Interview: GM Mark McCullers on the Crew's future

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Columbus Crew General Manager Mark McCullers talked to Alive at length Monday about the challenges facing the Crew and MLS this off-season. The interview is transcribed in full below.

Alive: What are the most glaring needs for the Crew to address during the off-season? On-field and off-field, what are your top priorities?

McCullers: I'll start with off-field and say that growing our season ticket base is always a top priority every year. In particular we need to get more support from the corporate community, and that's going to be an area of focus for us. Our supporters section, the Nordecke, has been fantastic, and we see a great opportunity there to continue that energy and atmosphere and to bring more people into the fold with that authentic soccer experience that creates a great atmosphere.

Are you talking about trying to merge the corporate community crowd with the supporters club crowd?

Two separate priorities.

It seems like, especially in regard to profanity, there's been some butting heads between the rowdier Nordecke people and the family crowd. How to you navigate that balance?

Yeah, there are some people who have reached out to me and expressed their concern about some of the organized language, but we've dealt with those on a case by case basis, and I think the supporters have been cooperative in terms of listening to our concerns and working with us to try to create the atmosphere that everybody can be proud of and enjoy. So I don't think that's a huge concern. I've experienced with DC United kind of working through those growing pains with the supporters and the other fans of the stadium, so I think it's all in the course of our maturity, if you will, and I don't have any concern that we're not going to be able to meet everyone's needs there.

The Nordecke definitely seems like where the most attendance growth is happening. Are you doing things to continue to foster that growth?

Yeah, and we're trying to be a facilitator for the three main supporters groups. Their leadership is very organized. I think they're very on point with trying to grow their membership. That's what we want to help support and do things where we can continue to add to the experience and provide benefits for their members that are appropriate for the people who want to be part of that culture. So we've talked with them about some of those types of things and I think we've got some ideas on the drawing board that we're going to implement next year that's really going to help them continue to grow their individual groups.

Any of those ideas that you can talk about?

Well, one of them is to have a separate supporters' entrance. We've talked about that, where they could have a presence there and continue to interface with the people who want to be in that section and help them sell tickets in that section. Some of it's a bit logistical, giving them space in the stadium to store their banners and things that they use to create the environment. Coming up with benefits that we can add value to their members, as I mentioned, is something that is key. You know, having a supporters tailgate day where maybe they can play some games on the field, something like that.

As far as recruiting the corporate community, how do you even go about doing that? Is it just a matter of networking? What approach are you taking to try to increase that presence?

It's a combination of coming up with assets that could be valuable to corporate clients in addition to their tickets. So again, adding value. The Center Circle Club is a key priority for us in that strategy in making sure we have the amenities that corporate clients are going to want to use to entertain clients, things of that nature.

What is the Center Circle Club?

It's basically our club seat area, which are the chair backs on the west side of the stadium.

What about on the field? What are you trying to address there?

Our strategy is to maintain the core of our team. We've been successful over the past two years. We've got a good core of young players and a good mix of veteran players. We want to make sure the culture of the locker room is intact because it's been very, very good. And maintaining that championship expectation and high standards on the field.

Are there any specific pieces you are looking to add?

There's a couple areas. We want to give ourselves another option in central midfield. We're always looking for goal-scorers and people who can add to the offensive mix. I think defensively, we've been pretty sound, and we've got a pretty good backline. We've got a trio of good young wingers. So I don't think there's any major areas that need to be overhauled, but we try to take a three-year perspective and look out three years in terms of the core group of players that we have and maintaining that synergy within those players.

You mentioned the need for goal scorers. There are always rumors about Martin Palermo (Guillermo Barros Schelotto's former teammate at Argentine club Boca Juniors). Any truth to those rumors this time around?

No. I mean, I would love to have Martin Palermo. He's obviously a world-class player, but I don't think that that's a reality given the parameters of our league and our salary and roster restrictions.

As far as keeping Guillermo for next year, what's his situation?

His contract expires after this year. We've been in discussions with his representatives, and he's expressed a desire to stay in Columbus, and we would love to have him back. So that's something we would love to see happen.

Do you think it's possible that could happen with him no longer being a designated player, and you guys being able to bring in another designated player?

I think it would be difficult just because of the salary level that he's at. We basically would have to have another player that would hit us at the same level of our salary cap if we added a designated player and he was not at a designated player level. So that would be difficult to do under our current salary cap budget.

Some of the fan response calling for Warzycha's head seemed a little premature, especially considering the way the Crew has always stuck with coaches for a while. I assume he doesn't have to worry heading into next season?

No. We were disappointed in the way the season ended and not advancing to MLS Cup, but when you look at the things that we accomplished during the course of the season, it was a very successful season. Winning back to back Supporters Shields, which has only been done by one other team in the history of our league. And no team has ever won two Supporters Shields and an MLS Cup in a two-year period. We were the only MLS team to advance to the next stage of the CONCACAF Champions League. So we accomplished quite a bit during this year under some pretty difficult circumstances at times, with players being out for national team duty and injuries. We had a lot more injuries and player games missed this year than we did last year, so I think Robert did a great job of managing the team, especially after a very slow start at the beginning of the year, and I have a lot of confidence in him.

As far as the expansion draft, who's in charge of deciding who's on the protected list?

Myself, Robert and Brian Bliss. We all contribute to those decisions.

Obviously you're not going to reveal much about who's going to be protected, but is there any sort of guiding principle you're looking towards when trying to figure that stuff out?

I think it goes back to wanting to maintain the core of our team. That's really probably the primary factor. The reality is that we're going to have to leave some people unprotected that we don't want to and we're going to lose somebody that we don't want to lose. That happened to us last year, and it's going to happen to us again this year, and it's kind of one of the unfortunate realities of the growth of our league.

Are you worried about next year with the potential of losing two guys in next year's draft?

Well, yeah. I am worried about it. It's difficult enough to lose one player, but to have to lose two players is very problematic and worrisome. I'm kind of hoping there will be a different expansion situation because that's going to be difficult for any team.

After watching the Eastern Conference final in Chicago and seeing the sell-out there - Columbus had a great atmosphere these last two years, but the playoff games were far from sold out. What's it going to take to get people to turn out for big games like that?

That's a great question, and if I had the answer, we would have been sold out this year. The Thursday night draw was not ideal. It's always difficult to get people to come out during the week when school's in session and people have to go to work the next morning. Later game time at 8 o'clock because the game's on ESPN. But at the end of the day, this community needs to get excited about the playoffs. It's a do or die situation for us. We just have to create the environment and the atmosphere and the enthusiasm that makes people want to come out and support us.

One of the things that's been on the table for a long time is the parking lot situation. What's going on there right now?

We've had a lot of movement. The money was appropriated last year, and we currently have a design that's with the state architect's office for consideration. It is state property, and the OEC is a state agency, so we have processes and procedures through that government entity that we have to go by. So it always moves a little slower than we would like, but I'm very pleased with the design that's out there right now, and I think we'll start as soon as we possibly can next year with the construction. But the reality is that the spring is pretty wet around here, and we don't want to have contractors get started, say, in March and have to stop because of weather. We'd rather wait a little while, maybe get started in May so we can continue without interruption. That would be much more efficient, much more cost effective to do it that way.

How long will that take from start to finish?

I can't remember exactly what the timeline is, but it's going to take the majority of our season, so we'll have to do it in stages and come up with a plan that's going to have minimal impact on our games and our events. So I'm not sure exactly, but I'm pretty sure it won't be finished until towards the end of our season next year.

Another thing as far as game attendance and experience goes: I've heard people wonder about the location of the stadium, but I don't know how realistic it is to think about a new stadium that's closer to a bit more nightlife. How realistic is it?

That's a long-term type of discussion, and one that's been brought up to us recently. But our immediate priority is to continue our business here where we are. The improvements in the parking lots and the traffic patterns is going to be a big part of that. But I think as a community, we need to be looking at a five to 10 year horizon, when the stadium is 15 or 20 years old, and saying, OK, how are we going to make sure that we remain competitive and that our facilities are on par with other facilities around the league?

We've seen what's happened with the Blue Jackets and their situation with a privately financed, privately held facility. This community has struggled in getting public-private partnerships put in place in order to build professional sports infrastructure, and it's something that we've got to figure out. I'll be meeting, and I have been meeting with local politicians and community leaders. But we need to fix this problem for the professional sports industry, not just the Blue Jackets, so in five to 10 years, when we're either needing to address our situation here or if we're talking about a new stadium, we've got a mechanism in place that's a public-private partnership that's going to be able to get the job done and in five to 10 years we're not looking at the same situation with the Crew that we're looking at with the BlueJackets right now.

So that's not the situation now, you're just trying to avoid it becoming the situation?

Absolutely. We need to take a more holistic view of what it takes to be a major league city, and in particular the ability to develop professional sports infrastructure is something we've got to be able to figure out.

In the past, a new practice facility has been a high priority. I've heard that since the roster size was slashed from 30 to 24, it's not as much of a priority anymore. Is that true?

It's still a priority. Our lease at Obetz expires at the end of this year, and we had a five-year option that we decided to go ahead and execute. It basically gives us more time to try to sort out our training complex situation. But again, this community needs more soccer infrastructure, but it needs more and better soccer infrastructure. Our training complex is not only about the Crew, but it's also about having a complex where we can attract national youth soccer events, where we can expand some of the tournaments that are already in place here in the community and generally grow the sport.

So it's still a priority. It's just, it's more important to take our time and get the right location and get the right fit and come up with the right economic solution that's going to meet everyone's needs. That's a complicated formula sometimes when you're dealing with municipalities and developers, and those are the stakeholders in this situation. So that's still a priority, but with Obetz, it was just prudent to lock ourselves in to make sure that Obetz wasn't moving in a different direction because they didn't know what our situation was.

I asked you what are the top priorities for the Crew. What do you think are the top priorities for the league heading into next season?

Well, certainly first and foremost is the collective bargaining agreement. We've got to come to an agreement with the players union, and that's the top priority going into next year. I think with the continued rate of expansion, we need to make sure that there's no drop-off in the level of play and that the player pool is able to support an increased number of teams.

You think that's directly tied into the bargaining agreement?

Yeah, there's definitely a correlation there.

Do you think the league can realistically meet some of the players' demands? It seems like they're pushing for break free from the existing structures and getting closer to something like real free agency.

Well, there's no doubt in my mind that there's an opportunity for common ground. I'm not directly involved in the CBA discussions, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to speculate or to comment much further than that, but the league's got a great deal of promise, and I think everybody understands that and everybody's going to bargain fairly to make sure that we can continue the momentum that we've enjoyed here the past several years.

Having gone through the season with the more rigorous schedule with the Champions League and seeing the way things kind of burned out at the end, do you think the smaller rosters are handcuffing the teams that have to go through that more rigorous schedule?

It certainly would be nice to have more players to work with than 24, but having said that, I think our depth was a key factor. Even with only 24 players, we had a lot of players step up and contribute when they were asked to. But it's rigorous, and I think it weighs on the players physically, and I think it weighs on them emotionally.

Having a return to the larger rosters doesn't seem like it would fit it financially right now.

I think certainly having 30 players on the roster is not realistic, but I think where we want to focus our attention and where we have focused our attention over the past two to three years is domestic teams being involved in domestic player development. Our Crew Soccer Academy has been very successful, and I think that's the mechanism where we want to make sure those players we're working with in our development system have a place and an opportunity to continue on with the senior team. And if our roster is only 24, then it's more difficult to bring those players into the senior team who go on to be professionals.

If they don't move up to the senior team, where else is there for them go?

Well, the NCAA. A lot of our players have gone on to high-profile Division I schools, so that's always an option. Or playing in the USL or other leagues.

But the Crew loses the rights to those players at that point, right?

If they go to college, we don't. But if they sign other professional contracts and they haven't signed a contract with MLS, then yes. We do lose their rights. That's what I'm talking about. There needs to be a mechanism to sign those players to professional contracts and then maybe place them, whether it's a developmental league, whether we have relationships with PDL teams, or USL teams, or even foreign teams, so they can continue to get minutes and develop. That's the piece we're missing right now.

Do you think the increasing popularity of international leagues like the Premier League is helping or hurting MLS?

I think it's definitely helping the league. I believe that the popularity of the sport overall is ultimately a benefit to Major League Soccer. And it's our task to continue to put a better product on the field. We've been more competitive, both on the national team level and in competitions like the Champions League that can tangibly demonstrate that our level of play is consistent with those other leagues. But I think the popularity of the game is overall a benefit.

Next year is the first time the league's going to cease operations during the World Cup. That seems like a smart move. In the past, what was the logic behind not ceasing?

Not ceasing before was definitely a business decision. The ability to get more Saturday nights is in the best interests of the business side. But I think the thought process this year was kind of integrated with your point about the popularity of the game overall, and competing with the World Cup is not conducive to meeting our fans' needs who are also fans of the game globally. So I think it makes sense for us to have this break and allow our fans to focus on the World Cup and align ourselves with the World Cup and try to leverage that interest to create more interest in the Crew and Major League Soccer. But that ultimately is going to mean that we're probably going to have a few more midweek games than we typically do. As I said before, those can be challenging, so it's going to be more of a challenge on the business side because of the schedule restrictions it creates.

More Buck-a-Brat nights, I suppose?

Yeah. Nothing wrong with that!

Last thing: MLS Cup is on ESPN2 this year instead of ABC. Should MLS be worried about that?

I don't think so. I think people understand and perceive ESPN is certainly the most high-profile sports property in terms of television that there is. It's still a major showcase for the league's championship game, and I think the ratings and the audience on ESPN can be every bit as good as they were on ABC.