Sports: The end of Mapfre Stadium?

Chris DeVille
The crowd celebrates a U.S. goal during the World Cup qualifier soccer match against Mexico at Mapfre Stadium.

The Columbus Crew raised eyebrows on Oct. 17 when inboxes around Columbus received a message titled, “New Stadium In Columbus—Crew SC Values Your Feedback.” The email began, “Columbus Crew SC, the Major League Soccer team that has operated in Columbus since 1996, has retained Barrett Sports Group, LLC, a nationally recognized sports management consulting firm, to evaluate the potential demand for a new multi-purpose soccer stadium in Columbus.”

This was not exactly a shock. Mapfre Stadium, the Crew's current home alongside I-71 next to the Ohio State Fairgrounds, is modest and utilitarian enough that fans began murmuring about replacing it not long after it became the league's first soccer-specific stadium in 1999. Such talk intensified when California investment banker Anthony Precourt took over as the team's investor-operator in 2013.

But for those of us who have been following the Crew since the beginning, who are old enough to remember Mapfre as a massive upgrade from soccer games inside Ohio Stadium, the thought of leaving Mapfre behind was bittersweet. Even supporters who weren't around for those first three seasons in the cavernous Horseshoe with an undersized soccer-lite playing field probably have a sentimental connection to the structure once known as Crew Stadium.

There are many reasons to treasure Mapfre. But there are many reasons to trash it. So as the Crew quietly considers its options, the team's hardcore fans remain ambivalent. As a 33-year-old Westerville native and Clintonville resident who's been going to Crew games with my family since 1996, I'm right there with them.

The stadium's objective place in American soccer history cannot be ignored. By building Mapfre in 1999, the late Crew founder Lamar Hunt helped establish both the club and the league, paving the way for today's MLS in which it's normal for teams to have their own soccer-specific stadiums. Plus, Mapfre has long provided a home—and a home-field advantage—for the U.S. men's and women's national teams.

“You could even make the argument that [Mapfre] was one of the building blocks that kept the league going through the dark times in the early 2000s,” says Donny Murray, 30, a lifelong Crew fan and one of the organizers of the fan group Murderer's Row. “I think it's done a lot for U.S. soccer.”

That said, my reluctance to let go of Mapfre is mostly subjective. I attended the first match there in 1999. I've gone there for two MLS Cups, one MLS All-Star Game, five U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifiers, several concerts and countless Crew games. I've watched games from the east, west, north and south stands, the lower and upper decks, the press box and the Nordecke. My parents have been season ticket holders at Mapfre ever since it opened. It has been an inextricable part of my life from adolescence to adulthood.

I'm also well aware of Mapfre's isolated location, its limited potential for nearby development and its minor-league feel. I've cursed its muddy parking lot, and I've laughed at jokes about the place—how it's the world's greatest high school football stadium, for instance. Still, the thought of moving on pains me. Or as Ben Hoelzel puts it, “This little erector set on the fairgrounds is our little erector set on the fairgrounds, and it was the first one.”

Hoelzel, 34, has been a Crew fan since day one. Around 2008, he got heavily involved with Crew Supporters Union, one of the rowdy fan groups that sits in the Nordecke supporters section at Mapfre and travels to numerous away games every year. That means he's seen firsthand how the Crew's home compares to other MLS stadiums, and he's often returned home jealous.

“We're really moving on to MLS 3.0,” Hoelzel says. “We already missed the 2.0 train. That's where stadiums really started going back downtown and being more centrally located, being near more entertainment-type districts. It's looking like that's how 3.0's going, too. It's definitely the future of the league, and we don't want to be the old man left behind.”

Despite his own sentimentality about Mapfre, Hoelzel ultimately wants to see the Crew move into a new facility. He thinks having a walkable, central location will help the Crew maintain its connection to the community, especially if the team finds a new home in a neighborhood where bars, restaurants, theaters and other development could spring up nearby.

“That extra entertainment stuff doesn't really matter to [hardcore fans], but we understand it helps bring the more casual fans in, to go straight from bar to stadium without having to walk a mile and a half through a horse stable or whatever,” Hoelzel says. He cites the impact Huntington Park has had on the Columbus Clippers since the minor-league baseball club relocated from Cooper Stadium in Franklinton in 2009—an impact Clippers general manager Ken Schnake affirms.

“It's done wonders for us,” Schnake says. “As the crow flies, we're probably less than two miles from our old location, but this move has made all the difference in the world. I mean, it just reinvigorated our franchise and really made the Clippers relevant.”

Schnake's explanation of the Clippers' former plight will sound familiar to Crew fans, and his description of the baseball team's current situation is enticing in contrast to Mapfre, which is surrounded by undeveloped state-owned land and counts McDonald's and Frisch's Big Boy as its only walkable dining options.

“We went from a point where we were located on the near West Side with two cemeteries surrounding us and no economic development,” Schnake says. “We were a single-point destination. You had to drive to get to the ballpark, and then you drove to get back home. We're now in a place where people can walk to the ballpark. I'm still amazed to go out to the center field gate and see people walking from all four directions coming to the ballpark. All the restaurants and bars in the Arena District get a lift when baseball season's going on in the summer, and it has just opened us up to so many more people that want to and do come to the ballpark, since we're in such a different environment.”

Ironically, Franklinton, the neighborhood the Clippers left behind, is one area Hoelzel and Murray mentioned as a potential home for a new Crew stadium. Revitalizing the region just west of Downtown, otherwise known as “the Bottoms,” was a longtime pet project of former Mayor Mike Coleman, and the area has experienced a surge of development in recent years. Yet it doesn't strike me as the kind of widely accessible destination Schnake was bragging about. I prefer to imagine a stadium in the middle of Downtown, perhaps near the popping Fourth Street corridor, but don't ask me to point to a workable building site on the map.

Identifying the right location for a new facility is just one of many obstacles along the way. Neither the Crew nor the Columbus and Franklin County development departments were willing to comment on where such a structure might go. And depending on where the Crew decides to build, they could also face the problem of limited public transportation options.

There is also the question of how to pay for this field of dreams. According to the Charlotte Business Journal, a facility for a potential MLS expansion team in North Carolina would cost as much as $190 million, with city and county governments accounting for more than half that cost. Surely the people of Columbus would be wary of funding such a project after the plan to publicly purchase Nationwide Arena devolved into taxpayers paying “for the upkeep of an arena [they] might never pay off,” to quote a Dispatch report from last October. And don't forget that back in 1998, with eviction from Ohio Stadium looming, citizens of both Columbus and Dublin voted down public funding for a Crew stadium; team founder Hunt ended up building Mapfre Stadium with about $30 million of his own money.

Precourt, who also purchased Mapfre Stadium when he took over the Crew, has not stated how much of his own money he'd be willing to funnel into a new facility. In fact, he hasn't said anything about a new stadium at all, and the Crew's statement, through spokesman Tim Miller, tells us nothing we didn't already know: “Precourt Sports Ventures has hired a national expert to look at the feasibility of a new stadium in Columbus. The analysis is part of the due diligence and strategic planning related to what a new stadium could look like and what the demand would be.”

There is plenty to analyze. The aforementioned practical concerns and sentimental hang-ups suggest that any forward motion will be slow moving and hard-won. As Schnake reminds us, the Clippers didn't just up and move overnight, either. “It was like a six-year process from when somebody first had the idea that we might consider moving to when we came to a consensus that the team should move and this was the ultimate location,” he recalls. “So yeah, it was a slow-developing picture that was not a quick snapshot.”

The Crew organization still seems to be in the early stages of that process, so those fans who'd rather see the team remain at Mapfre might get their way. Until recently, I was among them. “The stadium isn't even 20 years old,” I thought. “I have too many memories tied up in that place,” I thought. “We can't throw away our city's hard-earned U.S. national team mystique,” I thought.

Then, when a 2-1 U.S. loss to Mexico last November killed that mystique, I started opening myself up to the idea of moving on from Mapfre. And the last time I found myself Downtown at night, disappointed by the lack of bustle and vibrancy in the city's center, I began fantasizing about what a fancy new stadium could mean for not just this franchise, but this town. The more I think about it, the more excited I get about the potential. Of course, I will still weep if it ever happens.