The Columbus Crew Is Soaring, But Not Without Some Turbulence

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

By Chris DeVille

The Columbus Crew is flying high. As the first month of the Major League Soccer calendar comes to a close, the club is 3-0 for the first time ever, good for first place in the Eastern Conference. They have been winning games they should win-the March 22 home opener against middling Philadelphia-and games they have no business winning, such as the March 29 last-minute miracle after a mediocre performance at Seattle. Great teams are able to summon such magic to get results even on those days when everything seems off, to come through when other teams choke. It's still early, but this Crew has that kind of swagger about them.

As I detailed in a new feature in Columbus Monthly's April issue, much of that positive momentum can be credited to changes enacted by new investor-operator Anthony Precourt, who purchased the Crew last July, and Gregg Berhalter, the promising young coach and personnel head Precourt installed last November. The story explains in depth how Precourt and Berhalter, those guys who've been staring at I-71 drivers from a Crew Stadium banner all winter, have overhauled the Crew's ethos. But as the saying goes, you can't make an omelet without cracking a few eggs. Besides the wild success on the field, this past month saw the Precourt regime's first major PR crisis.

In my feature, Precourt and Crew President Mark McCullers speak passionately about their desire to shed the Crew's hard-working blue-collar underdog image and rebrand the club as frontrunners. They believe that just as Columbus is shedding its cowtown image and coming into its own as a major American city, the Crew organization should carry itself as a powerhouse with a winning history, not a plucky Cinderella story. That attitude has mostly served them well, but it came back to bite them during negotiations for the Crew's local TV contract.

In previous seasons, when conflicts with baseball arose, Fox Sports Ohio would sometimes bump Crew games to an auxiliary channel or even preempt the broadcast until a later hour. There was no pre- or postgame coverage, and the images were sometimes so grainy they might as well have been filmed on a smartphone. Precourt's Crew refused to assent to a deal like that. They wanted to be treated like a major sports franchise. So they signed with Time Warner Cable SportsChannel, which promised them priority treatment including pre- and postgame shows, all in crisp, clear HD. It was easy to imagine the front office thinking, "Finally, some respect!"

But a vocal segment of the Crew's fan base suddenly felt very disrespected. Time Warner Cable SportsChannel is available only on Time Warner Cable. Furthermore, a bizarre 75-mile radius clause forbids Central Ohioans from viewing Crew games-even away games-on the league's subscription-based MLS Live package. Thus, Columbus residents without Time Warner Cable have no way to legally watch Crew games. The outraged response was intense immediate as fans vented frustration via social media.

The backlash was so extreme that, when McCullers mysteriously resigned last week after 15 years in the Crew front office, the prevailing assumption was that he was taking the fall for the TV contract. The first question Precourt fielded during his teleconference about McCullers' ouster was whether the Crew president was forced out because of the Time Warner deal. Precourt never directly responded to that question, saying only that McCullers didn't fit into the team's plans for 2015. But he did say the front office was aware of the negative reaction to the deal and that he'd have more on that subject later on.

Is Precourt working on a plan to put Crew broadcasts in more Central Ohio homes? That would be positive news for supporters who just want to see this new-and-improved Crew from the comfort of their living rooms. Heck, most of them would be content with a grainy tape delay if it meant access to their favorite team. And it would suggest this new Crew regime is learning its lesson about the collateral damage that results when being seen in a prestigious light takes precedence over being seen at all.