begin seeking a buyer for the club. They wished to divest their other MLS club besides their hometown Dallas side, accomplishing this goal in 2013 with the sale to Precourt. THIS is what makes the Crew’s revenue so impressive. For the past twelve years, the Crew have not had an owner with any interest in the long-term success of the club in Columbus. The Hunts spent seven years looking to sell all or part of the club, followed by Precourt (as we now know) having one foot out the door for the past five years. Yet, despite this lack of a dedicated owner for so many years, the Crew STILL remain middle of the pack in terms of its support as reflected in its revenue. By fielding a club in Columbus, MLS doesn’t even need to have an owner who tries- this market will still show the typical amount of support seen in other markets who do have dedicated owners.

Two owners, twelve years with no dedication to long-term success.

Just picture what this club could be in Columbus with an owner who actually cared.

The here and now

Last April, Dr. David Dao was a paying passenger who was forcibly dragged off a United Airlines flight against his will in a video that went infamously viral. Imagine in the aftermath of that incident if Dr. Dao ran into the terminal and inexplicably booked his next flight……..on United Airlines. Now imagine ELEVEN THOUSAND Dr. Dao’s acting so irrationally.

Welcome to the 2018 Columbus Crew home opener.

After our winter of discontent, where we customers had been treated for months by both PSV and MLS as horribly as Dr. Dao was by United Airlines, over 11,000 fans attended and remained customers of the Crew. This is the reason the term fan is derived from the word fanatic- in no other industry would customers show such irrational behavior in supporting a business who had treated them with such contempt. The fact that thousands — plural — not only showed for the match, but put forth such effort in helping promote it, is a testament to the support soccer truly has in our city. The fact the club’s unofficial anthem includes the lyric “it’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you” surpasses mere irony into the realm of prophecy.

One absolute truth in the contradictory case of the Crew’s situation is that MLS made a business decision in 2013. When selling its charter club, it included an escape clause it likely now regrets. Rather than risk receiving negative publicity over their decision, MLS has chosen to join PSV in “blaming the customer” to shift the fault for the potential relocation, essentially firing a city instead of management or ownership. Through its deceptions and slander, MLS has ruined its credibility by seemingly saying anything to hide from the other clear truth:

MLS has become a league of which founder Lamar Hunt would be ashamed.