Editor’s Note: This article stems from conversations that Massive Report had with Andy Loughnane in July 2017.
Andy Loughnane sat down with Massive Report’s Patrick Guldan late last month to talk about Columbus Crew SC. The conversation turned from the team’s attendance troubles and what the team is trying to do about it to how the front office racked up some sponsorship wins and even the future of MAPFRE Stadium.
In the Stands
It’s no secret. Crew SC's attendance has drifted to the bottom of the league in 2017.
Along with the decrease in attendance from 2016 — 12 precent — season ticket memberships dropped by 15 percent. Without the core support game after game, there have been more contests like the May 10th match against Toronto FC, where announced attendance was 10,318, pulling down that average.
Loughnane identified some of the reason for the drop.
"Consistency on the field is named as a criticism," he said before noting some other challenges such as midweek games and bad weather matches before dismissing the excuses. "Other midsized markets like Portland, Kansas City and Salt Lake have overcome challenges that we face."
One instance stood out for Loughnane: "Despite our best efforts and our best marketplace momentum in recent memory, we were not able to sell out the opening match in 2016 coming away from hosting MLS Cup in 2015."
It continues an ignominious tradition, Columbus hasn't sold out a match in the months of March, April and May except for the opening of the stadium in 1999.
"I'm not sure if any other club holds that distinction, but it's a challenge that both eats me alive and serves as motivation," Loughnane said.
One area where Crew SC doesn't have a lot of room to work with is on ticket prices where Columbus is again at the bottom of the league.
"With the lowest attendance combined with the lowest average ticket price in Major League Soccer, we face pressure," Loughnane admitted
"A majority of our season ticket packages are purchased at an average price per match of less than $28. The lower sideline season ticket price went on sale priced lower than it was two years ago. The upper sideline season ticket price went on sale at an increase of $1 per match after staying flat for the previous two seasons."
"Our stated business priority is to increase year-over-year attendance and we aspire to join the other mid-sized market clubs that are consistently drawing crowds equal to 100 precent of their stadium capacity."
That hasn't stopped some fans attributing ticket cost as a reason for not attending games; it's one on that the sales team hears quite a bit. Loughnane points out that Crew SC does try a lot beyond price to attempt to bring in fans.
That includes the craft beer promotions that pop up in the team's advertisements and on social media. Loughnane noted they are one of the most success promotional packages the team uses. It's one that the team targets to the millennial buyer that the front office sees as a core for the future of the team.
Other efforts try to target other groups of prospective Crew SC fan.
"We want to attract new fans and our promotion like the fidget spinner may attract a family that otherwise would have attended a movie or the zoo," Loughnane explained.
The Pups at the Pitch, a promotion so popular that the team is bringing it back in September, is another chance to broaden the base of Black & Gold fans in Columbus.
Other areas are less driven to attract a specific market, with the team looking to leverage group sales.
"We may operate a promotion through our group sales department which incentivizes group purchases,” Loughnane said. “Group sales in many occasions is the number one sales engine for sellouts."
Major Central Ohio employers, university alumni groups, and area social groups have offered tickets as part of a group block this summer in conjunction with the long standing effort to entice the casual or new fan to take in a game at MAPFRE Stadium.
These efforts speak to attracting the fans beyond the team's traditional core demographic, but the team's attendance numbers underscore that these haven't worked as well as hoped.
The combination of Crew SC struggling to have strong attendance in the early months of the season and the poor play in 2016 have left the front office in a hole.
Loughnane brought up an effort the team used for last month's game against the Philadelphia Union, targeting a $10 discount to fans who attended in 2015 or 2016 that haven't made it back this season. 17,418 fans attended the game, over 2,000 more than the team's season average.
The Crew SC story with sponsorships is a success story with partnerships with MAPFRE for stadium naming rights and Acura taking up the jersey sponsorship are at the forefront.
Loughnane sees this as the clearest area where investor/operator Anthony Precourt's efforts have paid immediate dividends.
"Anthony's investment in the club, the marketplace, the new brand and in soccer operations budget, we were able to leverage the new direction in the club, the new momentum," he said.
Beyond MAPFRE and Acura, Crew SC has inked deals for naming rights to the Obetz training facility with EAS and major partnerships with local businesses such as Kahiki Foods, Wendy's and Scotts while continuing partnerships with local institutions like Ohio Health.
To Loughnane the investment and the payoff is clear.
"We've developed more interest through proactive efforts across the last two years than the club had previously been able to yield,” he said.
“We have a stadium naming rights partner from Spain. Our automotive jersey partner calls its world headquarters in Tokyo with a strong presence in Ohio. We've looked outside of Columbus for support.
"We are civic minded, we are for Columbus, we are a 21st century property. Columbus aspires to be a 21st century city. We believe we fit very well with the future of Columbus."
Loughnane notes though there are still further challenges as the team has cast a broad search for sponsor.
"One of the things on our top priority list, to grow sponsorship interest among companies in our region," he said.
MAPFRE and beyond
One area where Loughnane was a little more circumspect was with the prospect of the future of MAPFRE Stadium and the possibility of replacing the historic facility.
MAPFRE has significant history, but comes with significant challenges. Loughnane highlighted the history and charms of MAPFRE when the topic turned to the team's recent survey.
"MAPFRE Stadium is still capable of staging world-class soccer events and will continue to stage other events like Rock on the Range," he said.
"We play in an intimate venue. We play in a venue that has unrivaled heritage and historic relevance. We still have a beautiful pitch, we still have a great matchday atmosphere that can provide a home field advantage when we have that large crowd on hand."
However the drawbacks are significant. The team does own the stadium and currently has a lease on the land with the state of Ohio that runs until 2023 and an option for another 25 years. The team doesn't control the parking situation and getting in or out of the lots around stadium is a well known challenge that the front office manages with few good options.
Conflicts with the Ohio Expo Center, the Ohio State Fairgrounds, and the American Quarter Horse Congress limits the latitude that the team has on scheduling and Loughnane admits could even impact hosting a potential playoff game. The team announced that they are putting in alternate parking plans for games that may be hosted in late October as the American Quarter Horse Congress would still be going on during that time.
When the topic turned to the future, Loughnane was measured in his response. On the survey that the team worked with Barrett Sports Group to send out on the prospects of a new stadium last year, Loughnane said the team was close to next steps. Those next steps likely won't be public.
"We're nearing the finish line on our preliminary findings resulting from the marketplace survey,” he said. “It's been an exhaustive study and period of analysis. There are other simultaneous efforts being made in concert with respect to critical, interesting questions within that study"
When asked if something may be released for public consumption, Loughnane demurred.
"We will advance in a thoughtful and thorough manner when the time comes,” he said. "There is significant analysis that lies ahead and as I said, MAPFRE Stadium is the home of Crew SC."