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Columbus Could Kick Off MLS Stadium Project 2.0

(New England and DC fans, avert your eyes.  This could hurt).

The Columbus Crew hold the distinction of opening MLS’s first soccer specific stadium when Crew Stadium was opened in 1999.  Since then, the stadium has hosted one MLS championship and two All Star games; more importantly, however, it has become an absolute fortress for the U.S. men’s national team.  The Yanks are 6-0-3 all-time in Columbus including three wins over Mexico.  The 20,000 seater is one of MLS’s jewels but it also could begin the next wave in MLS’s development as a league.

In an interview posted on the team’s website, president Mark McCullers was very blunt about where his team and its stadium stands economically.  The money quote:

“The stadium is 15 years old now,” he said. “We don’t want to throw good money after bad. We need to start having the discussions about a longer term facility solution for us and that could take a variety of forms.

“We always want to stay competitive. We don’t want to give anybody any opportunity to think that USA-Mexico should be anywhere but our stadium for any reason,” he added. “That would be  a return on an investment to do some things to make sure we continue to be the frontrunner for this match.”

Despite being an original MLS franchise, the Crew have struggled financially in a mid-sized market hit hard by the most recent recession.  Although the team’s jerseys are sponsored, the stadium is not, which leaves another source of revenue off the table.  Additionally, as part of the team’s financial three-year plan, they are still trying to achieve the 10,000 season ticket holder mark.

It is increasingly hard to look at Crew Stadium in the modern MLS landscape and still consider it state-of-the-art.  In fact, if it wasn’t for the home field advantage the stadium provides over some CONCACAF foes, I suspect the U.S. Soccer Federation would have awarded the most recent Mexico match to somewhere like Kansas City, who’s new stadium is very modern and a place MLS wants to show off as the future.  Despite have 20,000 seats, Crew Stadium has few luxury suits and fancy amenities, making it not as much as a draw for casual fans.

If the Crew are able to secure a site for a new stadium (say downtown Columbus), this would begin the next phase in MLS’s development.  For the first time, a modern soccer-specific stadium built for an MLS team would be replaced by another modern soccer-specific stadium.  This phenomenon is not unknown in other American sports but for a league whose goal for so long was to secure stable, unique locations for its clubs this is an interesting issue.  Unlike convincing a locality to build a stadium for a specific sport and team, MLS will now be going to local government to ask to build another stadium specific for the same sport.  Such conversations are not easy – that’s why MLS was the top lobbyist in the New York government last quarter.  This process will be the next step in MLS’s development, but I think most long-time MLS fans will welcome it as a very positive step for the league.