Major league sports arrives in Columbus at last, but it's not exactly what people had in mind. This April the Crew takes the field. Can you scream, "GOAAALLLL!!!"?
Here's a number to remember: 20,000. This is the number of people Major League Soccer expects will attend each of its games in Columbus in 1996.
Here's another number: 0.
This is the number of times professional outdoor soccer has been successful in the country.
As long as we're at it, here are some names to remember: the Glory, the Horizon, the Thunderbolts, the Capitals, the Magic, the Owls, the Checkers, the Bucks, the Comets and the Baby Seals.
These are the franchises in various sports, including, soccer that arrived in our city on waves of hype and enthusiasm only to die or slink away in the face of massive public apathy.
Here's another name: the Crew.
This, as you have no doubt heard, is the catchy moniker (well, it's better than Baby Seals) of Columbus's Major League Soccer team. And come April, we're going to have to deal with this outfit, though no one has yet satisfactorily explained what we've done to deserve it.
Kinsley Nyce is no Lamar Hunt. But when it comes to running a professional soccer team in Central Ohio, Nyce-who works for the Galbreath Company and owns the Xoggz, a minor-league soccer team that has managed to survive against all odds-is the guy you want to talk to.
Nyce says he's rooting for the success of the Crew, in the belief that it will benefit the Xoggz and be good for local soccer in general. But the Crew faces some obstacles that not even Hunt-the Texas billionaire who's bankrolling the Crew-may be able to surmount, Nyce says.
"There's no history to support their starting off so grand," Nyce says, referring to the Crew's stated goal of averaging 20,000 people per game in the first year. "Big mistake. Those pronouncements are going to come back to haunt them."
As for the Crew's belief that people will come from around the state and the Midwest to see Crew games, Nyce says, "They will. But you're talking about 100 people."
David Paitson, president of the Columbus Chill hockey team, is another guy who is rooting for the Crew to make it, but who also says it's a mistake to shoot so high. The Chill-which still sells out the Fairgrounds Coliseum on a regular basis-started out in 1991 with modest goals. "They're going to walk into a market that's pretty skeptical," Paitson says. "If you do anything less [than 20,000], you look like a failure."
The league's single-entity ownership is supposed to ensure competitive balance. But it also keeps a small-market team like Columbus from going out and free-lancing, trying to lure a name player here. The league decides which cities will get one of the handful of recognizable soccer stars who've signed on, and big markets like New York and L.A. are where the league wants its stars.
The fear that small-market teams would take a back seat was borne out when the league announced its first player allocations. Alexi Lalas, the redheaded free spirit from the U.S. National Team; Jorge Campos a Mexican goalkeeper wildly popular with the Southern California Hispanic population, and Tab Tamos and Tony Meola, other marquee players-all picked cities where they wanted to play, and none of them chose Columbus.
Nyce and Roscoe Nance, who covers soccer for USA Today, say it's no secret in soccer circles that Columbus is not on the A-list. "Columbus has a valid concern in being a small market," Nance says. "It's like Kansas City in that regards. It's no garden sport. Players are not inclined to want to play there."
The dimensions of Ohio Stadium's field also may be a problem in attracting top players. Despite an extension of the turf this winter, the field is still smaller than regulation size. "That's something we're extremely concerned about," admitted team official.
The league as a whole still faces some major problems, Nance says. When the MLS starts in April, many star players still will be playing overseas and won't join their MLS teams until mid-season. A lot of players, who can make more money on European leagues, are holding off on signing with MLS to see if the league is viable, Nance says.
As a result, though the league is billed as a competitor to top-notch leagues in England or Germany, Nance says, "It's major league in name only." If this were baseball, MLS would be comparable to: double-A and a half, maybe."
Fans will see four "name" players per team. The remaining 14 spots on the 18-man rosters will come from the ranks of college players and from amateur tryouts held around the country in November. The level of play will be similar to minor league level of the Xoggz, at least for the first couple years, Nyce says.
Americans' general ignorance of soccer could be an advantage in that case. Who'll know the difference?
Columbus's flirtation with big-time soccer goes back to 1992, when organizers of the 1994 World Cup, to be played in the U.S., started to take some bids from cities hoping to host Cup games.
Chamber of Commerce president Jon York and other sports-minded civic big shots put together what appeared to be a competitive bid, but World Cup officials, at last minute, decided Detroit-a "name" city-was better prospect. Columbus didn't fare any better in 1993 when, spurred again by York, the city tried to 1996 Olympic soccer matches. In the wake of those rebuffs, there wasn't exactly a reservoir of enthusiasm for soccer when the World Cup people came back in 1994, asking city leaders if they cared to shoot for a Major League Soccer team.
"The mayor and Jon were not excited about this when they were first approached," said a chamber official at the time. "Not after what happened before."
Yet, this was a national venture with the name "Major League" attached to it. How could Columbus not make a run for it? The great soccer ticket deposit drive was on.
The impetus behind Major League Soccer was a promise wrung from the U.S. World Cup organizers by FIFA, soccer's international governing body. If America gets the World Cup, FIFA told U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, the least you can do is put together a top-flight soccer league.
America supposedly was going to go gaga for soccer in the World Cup summer of '94 when Rothenberg approached 43 cities about bidding for an MLS team. Only 28 showed interest, with only 22 actually submitting bids.
Each city was required to implement an MLS-designed ticket deposit drive, in which potential ticket buyers were asked to plunk down $75 for the right to buy season tickets should their city win a team. MLS said 10,000 deposits would be needed for a city to be considered.
It was clear early on that Columbus, thanks to the chamber's marketing drive, was just about the only city with any interest. Even in Orlando and Detroit-two World Cup sites-the deposit drives were positively flaccid. That 10,000 goal went by the wayside early; Washington, D.C., for instance, would later get an MLS team despite selling only about 2,000 deposits.
Even Columbus's enthusiasm was dubious. Corporations, especially Kroger, purchased at least half the 11,000 deposits. Team and league officials declined to provide specific numbers.
But it was good enough for MLS officials, who repeatedly touted Columbus's effort when MLS announced its charter teams. Not much else was going right for Rothenberg.
MLS would have $100 million in start-up capital, he'd predicted, coming from the slew of big corporate sponsors who couldn't wait to get in on the ground floor of the nascent American Soccer revolution. Not quite. The money and sponsorships were slow in coming.
MLS was to debut in April '95 to a country still in the grip of World Cup fever. But Rothenberg announced last winter that the league would be delayed for a year. Not because there were any problems, he said, but because the league wanted to "do it right."
The delay was costly, Nance says: "They should have had something in place and ready to go after the World Cup to capitalize on the attention. There was no excuse-they'd known since 1988 they were going to have the World Cup."
But the delay gave Rothenberg time to lure sponsors such as Nike and adidas, corporate giants such as Anheuser-Busch and owner-investors such as Lamar Hunt.
MLS has a unique ownership setup. All 10 teams are allowed by the league, but investors willing to put up enough money were given the right to operate local franchises. Columbus scored a coup when Hunt, who also owns National Football League's Kansas City Chiefs, announced that he'd bought 51 percent of the Columbus team as well as 51 percent of the Kansas City team.
Columbus fans can rest assured, Hunt says, that he'd never play favorites with his soccer teams. Even though, by late November, Kansas City had a coach and Columbus didn't, you shouldn't draw any conclusions from that. In early December, the Crew hired Timo Liekoski , a Finnish guy by way of Salon, Ohio, as coach.
Hunt brought on board through the efforts developer Ron Pizzuti, who's lately become Mayor Greg Lashutka's sports adjutant. In a press conference announcing his involvement, Hunt lauded Columbus, about which he'd heard so many good things from Pizzuti. Like that soccer stadium we're building.
Hunt was referring to a Lashutka pledge, which Hunt seemed to regard as ironclad. Lashutka, as a deal-clincher, had promised MLS officials that Columbus would build a soccer stadium, a promise that kicked the city's latest arena/stadium effort into high gear.
With a recommendation from the sports facility task force in December for a sales tax pay for the arena and stadium, it looks as if voters control the fate of the Crew's future home.
Those who believe Crew success is inevitable point to the involvement of Hunt, who defied conventional wisdom when he helped the old American Football League achieve partiy with the NF. Hunt's got tons of money and sports know-how and he can Make It Happen.
Maybe. Lamar Hunt is also the man who brought you World Team Tennis.
It's something of a curse, the oft-repeated fact that Columbus is the largest city in the U.S. without a major-league sports team. Every time somebody comes along with a new league or new sport that will someday be as big as Major League Baseball or the NFL, Columbus gets dragged into the mix.
The World Football League, arena football, minor-league basketball, indoor soccer, outdoor soccer, women's soccer-the latest word is that Columbus is in line for a women's pro basketball team. Makes you wonder how we missed out on roller hockey.
If you don't recall a public clamor for pro soccer in Columbus, it's because there wasn't one.
It has to do with raising Columbus's national profile. If a Major League Soccer team-or a Major League Tiddlywinks team, for that matter-gets Columbus mentioned in the same breath as real major-league cities such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles, then dammit, let's get one.
"Any time you read about the World Cup, Major League Soccer in USA Today, you see Columbus," was the way a chamber official put it. This gig was about social climbing on a national scale.
Once Columbus became a charter MLS member, and had its name included along with New Yorks and Bostons in USA Today or whatever, Lashutka and York had attained their objective: national name recognition.
Whether the league ever got off the ground-and it was real iffy there for a while-was not weighing heavily on the mayor's mind. The city had already reaped the PR reward.
"So what?" Lashutka told Suburban News Publications when asked about the possibility of Columbus's MLS team going belly-up. "If it doesn't work, it was nothing ventured and minimal effort and finances expended."
All the mayor really had to contribute to the soccer effort was spending a couple hours at a rally on the Statehouse lawn, kicking a ball around while wearing an MLS shirt.
The ball was in Major League Soccer's pitch, so to speak. (Pitch is what they call a soccer field in countries where people care about soccer, which they call football, or, in England, footie. We have so much to learn.)
After a couple of minor problems-like delaying the debut of the league for a full year-the MLS folks came through. In October, at a ceremony full of pomp and ballyhoo, the Crew was anointed.
So now what? Is the Crew destined to be another fiasco, on which we look back and wonder, "What the hell was that all about?" Or will the Crew finally take Columbus to the Major League Promised Land?
Jamey Rootes is the Crew's general manager. He's young (29), like much of the Crew's front office, and egregiously optimistic. Rootes argues that Columbus is anything but apathetic about soccer, but it's a tough case to make. At that October unveiling of the team name and logo at the trendy Mekka nightclub, the room was packed to the rafters with young schoolkids hauled in by MLS for the occasion, team and league employees, and chamber and city officials.
But despite a huge mailing that blanketed the Columbus media with invitations, the press wasn't real interested. Two TV stations showed up. Most of the dozens of press kits piled up at the Mekka entrance were still there after the presentation.
On the first WTVN radio newscast after the announcement, the Crew debut was the sixth item mentioned, somewhere after a story about the Statehouse protest against chicken farming. On WBNS-AM, the sports talk station, the talk was about the Buckeyes, the Indians and the Reds.
When the Crew did come up later in the day on WTVN, the talk was mainly derisive. What about that name, anyway? Rootes explains that the team's name and motto (and you gotta have a motto)-"America's hardest working team"-fits in with the logo. You know, hard-hat guys for a hard-hat team in a blue-collar town. Maybe they mixed us up with Cleveland.
But jokes about the name, and the city's apparent indifference toward the whole venture, don't faze Rootes in the least. "Soccer is very, very popular in the state of Ohio," he says. "When it was first announced that Columbus was getting a team, it was very newsworthy."
In Columbus's major daily newspaper, at least, it'll probably continue to be very newsworthy. The Dispatch Printing Company is an investor in the team.
Rootes doesn't think shooting for 20,000 fans per game is a mistake at all.
"I'm a very big fan of big goals," he says. "It's a stretching goal for us, but we think it's realistic."
The Crew already is taking the prospect of a vast, empty Ohio Stadium into account. For its 18 home games, only 27,000 seats will be available; the rest, including C deck, will be covered by tarpaulins.
Rootes says he's not discouraged by the pace of ticket sales. Though more than 11,000 of those $75 ticket deposits were made, a team official said "Rumor has it" that 6,000 season tickets-whose prices range from $210 to $250-had been purchased by late December. Nyce said the talk in the local soccer community is that a lot people who made the $75 deposit were balking at season tickets.
"It's been a while since we did the deposits," Rootes says. "People's situations have changed. There'll be some erosion from that 11,000 number. If we end up with above half that number, we're doing pretty good."
The Crew isn't likely to take a page out of Chill's book and try to attract fans with irrelevant advertising. MLS is very big on maintaining all the decorum of a major-league enterprise, and isn't going to stoop to cheap shenanigans.
But that doesn't mean the games won't be jazzed up a bit. The Crew's already lined up a Frisbee-catching dog as half-time entertainment for at least one game, says a Crew PR guy: "People love Frisbee-catching dogs."
An even better question: Who's going to go see these guys play? The target audience, as one team official says, will be "affluent people with children who play soccer."
A good audience, the same one the Xoggz shoot for, Nyce says. But for a team expecting to draw 20,000 people a game, it's a small one. And not an audience to reassure team investors, he says. The local ownership group includes Pizzuti, the Dispatch, Worthington Industries' John McConnell and slew of other heavy hitters.
"The ownership group for this team is one of the best in the country," Nyce says. "They're wizards in their own fields. I don't think they'll feel real positive when it comes around that their market is kids. Not a big dollar market."
"It's a matter of how much faith the investors have in the league and the product, if they're willing to stay in it for the long haul," says Nance of USA Today. "To make this thing go, they need to go beyond the soccer community, they need to draw from a larger audience. I don't think soccer is at a point in this country where it can do that."
That kind of pessimism has no place in the Crew front office. Rootes and his staff-the whole league, for that matter-believe soccer's time has come. It's just a matter of tapping into the groundswell of latent soccer mania.
"People are adamantly behind the team; the support is there, it's a matter of taking care of the customer," Rootes says.
And never is heard a discouraging word. Major leagues, here we come.