For long time Black & Gold fans, there's something interesting happening in Columbus. While the Capitol City is not quite in the full throes of Soccer Fever, its temperature is visibly rising. All around town pockets of black and gold are creeping in to territory that was once predominantly scarlet and gray, and casual fans and even non-fans are starting to get on board with the Columbus Crew SC Hype Train as it hurtles to its (hopefully victorious) conclusion at MLS Cup.
Throughout the season I've noticed an increased Crew SC presence around town, particularly throughout downtown and the Short North. The "We Support Columbus" stickers produced at the start of the year, featuring the new logo, are all over. Little could we know at the start of the season that they were only the beginning.
As the playoffs began Columbus' own "Brand Ambassador" Frankie Hedjuk was seen across town tying various black and gold flags to random poles, leaving them there for fans to find and keep. They seemed to span from downtown to campus, even to the Short North and Italian Village. A strange form of guerrilla advertising, to be sure, but likely an effective one. It wasn't the only advertising the front office rolled out. A billboard downtown which has simply been the new logo accompanied by the hashtag "#NewCrew" since the logo's unveiling last fall was changed to read "#ForColumbus" and "#ForTheCup" along with advertising the Eastern Conference Finals.
Advertising is all well and good. The club has advertised in the past. It's all for naught if it fails to capture the people's attention it's targeting. That has largely been the case in the past, as Crew SC have rarely found much of an inroad in to the "college town" they call home, leading to frustrating and sometimes embarrassing results, such as last years best forgotten about home playoff debacle.
But perhaps that's changing. People are talking about Crew SC now. It's not just the die-hards, either. "Casual" fans, who perhaps are more familiar with the "big name" stars no longer in the playoffs, and even non-fans alike are getting excited. From all corners of Columbus, and sometimes even further, stories are coming in of people exhibiting never before seen levels of interest in soccer, and Crew SC in particular. Massive Report's own Matt Goshert told of random people nearly accosting him at a gas station yelling "Go Crew!", due only to the fact that Matt was wearing a Crew SC shirt. They talked for a bit, excited about the fact they had tickets for the Final. This is not something that happens generally, even amongst the "die hards" of the fanbase.
I received three text messages from people who I know haven't been to a Crew SC game before, asking about the Final, and more precisely getting tickets for it. This seems to be a recurring theme in the stories being shared on social media, people assuming that since Columbus isn't a "Soccer Town" that tickets would be readily available. Like many others, I had to give my friends the bad news. One positive byproduct of the scarcity of tickets is the increasing number of "watch parties" that are springing up throughout the week. Fans who couldn't get tickets have already started organizing where they're going to take in the Final, using Twitter, Facebook, and even Reddit. These parties are not just for local fans who couldn't get tickets, as fan communities in other Ohio cities, like Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Dayton, have already started getting their parties together.
My favorite story that I saw on social media actually came from Bowling Green Ohio, where @TweetOfBuda shared that multiple people in his finance course were discussing Crew SC, not even knowing before hand it was playoff season. I think it's fairly safe to say those same people probably weren't discussing the appointment of Gregg Berhalter before last season, or the summer signing of Harrison Afful. But they're talking now. People are starting to pay attention.
It's not only people, though. Along side the Crew SC stickers and flags now adorning local businesses in greater numbers, more and more Black & Gold gear has found its way in to local shops, even bigger chain stores like Target and Walmart. In previous years, under previous regimes, it was a rarity to find any team gear at most of these stores, but now there are usually several different designs, often front and center with the Ohio State and Blue Jackets merchandise, not buried in a small corner in the back. Just this weekend I saw something I'd never see. I was in the Kroger on High and 7th. It's close to campus, so OSU stuff is everywhere, and I had never seen any Crew SC gear there in previous trips, let alone fuzzy Crew socks.
Yes. Fuzzy. Crew. Socks.
We've obviously made it as a soccer town when novelty footwear items are making it in to campus grocery stores. We certainly didn't see them under previous regimes. Or maybe I'm looking too far in to it, but the signs seem pretty apparent. People are starting to pay attention to Crew SC in a way they haven't before. Due to the combined effects of a new and motivated front office, a highly successful re-brand, a sales-force that has set a record for most sellouts in a single season, and a winning team making a playoff run, Columbus, Ohio is finally starting to embrace its soccer team in a way it hasn't before. One can only hope this is just the beginning.
Stay Massive, Columbus.