The inside story of how luck, legal maneuvering, a fervent grassroots movement and the Columbus Way saved a soccer team
Manuel Zambrano climbed atop a table. So many people were crammed inside Endeavor Brewing’s Grandview taproom that this was the only way the longtime member of the Columbus Crew supporter group Hudson Street Hooligans could be heard. They’d been streaming in since doors opened at 11 a.m.—dozens, then hundreds. Many wore black and yellow.
Endeavor is home base for Save The Crew, the fan movement dedicated to keeping Crew SC in Columbus. Supporters began strategizing there shortly after Oct. 16, 2017, when San Francisco-based Anthony Precourt, citing tepid attendance and corporate support, announced he was exploring moving his team to Austin. Now, 361 days later, a different October surprise was rumored. So they gathered: fans, media, former and even current players. Thousands more watched online.
It was a family reunion, countless faces who’d spent years in the team’s orbit converging on a brisk Friday afternoon. They embraced on the patio, ordered round after round, howled chants that normally echo across Mapfre Stadium. They sang Toto’s “Africa,” which became an unofficial supporters’ anthem even before the lyric, “It’s gonna take a lot to take me away from you,” took on bittersweet resonance.
Around 5 p.m., Zambrano read the announcement aloud: “Major League Soccer and the Columbus Partnership have been working together for several months on a plan to keep Crew SC in Columbus, and we have made significant progress.” Applause erupted. The Crew was saved—almost. “It was the happiest day of my life,” Save The Crew’s Morgan Hughes says, “and I had just gotten married.”
After nightfall, Alex Fischer arrived at Endeavor. Fischer is president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, the city’s most powerful civic organization, which includes more than 70 local executives. A Crew season ticket holder and a shepherd of Columbus commercial interests, he’d been central to negotiations to keep the team here, so he wanted to bask in this moment. He also knew those #SavedTheCrew hashtags were premature.
“Everybody goes bonkers,” Fischer remembers. “It’s Friday afternoon, and the Crew’s saved. It’s done.” He pauses. “It’s, like, nowhere close to done.” Incredible challenges had been overcome. More awaited. All those people were celebrating something that hadn’t happened yet. But thanks to extraordinary cooperation and dumb luck, the Crew really would be saved in the end.
On Nov. 15, 2017, efforts to save the team hit their nadir. Fischer and Columbus Mayor Andy Ginther had a contentious meeting with Precourt (who declined to be interviewed for this story) and MLS Commissioner Don Garber at league headquarters in New York City. Ginther and Fischer presented potential Downtown stadium sites and a corporate support package. Precourt and Garber offered to let Columbus keep the Crew name and colors for a potential expansion franchise. Common ground was scarce.
Fischer left the meeting thinking, “We’re screwed.” During a dreary cab ride to the airport, he and Ginther identified one shred of hope. “There was a case to be made that maybe everything wasn’t as baked as you would expect it to be in Austin,” Fischer says.
He continued gathering intel on Precourt’s Austin operation and discovered it was “running into buzzsaws left and right.” A Texas judge threatened to sue MLS, citing the proposed Austin franchise as evidence that the league entertained San Antonio’s expansion bid under false pretenses. The supposedly grassroots MLS2ATX movement turned out to be an arm of Precourt Sports Ventures based in Columbus. Community protests forced Precourt and his team to withdraw two downtown Austin parks as potential stadium sites. “We were able to be positive,” Save The Crew’s David Miller says. “We didn’t have to point out the terrible things they were doing, because they did it themselves. That let us continue our positivity message and just talk up how much we love the Crew.”
One morning in early December 2017, Fischer got a phone call while driving down Riverside Drive. It was Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who’d been studying an obscure state law—Ohio Revised Code 9.67, the “Art Modell law,” passed in 1996 after Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore—at the urging of then-Ohio Rep. Mike Duffey. It prevents teams that play home games in tax-supported facilities from moving out of Ohio without first allowing locals six months to purchase the team. DeWine, who is now governor, determined there was a clear violation of the law. It had never been tested, but he believes it’s constitutional. “People are on notice when they take money or take a benefit from the state of Ohio,” he says.
He wanted to know if a lawsuit would help or hurt Fischer’s efforts. Fischer reasoned that Franklin County Common Pleas judges are elected officials, thus a case pitting locals against a New York sports commissioner and a San Francisco trust-fund kid stood a good chance. So on Dec. 7, 2017, DeWine released a letter warning Precourt about the Modell law. And on March 5, 2018, days before the Crew’s home opener, DeWine and Columbus City Attorney Zach Klein jointly sued PSV and MLS.
A bipartisan effort between city and state with pro bono assistance from private firm Bricker & Eckler, the case was an early example of the multiplatform cooperation that saved the Crew. In Austin, it created uncertainty about the legality of a move. For MLS, it threatened to bring closely guarded financial information into the public record. In Columbus, it bought time for local ownership to emerge.
Dr. Pete Edwards might be the longest-standing Crew employee. An orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, he expressed interest in becoming the team doctor in 1994, before Columbus was awarded a franchise. The league took him up on it.
As team physician from 1996 through 2018, Edwards attended almost every home match and traveled with the team when necessary. He never missed a playoff game, home or away. He was at training every Thursday, sometimes more often. He also coordinated medical care for players’ wives and children. His own kids grew up around the team.
Edwards, in other words, is true Crew through and through. When Save The Crew held its rally at City Hall on Oct. 22, 2017, he was in the front row. In the weeks following Fischer and Ginther’s NYC stalemate, Edwards contacted Precourt and MLS, hoping to “come at the discussion from a different direction.” Regarding Precourt: “We’ve always been friends, and we had honest discussions about what was going on in Columbus, and what he viewed the problems as, and why he felt like it would be hard to keep the team here, and what that would look like.” Edwards—a Columbus native whose family runs a successful real estate development company—told MLS it could thrive here under the right circumstances.
His talks paralleled Fischer’s for weeks until Jim Smith converged them. Smith was the Crew’s general manager from 2000 to 2004, when he departed for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Before returning in 2016 to run Ohio State’s Alumni Association, he helped Falcons owner Arthur Blank lay the groundwork for Atlanta United, MLS’ reigning champion and attendance leader.
In December 2017, Smith called Edwards, seeking medical advice. “I fell and had turf toe,” Smith says. “And I was training to run a half-marathon with my daughter, so I had to get fixed.” The Crew came up, and Smith was soon advising Edwards on his rescue mission. Two months later, he began a similar role with Fischer. He quickly knew to get them in a room together.
Edwards wasn’t looking to buy the Crew, just save it. “The process for me would be successful if the team stayed, and I was not involved in any way, and no one ever knew that I did anything,” he says. The league technically owns all the teams, but requires that “investor-operators” (one person or an entity) control at least 35 percent of a team. “They want a single voice,” Fischer says. Edwards fit the bill: a Columbus lifer and Crew original whose family could afford to invest in a sports franchise. By spring, he agreed to be the cornerstone of the new ownership group.
After Edwards came on board, Fischer and Garber made peace by phone. Fischer shared a quote from an old mentor, inscribed on a plaque in his office: “Be careful the toes you step on today; they might be connected to the ass you have to kiss tomorrow.” Garber offered a similar proverb: “We all are living a very long life.”
Garber sent MLS execs Mark Abbott and Charles Altchek on two discreet trips to Columbus in April. Fischer, Edwards and Smith signed nondisclosure agreements and examined the league’s finances. Fischer wondered if this was merely due diligence for the courts—the lawsuit was underway—but progress was progress.
That month, Fischer and his wife, Ohio Civil Rights Commission Chair Lori Barreras, visited their son at Washington and Lee University. During a dinner with their son’s friends, Fischer took a call from an international businessman from a Fortune 500 company who was interested in buying the Columbus Crew. This person—who Fischer can’t name due to an NDA—flew to Columbus days later for dinner with Fischer and Mayor Ginther. That same weekend, a friend of Fischer’s called from a private equity firm also considering purchasing the Crew.
All this sudden interest persuaded Fischer and Edwards they should be shopping for a business partner. In June, they identified one promising option. Fischer spent the summer working out a deal structure with this unnamed buyer and corresponding with MLS, with coaching from Huntington Bank CEO Stephen Steinour.
There was public progress, too. On July 31, Save The Crew announced they’d collected more than 10,000 pledges to purchase season tickets if locals bought the Crew. The Modell lawsuit continued. So on Aug. 15, when Austin approved Precourt’s stadium at McKalla Place, the Columbus contingent shrugged. Pieces were coming together back home, and MLS was listening.
Before moving to Columbus in 2007 to work for Battelle as a senior vice president for business and economic development, Fischer was an accomplished businessman in Tennessee and served as Don Sundquist’s deputy governor. After graduating with a master’s degree from the University of Tennessee, he got to know the Haslam family, founders of the Pilot Corp. and fixtures of civic life in Knoxville. Fischer remembers long bike rides discussing political ambitions with Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s previous governor. At one point, the Haslams unsuccessfully tried to recruit him to work with them.
That relationship continued in Ohio. Bill’s brother, Jimmy, and Jimmy’s wife, Dee, purchased the Cleveland Browns in 2012. They later worked with Fischer and the Memorial Tournament’s Dan Sullivan on bringing the Browns training camp to Columbus. When the Haslams nixed the plan in December 2016, they personally called Fischer to break the news. They remain friends.
So at the Memorial last year, when Sullivan mentioned the Browns brain trust had been watching the Crew saga, Fischer’s interest was piqued—despite the Haslams’ rocky tenure as Browns owners. “I actually think the fact that the Haslams have cut their teeth in professional sports with one of the most historically challenged NFL franchises is a plus,” Fischer says. “It appears to me that in the past season or two, they have really settled into what it takes to have a winning formula on and off the field.” Edwards also cites the Browns’ recent improvements as evidence of the Haslams’ success.
Fischer instructed Sullivan to follow up with the Haslams. Nothing materialized, but the Haslams were indeed observing Save The Crew, wondering if they could help. “We know from being in Cleveland, losing a sports team is a big deal,” Dee Haslam says. Around June, unbeknownst to Fischer and Edwards, Browns COO Dave Jenkins and J.W. Johnson (a Browns exec and Jimmy and Dee’s son-in-law) met with MLS to gather info.
By August, Edwards and Fischer were preparing to legally bind themselves to the other buyer and intensify talks with MLS. Over drinks at No Soliciting in Downtown Columbus, Sullivan urged Fischer to reach out to the Haslams before sealing the deal. Fischer was reluctant to involve another party, but he contacted his friends to gauge their interest. He soon received separate calls from Jimmy and Dee instructing him to hold up. The Haslams were intrigued—therefore so were Fischer and Edwards.
On Friday, Sept. 21, Edwards, Fischer and Steve Lyons, executive vice president and chief counsel for the Columbus Partnership, rose before dawn and drove to the Haslams’ home on Lake Erie for breakfast with Jimmy, Dee, their daughter Whitney and J.W. (The Browns defeated the Jets the night before, launching the Baker Mayfield era; Jimmy’s grandson called from Tennessee to congratulate him.) Over coffee, fruit and yogurt, Edwards and the Haslams talked.
“We didn’t know Pete at all,” Dee says. “I’d never even met him. You’re getting ready to go into business with somebody, pretty much on a blind date.” Edwards was too nervous to eat: “I think I put a little yogurt and granola in my bowl, and I never even touched it.” Dee felt that her family, relative Columbus outsiders with no soccer knowledge, were the ones who had to prove themselves. “It was really more Pete feeling comfortable with us,” she says. The families discovered they had much in common, particularly their view of sports teams as a community asset.
The Haslams’ NFL and Ohio ties, and a fast friendship with Edwards, made them more attractive business partners than the unnamed party. “You just know when you know,” Fischer says. “You know when you fall in love with your soulmate.” But he wanted to be sure the Haslams were game before dumping the other buyer, so he and Barreras attended the Browns-Ravens game Oct. 7 for a halftime handshake with Jimmy. That week, Fischer made a difficult call to break up with the other partner. Edwards officially asked his parents and siblings to invest in the Crew. That Friday—despite trepidation about announcing an unfinished deal—MLS went public with the negotiations, inspiring the Save The Crew celebration at Endeavor Brewing.
Early on, Fischer and Edwards concluded an MLS market requires four elements to thrive. First, local ownership, fulfilled by Edwards. Second, fan support, exemplified by Save The Crew. Third, corporate sponsorships, for which local owners help significantly. Fourth, a Downtown stadium, toward which they’d made zero progress by Oct. 12. The league-imposed year-end deadline was closing in fast. As Edwards put it to MLS’ Abbott, they’d have to fit four or five years’ worth of work into four or five months.
One reason Fischer wanted to go public early was to grease the wheels of local government. Months before new ownership firmed up, the Partnership assembled public officials—including Ginther, City Auditor Megan Kilgore and City Council President Shannon Hardin—to secure their commitment to saving the Crew. With local buyers in place, it was time to move—but not without a guarantee that the stadium would be privately funded, among other conditions.
Fischer and Lyons had lunch with Kilgore to learn how stadiums are financed around the country. “It’s very much a formula,” she says. “It’s kind of like baking a cake.” Kilgore’s team compiled details on every MLS stadium: how much private versus public funding, ticket and concession revenue, etc. This info was funneled to officials at the city, county and state level, any of whom could have killed the deal. Mike Brown, Hardin’s chief of staff, credits Kilgore’s research for helping the group see a way forward. He adds that Save The Crew demonstrated how a savvy, organized citizen movement can motivate elected leaders to act.
“In November, suddenly it got very, very real,” Brown says. “That’s when we had some very large group meetings.” Leaders from across the private and public sectors (and their lawyers) collaborated on a memorandum of understanding, a document detailing what each party would contribute to a deal. Brown estimates the memorandum was revised 100 times. “There were times when Mrs. Haslam was driving down in the middle of the night in order to be here,” Kilgore says. Dee responds, “It was easier for me than Pete Edwards because Pete has surgery to get to. Sometimes, we’d be talking to Pete from his operating table!” Meanwhile, the new owners were negotiating with MLS, learning the Crew’s inner workings and replacing coach and personnel head Gregg Berhalter, who left Columbus to lead the U.S. men’s national team, with new coach Caleb Porter and team president Tim Bezbatchenko. “At that point, it literally is 24/7 for weeks and weeks, by everybody,” Fischer says.
Uniformly, public officials say they wouldn’t move mountains just for a stadium. “We’re investing in things to help the community take advantage of the Crew being here,” Columbus development director Steve Schoeny explains. “Once you define pretty specifically those big issues, it’s pretty simple to figure out if you’ve got a deal or not.” Some of Ginther’s priorities were “affordable housing, jobs and record minority participation in construction and development efforts.” Franklin County—which owns the Columbus Clippers and Huntington Park—wanted to protect its investments and create a more robust Arena District, County Commissioner Marilyn Brown says.
The group identified 33 acres along the Olentangy River west of Huntington Park for a development dubbed Confluence Village. The ownership group committed $645 million to purchase the team, redevelop Mapfre Stadium and build the new 20,000-seat arena and a surrounding mixed-used private development and park. Franklin County and city of Columbus officials chipped in $50 million each to fund roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure.
The Mapfre redevelopment was key. “The stadium would have become probably the largest vacant and abandoned structure in the entire community,” Ginther says. No one knows where the idea originated, but a plan emerged to turn Mapfre and surrounding land into the Crew’s new training facility and a community sports park—thus preserving the historic stadium (the first of its kind and the site of several major U.S. Soccer victories) and creating what Columbus Recreation and Parks Director Tony Collins calls “a direct benefit to the community,” with access for 200,000 residents within 3 miles and an opportunity for lucrative athletic tournaments.
Getting it all done before year’s end required intense cooperation among dozens of people in what Franklin County Administrator Kenneth Wilson calls “one of the most challenging timelines I’ve faced in 27 years in public service.” Everyone involved invokes “the Columbus Way,” an ethos Mike Brown defines as “radical collaboration between the private and public sector.” In this case, it proved to be more than a marketing slogan. Dee Haslam observes, “You don’t see that in many communities, you really don’t. A lot of things fail because of a lack of collaboration. And Columbus knows how to collaborate very well.”
On Dec. 28, MLS announced a deal in principle for the Haslam and Edwards families “to assume an ownership position in Major League Soccer and operate Columbus Crew SC starting in January 2019.” In a statement, Precourt—who maintains his stake in MLS and will launch Austin FC in 2021—praised the “elegant solution.”
“Anthony was very helpful through the process,” Edwards says. “Though we didn’t deal with him on a direct basis, he was aware of every step. I don’t think that he got a fair shake in Columbus. He was viewed in a poor light, but at the end of the day, he didn’t want the team to leave. There wasn’t a solution available in the beginning that made sense for the league and him in Columbus. But once a solution started to become clearer, he was fully supportive of it. And the team would never ever have stayed if he didn’t support our efforts to keep the team here.”
So why couldn’t the city collaborate with Precourt, who MLS Commissioner Garber says “did everything that an owner should do”? Garber speculates, “That might be the uniqueness of him not being local and the city being a big city in its own way, but an insular city as it relates to community. I think Anthony was viewed as an outsider, and that’s the only thing that changed.” Save The Crew’s supporters, who questioned Precourt’s commitment in light of the Austin out clause in his original contract, would stridently disagree—using colorful language.
The deal went into effect Jan. 1. A month later, some uncertainty remained. The families were still finalizing their ownership percentages. Negotiations were ongoing with Nationwide Realty Investors about leasing or buying the land where the Crew hopes to break ground on a stadium this summer. Save The Crew transferred their season ticket pledge information to the front office on Jan. 1, but it’s a long way up from a league-worst 12,447-attendance average. “In a community like Columbus, we should sell out every game because it’s a growing group of young people,” Dee says. “We need to do our job to get the word out.”
On Jan. 9, the new regime threw a celebratory press conference at Miranova featuring Dee Haslam, Edwards, Garber, Ginther, Fischer, Porter and Bezbatchenko, emceed by ESPN’s Taylor Twellman—a grand introduction to a brand-new era. Garber called it “an extraordinary day for our league” and for the first time publicly acknowledged Save The Crew’s seismic impact. He described the saga as both the most traumatic experience in his 20 years as commissioner and “the one I probably feel the best about.” When it was over, Toto’s “Africa” played over the loudspeaker.