A fond farewell to the Crew's original logo

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

“They look like the Village People.” That was my mom's first reaction to the Columbus Crew's logo, and she wasn't the only one who noticed a resemblance to disco's preeminent macho men. (Google "Columbus Crew" and "Village People" together and see for yourself.)

When the Crew first took to the pitch in the spring of 1996, I was 12 years old, just finishing up sixth grade. The club's badge — three hand-drawn construction workers in hardhats set against a silver background, with a bright splash of yellow filled in around the team name as if dumped in by the bucket tool on MS Paintbrush — seemed designed to appeal to people like me. It was laughably gaudy. It was kid stuff.

It was also way better than it could have been. There was a lot to appreciate about the Crew's logo and colors, especially compared to other MLS iconography at the time.

"I remember really liking the color scheme," said longtime Crew fan Matt Bernhardt, now based in Boston. "I remember being really grateful that we weren't Kansas City with the rainbow… Some of those initial color schemes were just hideous."

Bernhardt became a soccer fan growing up in Stow, watching the Cleveland Force, a professional indoor soccer team featuring future Crew players Brian Bliss and Marcelo Carrera and coached by original Crew coach Timo Liekoski. When the Crew came to Columbus, Bernhardt was an undergrad at Ohio State. He became actively involved in the first wave of supporters groups, the 1996 version of today's Nordecke.

He didn't love the Crew's logo and "America's hardest working team" slogan, an identity seemingly borrowed from blue-collar Northeast Ohio cities like Cleveland and Youngstown. But he figured that like other bizarre soccer names — England's Sheffield Wednesday and Germany's TSV 1860 Munich — the Crew could grow into it.

"There are so many [clubs] that are like, 'In terms of a modern context, this doesn't make any sense,'" Bernhardt said. "It was of its time, and over time that became authentic. It became quirky, maybe, but it really was what the team was."

So it went with the Crew's trio of strapping, multiethnic construction workers. Everyone who aligned themselves with the soccer team from Columbus developed affection for the logo, some of them begrudgingly. I’ve been through my own ups and downs with the corny characters, but by now I practically consider them family. (So does my mom, a proud wearer of Crew apparel since the late ’90s.) Of course, there were some who loved them without reservation right away.

"I first saw the badge in the black and white pages of Soccer America, which was my lifeline to the game back in the ’80s and ’90s," said Cleveland resident Brook Miller. "I still love the badge and always will. The shape and font are unique, the silver grey in the background stands in contrast, and the men are strong and ready to do battle. As we know, football is tribal, and I love that aspect of it."

Miller got the badge tattooed on his calf in 2001, which he believes was the first-ever MLS logo tattoo. (Add that to the Crew's long list of firsts along with first draft pick, first soccer-specific stadium, etc.)

Seven years later, Worthington resident Ryan Lafferty had the logo inked on his calf too. He’d fallen in love with the team after attending a match at brand-new Crew Stadium as a kid in 1999. When Columbus won MLS Cup in 2008, he had a promise to keep.

“I'd already kind of joked around with friends that I'd get a Crew tattoo eventually,” Lafferty said. “‘Well, if they ever win a championship, I'll get a tattoo.’”

Miller and Lafferty said most people outside Columbus don’t recognize the logo, but pretty much everyone in Columbus knows it on sight.

“At the grounds on match day, I've garnered several high fives throughout the years, as well as some photo requests,” Miller said.

Among the people it’s supposed to represent — the people in the city the Crew calls home — the badge has become an unmistakable component of the club’s identity. The prevailing sentiment around here seems to be, “It’s not much, but it’s ours.” Now the construction worker badge is going away; investor-operator Anthony Precourt unveiled a new logo in a ceremony Wednesday. For those of us who’ve spent almost two decades convincing ourselves to love that Village People pastiche, it’s hard to know what to think.

“It's what I grew up with. It's what I know. It holds a special place to me,” Lafferty said. "The way I look at it and come to grips with it: It's going to be more of a nostalgic and historical thing now. You're going to have kids looking at it going, ‘Whoa, where’d you get that?’”

Bernhardt noted that rebranding has been good for other MLS clubs such as Kansas City, which evolved from Wiz to Wizards to Sporting KC and saw garish rainbows give way to sleek blue and indigo. Even clubs in Europe, where tradition runs centuries deep, have learned to embrace new identities.

"[Italian club] Juventus went from pink to black and white, and it just became another chapter in this glorious history,” Bernhardt said.

Furthermore, the Crew’s supporters culture has moved beyond the construction motif that defined early fan groups like the Contractors and the Wrecking Crew. Why shouldn’t the organization move on along with them, particularly at a time when MLS is growing up into a sleeker, more modern product?

“I’m optimistic that it's going to help bring the team and the club to a more traditional and recognizable aspect of soccer,” Lafferty said. “Take the old MLS out of it, where MLS was the shot clock and the shootouts and all that kind of stuff. Take the gimmick out of it.”

Lafferty is hitting on something significant there. MLS is changing. The Crew’s logo reeks of a bygone era. It makes sense to move on, even if there’s a lot of emotion wrapped up the original. Even Miller, who has always unabashedly loved the old badge, is coming around to the idea of change.

“At first, I wasn't happy with the rebranding decision. I look at it as Precourt attempting to exhort short term cash flow through merchandising options,” Miller said. “My negativity has faded some with time though. The three men have been there in the best and worst of times, and have endured a lot of uncomplimentary names. I'll always have them and hope that Precourt's team have come up with something that suits their heritage.”