There has long been a perception that Hunt Sports Group ran the Crew with a tight fist and squeezed every nickel out of the franchise. This perception was based on some truth, which is how “ Massive” entered the local lexicon. It means to overcome everything and everyone — including your management.
Thus, many fans welcomed the change in ownership, announced on Tuesday, when Clark Hunt officially handed the Crew over to Anthony Precourt and Precourt Sports Ventures. Precourt will be around more often, he will have a larger piece of his heart in the enterprise, and he cannot be as cheap. Right?
This Crew team was touted by management as a contender for the Eastern Conference title, yet it has found creative ways to lose and sports the fourth-worst record among 19 teams in Major League Soccer. The fresh start is welcomed — yet it is tempered to some degree because we know little of Precourt or his intentions.
The Crew still has issues. It requires a new practice facility, it has yet to find a naming-rights sponsor for the stadium and, eventually, the building itself will need updating. Plenty of cities are clamoring for an MLS entrée. A new owner might see greener pastures on the horizon.
Or maybe not: The Crew has deep roots in Columbus, it has a far-reaching (and likely highly profitable) junior-soccer system, and fan support has always been there — even this year. The Crew is not among the top MLS teams in terms of gate receipts, but it is among the top four in percentage of capacity and attendance is actually up over last year. This speaks well of the supporters, and the franchise, if not the team itself. Imagine if it actually won.
When the ownership transfer occurred, I had two immediate thoughts: This is good for the franchise and for the fans, provided Precourt is dug in here; it is also the passing of an era, and the parting of ways with Lamar Hunt’s family — and they deserve our gratitude.
Lamar Hunt, who died in 2006, might have been the greatest sportsman of the 20th century. He founded more leagues than Jules Verne, but his importance goes well beyond mere financing. He was the father of the modern idea of parity, a proponent of recruiting African-American football players and a key figure in the AFL-NFL merger. He was also the creator of World Championship Tennis, which fed the tennis boom of the 1970s and provided the framework for the ATP Tour.
MLS was Lamar Hunt’s brainchild, and we are lucky he chose Columbus when the ground floor was laid in 1996. His relationship with the city was strained after he was frozen out of the NHL expansion bid in the late 1990s, which led to a series of suits and countersuits. Certainly, all of this did not help the Crew. Precourt will not have the burden of this history, which is a notable positive.
In a recent interview, Clark Hunt said the family steers clear of rating his father’s accomplishments — but Crew Stadium has a special place. Lamar long believed that soccer could succeed in the United States. He bet $30 million on it and built the country’s first soccer-specific stadium, which opened in 1999. The seed he planted grew, flowered and flourished, coast to coast.
“In ’98, the league was heading into a downturn,” Clark Hunt said. “Without his foresight, drive and guts in building that stadium, the league might not have made it. He put down the anchor. He provided a model. It all started with Crew Stadium.”
The Hunt family will not fade from view in Columbus, not as long as the bronze statue of Lamar Hunt stands outside the stadium he built, and fans flock to other stadiums in other cities to watch soccer in America. Precourt is the next trustee. May he handle it well.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.