Lamar Hunt's legacy celebrated by Crew fans. (Fahmi/Massive Report)
Today would have been Lamar Hunt's 80th birthday. Even though the legendary sportsman died over 5 years ago, his legacy still is a fundamental element of so much of the American sporting landscape. Many soccer and football fans still fondly refer to him as Uncle Lamar.
Few people in the history of soccer in the U.S. have done more to build the sport. He helped found two soccer leagues, believing in the sport's promise in America for nearly 40 years; he was a founding owner in the United Soccer Association in 1967. The league would merge with a competing league, to form North American Soccer League, NASL. His Dallas Tornados would last until 1981.
It's exceedingly hard to overstate his role in reviving pro soccer in America in the post 1994 World Cup era. He was one of the initial investors in MLS. He owned three of the first 10 teams in the league, the Crew, F.C. Dallas, and the Kansas City Wizards. Together with the Anschutz Entertainment Group, they were the drivers to keeping the league afloat in the early years.
Hunt continually placed bets on MLS soccer and specifically on the Crew. He stepped in to ensure the team had a place to play in the 1999 season when the team's home, Ohio Stadium was under renovation and wasn't going to be available.
A bond issue that would have had a stadium built in suburban Dublin failed and Hunt chose to privately fund Columbus Crew Stadium. Opening in 1999, it was the first major soccer specific stadium in the country. 12 more have been built for MLS teams since Hunt showed the way forward.
Hunt Park, as it's affectionately known, put Columbus on the national soccer map. Three U.S. v. Mexico World Cup Qualifiers have been played in those inhospitable confines with the Americans establishing dominance with three wins. The U.S. Women's National Soccer team played a Women's World Cup Game to a capacity crowd in 2003. Other marquee events, such as the 2000 MLS Cup and two MLS All-Star games have been awarded to Crew Stadium.
Hunt would forge ahead with other firsts, including opening MLS's first training ground in 1997, the Crew Training Center in Obetz. This was yet another step in legitimizing the league.
Since his passing, the team has continued to recognize Hunt's influence on the team. HSG's two teams, F.C. Dallas and the Crew, face off in the Pioneer Cup in honor of the modern pioneer of American soccer. The Crew have permanently put a tribute to Hunt on the back of their jerseys. Encircled letters 'LH' are just above the name plate. A statue of a standing Hunt striking a visionary pose sits in the front of the stadium.
The United States Soccer Federation renamed the Open Cup the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in his honor in 1999. A testament to the enormity of his effect on the game.
Beyond any of the visible tributes, Hunt's legacy lives on through the core values of the team. Long time team employees talk about their experiences with Hunt, a man who was always polite and genuinely interested in the people whose paths he crossed, whether they were players, front office staff, or even fans. These experiences and values are passed down throughout the organization.
Soccer was a small part of his sporting legacy, he was at the ground level of the American Football League in the 1960's. The Hunt Sports Group still owns the Kansas City Chiefs. He invested in the Chicago Bulls in 1972, retaining a minority stake until his passing.
Sports in the U.S. would look vastly different without his contributions. Columbus soccer might be vastly different if he didn't step up and take over the Columbus franchise in 1995. He towers over sports in the 2nd half of the 20th century, but many simply knew him as Lamar.