The focus turned to Mark McCullers today after his lengthy interview in the Dispatch with Adam Jardy. It's clear there are two Marks, the man who controls the team on the field and the man who runs the business and it's hard to judge his performance with such different criteria and results.
Much of the discussion around the team has centered on the performance on the field. He shepherded over the transition from Sigi Schmid to Robert Warzycha. He, Warzycha, and Brian Bliss made the decision to end the most successful era in Crew history and start over.
Off the field, he was charged with restoring a team that had foundered in the stands. Attendance highs from the opening of Crew Stadium had dropped to the lowest levels in the team's 18 years in town. The future of the franchise hangs in the balance with how well he's able to navigate.
The 2008 team never had a chance to continue what they started. Schmid left soon after the Cup win and Warzycha was the clear frontrunner. He was Schmid's lead assistant and was interim coach in 2005. He took over and steered the 2009 team to the Supporters Shield and the playoffs in 2010. That team however was getting older the front office, McCullers included, decided it was time to call an end to the Schelotto Era.
McCullers entrusted rebuilding the team to Warzycha and Bliss. Nine players, including Schelotto and Frankie Hejduk left the team and the Crew got a lot younger. That 2011 team was surprisingly competitive, with Andres Mendoza scoring goals and a reformed back line with Chilean addition Sebastian Miranda, the Crew made the playoffs. It was a performance that earned Warzycha an extension.
Since then, little has gone right. The 2012 Crew again turned over the roster. There was no replacement for the now departed Mendoza and the team struggled, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2007. This year, another dramatic roster shakeup. Over a third of the team was shuffled including starters Dilly Duka, Milovan Mirosevic, Emilio Renteria, and Chris Birchall. For the third consecutive year, the Crew worked off another rebuilding plan.
McCullers stated plan was to transition to a new core after 2010, but several signings have failed to work and the team's core keeps changing, leaving not much of a core at all. The team is up against the salary budget and this is the third year of what is looking like a failed rebuilding project with pressure is building to make a change in management. Even bright spots like the capture of Federico Higuain have been overshadowed by the team's struggles.
Plans on the field have gone awry, but there is cautious optimism off the field. The team made a grand goal of getting to 10,000 season tickets in September 2011. The Crew were in the midst of their worst season off the field with average attendance well under 13,000. The roster turnover had cost the Crew at the gate.
McCullers had already started ramping up staff with the addition of Mike Malo as SVP of Sales and Marketing in 2010. Clark Beacom joined in 2011. The Corporate Partnerships team also got a new head, with Chris Previte joining to lead the efforts. The new management also heralded an increase in staff. The team has over 20 ticket sales people on staff, a significant increase in two years.
The increased staffing and changeover in several key positions has seen the Crew increased the gate by 18% from 2011 to 2012. 2013 attendance is tracking slightly below last year with several big events ahead including a concert with Flogging Molly after the game with Portland and the upcoming U.S. v. Mexico game to drive season ticket sales.
Corporate sponsorships have also seen significant bumps. The team secured Barbasol as a shirt sponsor. Other big names such as Ohio Health, Cardinal Health, Scotts, and Papa Johns have signed on or expanded their partnerships.
The picture isn't entirely rosy. The Crew haven't been forthcoming the details of the lofty goals set two years ago. They are still some distance from Goal 10k and there is no naming rights for Crew Stadium, however McCullers and his management team have improved the business footing of club.
The two completely different roles that Mark McCullers fills is the reason its hard to assess his performance. His work with the team on the field is mixed at best. His management team on the very public side of the team is under pressure for results. Warzycha is in the final year of his contract and Bliss has been in charge of signings that haven't come together.
Off the field, he's brought in staff that have built up the sales, marketing, and partnerships functions. There is an uptick of people in the stands and more companies see the Crew as a viable partner. His recent work on reinvestment restoring the core functions of the team is bearing fruit.
McCullers, the GM, has struggled with a rebuilding effort. McCullers, the team President, is tackling the problems facing a mid-market team during an economic downturn. With his business background, it's no surprise that McCullers is at home in the front office. It's the soccer that is the concern and his choices in the next six months will set the course of the franchise for the next two years at least. It's his biggest decision since 2005 and the future of a franchise is riding on it.