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The rebrand is a mistake; ‘Columbus SC’ has two options to make things right

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The best time to fix this mess is as soon as possible.

Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC

With the reports that the Columbus Crew, er, Columbus SC, is due to rebrand and present a new logo this week, the move joins a recent rush in Major League Soccer to adopt a European-styled name and new visual identity. The Columbus Crew will no longer officially be the Columbus Crew.

The team’s move joins a league-wide trend away from Americanized team names that MLS clubs have long used. An inaugural league member when MLS began in 1996, the Crew joined when the trend in MLS was to adopt American-style team names, similar to those in the NFL, NBA and NHL. The league kicked off in 1996 with nine of 10 original teams with established names; only D.C. United utilized a European-style name.

The shift to more European names started with Real Salt Lake and Toronto FC entering the league in the mid 2000s and accelerated in the past decade. Since the expansion era began in 2009, only the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact came into the league with the more American names. All of these teams are holdovers from previous incarnations of their teams.

Most of MLS’s expansion teams have taken a European-style image with nine teams launching as a football or soccer club. The Impact rebranded to Club de Foot Montreal in the offseason. Future newcomers Charlotte FC and St. Louis City SC eschewed American styling.

The MLS history is Columbus is markedly different. “The Crew” has been synonymous with Columbus soccer since the inaugural MLS season in 1996. Through the Hunt Sports ownership era, “The Crew” mark adorned the team’s badge, nothing else.

Previous ownership, led by Anthony Precourt, sought to modernize the team’s image in 2014, but kept the traditional name as part of the identity, in the team badge, along with the team’s distinctive black and gold colors. The badge was well received, although some did not like the addition of “SC” to the name, as it tweaked the image of one of the league’s original clubs without changing facets of its basic identity.

That identity came to the forefront during Precourt’s effort to move the team late in the 2017 season. “Save The Crew” quickly became a rallying cry, emphasizing the belief that “The Crew” belongs in Columbus.

Given the long and passionate history tied to the team’s name, fans had a strong negative reaction to the prospective Europeanization of the team and the relegation of “The Crew” to the team’s semi-official nickname.

Likewise, the new badge is seen as a step backward from the 2014 rebrand, echoing the uninspiring letter “C” logo used by the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cleveland Indians use the letter “C” as a temporary placeholder during their rebranding efforts to move away from their historic “Indians” moniker and logo, realizing the mark isn’t a strong enough identity.

Given the strong reaction, which has led to a supporters revolt and widespread outrage and disbelief on social media, it’s hard to believe that fans will take to the change, at least not quickly. The team has two options to correct what appears to be a significant miscalculation. The Columbus organization can backtrack now — the Leeds United way — or backtrack later — as the Chicago Fire are currently doing.

In 2018, Leeds United released a highly unusual badge to the world, announcing that the team planned on using the new look in the coming 2018-2019 season. The condemnation of the new look was swift. The new badge was the opposite of the traditional style, incorporating the White Rose of York, of the existing Leeds badge that served the team since 1998. The cartoon-like image of the torso of man with a fist on his heart, looked, well, cartoonish.

The plan to use the new badge was launched at noon on January 24, 2018, and was scrapped by 6 P.M.

Leeds United quickly rethought the ill-considered new badge and decided to accept the reaction and reverse course. It was an embarrassing episode but one that was quickly forgotten. When the team made their triumphant return to the English Premier League for the 2020-2021 season, Leeds wore the badge that served them throughout the 21st century.

The other path is the Chicago Fire way. The Fire unveiled a new look in November 2019, replacing the team’s strong visual identity that they used since joining the league in 1998.

The team coupled the move with a shift away from the team’s highly identifiable red kits to a navy blue set and a white set. The reaction was swift.

This logo was universally panned by fans and followers of the league as this new look came across as amateurish rather than the clean abstraction that the team attempted to emphasize. Fans vowed to boycott new merchandise in an attempt to have the team reconsider.

The team listened and is in the process of developing a new logo to debut in the 2022 season, according to a report in The Athletic in November 2020.

In both cases, Leeds and the Fire realized the teams made a mistake. Both clubs then took the unusual step of backtracking on a very public decision and changing course.

The pain over a tone-deaf move stung, but dissipated when fans realized club leadership actually wanted to listen — and change course if needed. It was a small amount of humility that paved the way to better ties.

Columbus is at the same crossroads. The team is launching a rebrand that is nearly universally considered poor and angering wide swaths of the team’s fanbase. Dropping the identifiable moniker from the team’s official name and unveiling a downgraded badge spurred a furious backlash. At this point the Crew — yes, still named the Crew — has two options: realize the mistake and fix it now or fix it later.