A New Home: The opening of Columbus Crew's new stadium marks a beacon for the city

With a shiny new stadium, the days of Save The Crew are long gone.

Jacob Myers
The Columbus Dispatch
The downtown Columbus Crew Lower.com stadium under construction on Thursday, June 17, 2021.

What would the 2,000-some Crew fans gathered at the steps of City Hall on Oct. 22, 2017, think if they had known the Crew would be in Columbus? That the Crew had won a championship and had opened a marvelous new stadium in the shadow of the city’s skyline less than four years after kickstarting the Save the Crew movement? 

At that time all they had was hope, because they couldn’t afford doubt. In their most honest state, they knew keeping the Crew in Columbus was more than a long shot. It would be unprecedented. 

But what looked like the club’s and supporters’ worst moment, when the team seemed destined for relocation, has developed into a defining chapter in the history of Columbus and the elevation of what soccer can be in the city. 

Now, as the city approach the opening of a new, 20,000-seat downtown stadium, fans are about to realize they had no idea what was possible. 

Even after Dee and Jimmy Haslam and Dr. Pete Edwards bought the Crew in 2018 and announced plans for a stadium west of the Arena District, the stadium has evolved from a $230 million venture to $313.9 million project with a fan experience the club says will be one of the best in America. 

"They took what I thought would've been a great stadium, said ‘This is not good enough,’ (and) were willing to invest tens-of-millions of more dollars to make this the very best,” said Alex Fischer, Columbus Partnership CEO and steward of keeping the Crew in Columbus. “They simply have blown me away.” 

Lower.com Field to make a mark, stand out from other stadiums

The new Crew stadium, named Lower.com Field, will anchor a new neighborhood, called Astor Park, in the city’s core, while standing out aesthetically from Huntington Park and Nationwide Arena. It will complete an entertainment corridor on Nationwide Boulevard that separates Columbus from other major Midwestern cities. 

Lower.com Field

When the opening whistle sounds Saturday evening against the New England Revolution in the first game at the new stadium, Columbus will be recognized as the home of a modern icon in a growing sport, with the reigning MLS Cup champion Crew as its beacon. 

"This, without a doubt,” said Gerardo Prado, the stadium’s chief architect with firm HNTB, “I think will be the most iconic, unique-looking venue in MLS.” 

The idea of what soccer could be in Columbus isn’t new. Original Crew owner Lamar Hunt had the vision of the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS. He pioneered that dream until the stadium opened May 15, 1999 just north of the state fairgrounds, which gave the league a blueprint that has led to nearly 30 teams and 21 soccer-specific stadiums. 

Crew fans stuck with the team through much turmoil.

Columbus began to grow as a city and sports town soon after Crew Stadium began hosting games with the creation of the Arena District. Nationwide Arena was born out of ruins of an old penitentiary in 2000, and Huntington Park would add one of the country's premier minor-league ballparks in 2009  The area has grown to be one of the most vibrant areas of Columbus. 

Just four miles north, the Crew and Crew Stadium gave Columbus a special place in U.S. soccer history, which took on a new meaning when the Hunt family sold the Crew in 2013 to Anthony Precourt. 

Citing low attendance, a lack of interest from the corporate community and an aging stadium, Precourt made it clear in 2017 that he thought a soccer team in Austin, Texas, would have more success than one in Columbus. To stay, he said there needed to be a new Downtown stadium, but he already had his eyes on spots in Austin. 

Losing a sports team would forever damage the image Columbus has tried to project of a forward-thinking, growing metropolis. It would also lose an asset that could be a gateway for younger generations to immerse themselves in the culture of Columbus. 

Fans arrive for the final game at Historic Crew Stadium on June 19.

MLS helped Precourt get a team in Austin as Fischer and local and state officials pushed the league and commissioner Don Garber to keep the Crew in Columbus. For that to happen, there had to be new owners willing to build. 

Fischer thought he might have a viable suitor in Dee and Jimmy Haslam. His long-standing relationship with the family from his time in Tennessee politics uniquely positioned himself to get the owners of the Cleveland Browns to invest in a sport to which they were complete outsiders. 

After some initial talks, Fischer took Edwards and Fischer’s right-hand man Steve Lyons — now the Crew’s chief business officer — to Cleveland to secretly bring together the club’s prospective owners. A conversation took place over breakfast at the Haslams’ home the day after the Browns' first win in more than a year, and everyone walked away convinced this was for real. 

With Edwards’ knowledge of the sport and the league, which he acquired from his time as the Crew’s team doctor, and the Haslams’ robust Haslam Sports Group operation, there was potential, not just to save the team, but to make Columbus a premier club in a league whose on-field product has gotten more talented every year. 

Buoyed by unwavering, vocal support from fans, on Oct. 12, 2018, MLS announced it had entered negotiations with the Haslam and Edwards families to keep the Crew in Columbus. Fans hugged, cried, drank and celebrated. 

“When you bring two families together, especially one that had a sense of what it was like for a city to lose a team, then the melding of the passions was pretty easy,” Edwards said when introduced as minority owner. 

But by no means was anything set in stone. There had to be approval on a new stadium and where to put it. 

Getting approval for the new Columbus Crew stadium

Conversations with politicians and the league office continued for months. It was a sprint to have everything set in stone before the start of the 2019 season. 

Securing $140 million at the time from the city of Columbus, Franklin County, and the state, the Haslams and Edwards families officially became owners of the Crew in late December. A few weeks before that, Fischer and Prado revealed plans for a new stadium on land that was nearly used for a casino at the far West end of the Arena District. 

Fans react to the Crew retaking the field for the second half of the game against Nashville SC at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 19, 2020. Crew win 2-0. [Gaelen Morse/Dispatch]

Ownership added Tim Bezbatchenko as general manager and Caleb Porter as coach — both of whom who had already won MLS championships — to show its intention of having a winning team at a world-class stadium. 

“We didn't have the best of support in Columbus because we had really piss-poor ownership and we had an old stadium,” Fischer said. “If you could change the ownership and the stadium, the belief is you could change the entire dynamic. Of course, that's exactly what happened.” 

Haslam Sports Group partnered with HNTB and MKSK Studios to design the architecture of the stadium. Turner Construction and Smoot Construction were tapped to build the giant structure. From the time the first renderings were shown in December 2018 to when the updated renderings were released in September 2019, the stadium image developed considerably. 

Fans who had watched the Crew struggle through its ongoing 2019 season could envision this ominous, black structure that bucked the trend of the typical circular stadiums. The design prioritized in-game atmosphere by sinking the field into the ground and havingsound bounce off the roof and outer façade to stay within the stadium. 

Columbus Crew SC fans, including Roger Deborde, middle, and Brian Klein, to his right, celebrate following the MLS soccer match against FC Dallas at Mapfre Stadium in Columbus on March 16, 2019. The Crew won 1-0. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

“It is a modern midwestern icon, is how we like to describe it,” Lyons said then. 

Hanging over all the excitement surrounding a forthcoming groundbreaking in just a few weeks, however, were negotiations between Haslam Sports Group, Nationwide Realty Investors and the city of Columbus over the land on which the stadium would go. 

The morning of groundbreaking, the Crew announced it had finally acquired the land for $25.7 million. Behind the scenes, NRI had leveraged its land and a tight deadline to get the stadium done in time for a July 2021 opening to get up to a $65 million break on property taxes.

Excitement for the construction, brought to a standstill with COVID

To the Crew fans who only dreamed of having a downtown stadium one day, any particulars of getting construction underway were just added noise. Miraculously, a new stadium was coming. 

“We’ve been working hard on thinking about this stadium to build a unique, iconic, dynamic, vibrant stadium that reflects what Columbus is all about and also reflects our fans,” Dee Haslam said at the groundbreaking. 

By the start of the season, the Crew quickly turned from a team that had been saved to a team with legitimate championship aspirations. It had found partners in well-known local companies OhioHealth and Nationwide for its new $30 million training facility and jerseys on matchday. There was real momentum. 

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. 

Lower.com Field

Like everyone, ownership, the front office and MLS were learning in real time what was off limits and what could still be done as states issued health orders. The club never deviated from its plan of a July 2021 opening and continued with construction. 

As sports returned, the Crew captivated the league with its best start in club history. Then — with playoff wins over the New York Red Bulls, Nashville SC in extra time and New England Revolution — the Crew captured its first appearance in MLS Cup since 2015. It felt like something rare was happening. 

Days later, top players Pedro Santos and Darlington Nagbe caught COVID-19 and were ruled out for the final against the Seattle Sounders. But it didn’t matter. In storybook fashion, the team’s prized offseason signing, Lucas Zelarayan, became a hero with two goals and an assist to capture the 2020 MLS Cup. 

The Crew was going to enter its new stadium as champions. 

Excitement around the team was at a height only hoped for in ownership’s most aspirational scenario of opening a new stadium. But it wasn’t long ago that the club was in jeopardy of having its most loyal supporters thinking of boycotting the first game at the new stadium due to a botched rebranding. 

As the club scrambled, Dee Haslam, JW Johnson — the Haslams’ son-in-law — and Edwards apologized to a group of supporters and re-installed “Crew” in the name with adjustments to the club’s logo. 

'A massive shift': A new stadium with new ownership

Nearly two months later, the feud seems like ancient history. 

The club has unveiled numerous partnerships with local companies, including a long-term naming rights partnership rumored to be worth $3-4 million annually, that Bezbatchenko said “eviscerates” past ownership’s assertion that Columbus isn’t a viable market. 

“It really is a massive shift from where we were just a few years ago," Bezbatchenko said.

The vision of the Crew’s ownership won’t be fully manifested until The Pizzuti Companies develop Astor Park to the west of Lower.com Field in two years. 

There were four components Fischer identified as having Columbus as a successful MLS market in 2017: new ownership, a new stadium, greater corporate support, and a broader fanbase. 

The months and years following the stadium’s opening will be the test to that final component. It’s hard to imagine the city not embrace it. 

jmyers@dispatch.com

@_jcmyers