Winning Goal

Kitty McConnell

Anthony Precourt is new to professional sports, but he's got the business bona fides to make the Columbus Crew SC a winning venture.

Precourt founded Precourt Sports Ventures in late 2012 as part of a diversification strategy at Precourt Capital Management, the San Francisco-based private equity and investment management firm of which he is managing partner. PSV actively searched for pro-sports investment opportunities before zeroing in on Major League Soccer.

“We focused pretty quickly on soccer,” says Precourt. “I love soccer, personally. I have passion for the sport.”

Precourt relied on strong research and ample due diligence, rather than passion alone, in getting the Crew deal done.

“I use the phrase ‘thoughtful and thorough' a lot,” says Precourt, an alumnus of Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business whose father, highly regarded energy-executive Jay Precourt, is lead patron of the Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency at Stanford University. “We studied all the structures of the different leagues. We looked at generally, some investment opportunities in the NFL, Major League Baseball.”

The single-entity ownership structure of Major League Soccer and the promise of the Columbus Crew Soccer Club won Precourt's interest. In July of 2013, he took over as the second investor-operator in the club's history. In his relatively short tenure, Precourt has secured the stadium naming rights partner that had for two decades eluded founder and previous investor-operator Hunt Sports Group.

Two games into the club's 20th season, Precourt invitedColumbus CEO to MAPFRE Stadium to discuss the rebranded Columbus Crew SC, the team's new executive team and the one word he's banned from the board and locker rooms of One Black & Gold Boulevard.

What makes the MLS structure a good platform to invest in?

I don't think this league would be as healthy as it is today without the single-entity structure. It has helped us control our expenses and have aligned growth plans. Each market sits around a table at the board of governors' level. There's a lot of alignment in terms of how we want to grow this league and what we need to accomplish.

How complex was the Crew deal to negotiate?

For me, it was understanding an industry that I hadn't worked in previously. I spent a lot of time in due diligence to understand different markets in MLS and really understand the growth potential that we could see here in Columbus, specifically, once we started active conversations with the Hunt family.

Do you think the ability to make immediate capital infusions in stadium upgrades made PSV an attractive buyer to MLS?

I don't think that was criteria for the league in terms of selecting Precourt Sports Ventures as the investor operator for the Columbus Crew. It was more that they vetted me out on a personal basis and from a financial wherewithal perspective.

We talked about our plans for the future and the team exhaustively. It wasn't specific to capital improvements to the stadium, although that was something we saw as an opportunity to improve the fan experience.

Something we got to after day one was investing in a new scoreboard and LED ribbon boards, a new audio system and premium chair-back seating in the east side of the stadium.

The Columbus market has a smaller corporate base than the league's top-valued teams: Is that a disadvantage in terms of sponsorship agreements and group-ticket sales?

When we did our due diligence, we found Columbus to be a great opportunity in a healthy corporate environment.

There are a number of Fortune 1000 companies based in Columbus. It is a very vibrant business community. I sit on the Columbus Partnership. That's been a great way to get to know those corporate partners. We have a solid base and look to continue to grow our base.

We're really excited aboutMapfre Insurance becoming our new stadium-naming rights partner. Being a global multinational business with billions in revenues, it's exciting that they find Columbus an interesting place to grow their name recognition.

What promise do hyper-local businesses like Jeni's and Hot Chicken Takeover hold as potential partners?

One of my first priorities was our rebrand and becoming more relevant in our community. One of our brand pillars is now being authentically Columbus. What better way to be authentically Columbus than to showcase local businesses, food and beverage options.

We've been a partner with Jeni's for a year now, and we're excited to have them back. We have a number of local craft beers that will be available to our fans this season, and obviously places like Hot Chicken Takeover and Schmidt's (serve) fare that people really enjoy here locally. It's great to be able to offer that.

Was it difficult to come in and overhaul the organization?

It's all about people and process. It's been a lot of work to get the right people in place. We've got a fantastic team now, both in the sporting side and on the business side.

I saw that we could do things better. There was a real opportunity. The league was at a real inflection point.

The Hunts did so much for this franchise and establishing it and building the first soccer stadium and really getting the league off the ground.

You hired Andy Loughnane as president of business operations. How does this new position strengthen the operation?

We were very quick to decide that we wanted to split leadership responsibilities, to separate business and soccer. The first thing we did was hire Gregg Berhalter as our club's first sporting director and head coach. He oversees all of soccer operations. Then we hired Andy to run the business.

We have two leaders: one for soccer, one for business. We believe that good soccer leads to good business, and good business leads to good soccer. They're integrated. Andy's background was very attractive to me in helping us grow our revenue, commercializing our business and creating the resources that are appropriate to have success on the field.

You were insistent on changing the ‘underdog' mentality at the club. Why was that important to you?

I did say ‘underdog' would be bad word in this organization because I want us to be a leader. I want us to be a visionary. I want us to be one of the organizations that is really respected in this league.

We were a charter member of Major League Soccer. We're the first team to build a soccer-specific stadium. We're the first major league professional sports team in Columbus. We're the first team to win a professional championship for Columbus. I want us to be recognized as a leader.

What are some strategies you have in place to make that a reality?

I have a very long list of priorities and we're working our way through it.

We have to fix our product. Hiring Gregg and getting back to the playoffs last year was very important.

We're improving our fan experience with the stadium improvements we've made. I think a more attractive product on the field, a more attractive fan experience, a more relevant and exciting brand; it will help us build our relevance. Winning and relevance should help us grow our attendance.

What are your business goals in relation to other clubs in the MLS?

At the league level, attendance is growing. TV ratings are growing. There's a lot of exciting things. A rising tide lifts all boats. But we have a local business here that we need to improve upon and we're working hard to do that.

Anthony Precourt

Investor/operator & Chairman, Columbus Crew SC

Manager, MAPFRE Stadium

In Position Since: 2013

Education: MBA, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College; BA in political science, Pepperdine University

Career Highlights: Managing partner, Precourt Capital Management and Precourt Sports Ventures; various advisory and executive positions with Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Banc Alex Brown and WHV Investment Management.