On Saturday, the Columbus Crew begins a new chapter in the team’s history with the opening of Lower.com Field. The team’s third-ever home, and second built for soccer, moves the Crew to the heart of Columbus’ downtown in a stadium that will rival or exceed any in Major League Soccer.
With this new stadium comes new expectations. Not just on the field due to a home environment that will be the best the Black & Gold has ever had, but in the stands as well.
“The fanbase needs to expand here,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said of Columbus at the stadium ribbon-cutting event on Tuesday. “We’ve got to recognize that where we were was fine for where Major League Soccer was at one point. Now we have teams that have tens of thousands of fans on a waiting list for season tickets.”
Despite a change in ownership and a second MLS Cup title in 2020, the reality for some teams around MLS is not that of the Crew. Because the team is now in its 26th season, there is not the huge demand to get into the stadium for the Black & Gold that some recent expansion teams enjoy. While the club announced that the Nordecke supporters section and suites at Lower.com Field are both sold out, the club is putting the finishing touches on making sure the new stadium is filled to its 20,371-seat capacity when the New England Revolution comes to town this weekend.
While confidence remains high that the first game at Lower.com Field will be a sellout, with only a limited number of tickets remaining, the fact that this hasn’t been announced three days prior to the opening kick drums up old concerns about the Columbus community — outside of the team’s most passionate fans — and its support of the Crew.
Fortunately, the Haslam, Johnson and Edwards families, the team’s investor-operators, who took over prior to the 2019 season, believe this new stadium will begin to fix this problem.
Speaking at the ribbon-cutting event, Dr. Pete Edwards explained that a new downtown stadium will attract those that historic Crew Stadium did not. Because of the location, the newness and the energy around Lower.com Field, the casual fan will, the team believes, be more interested in coming to a game than they might have in the past.
“I think this is such a great venue that people will come to the venue because of the energy and the excitement, and then there will be a soccer game,” he said. “So we think a lot of people that maybe aren’t big fans now are going to come and have such a great time that some of the casual fans will become hardcore fans.”
This very much fits the model of fellow MLS side Sporting Kansas City. Under new ownership, the once struggling Kansas City Wizards rebranded and built a new stadium in 2011 that has since annually averaged at or above the listed capacity for SKC matches.
The hope is that more people around Columbus will be interested in coming out for a Crew game with more to do around Lower.com Field prior to the match than there ever was at historic Crew Stadium. Supporters can now bring friends who may not be soccer fans and showcase both a pre-game and in-game experience that is truly one of a professional team.
But it’s not just the location of the new stadium that the Crew hopes to use to attract new fans, it’s the stadium itself. The venue was created to have accessible areas 365 days per year, including a pub and public plaza outside the gates which will be open to fans regardless of whether there is a match.
There is also the River Club and West End Club, both upscale areas on the West side of the stadium that will house some of the venue’s more well-to-do attendees on match day. But the space, with bars and kitchen area, can also be used on non-game days for events as well.
The Lower.com Lounge, which features the corporate suites on the East side of the stadium, not only allows companies such as Nationwide, Huntington and the stadium’s naming rights partner, Lower.com, among others to sit pitch side and have a VIP area of their own, but it is also a place these companies can access on non-match days to bring clients or hold meetings. The pitch-side patio entrance to this area, equipped with two fireplaces, is a perfect place to hold discussions and enjoy a beverage.
“We’re excited for weddings and graduations and anything that people want to use the stadium for,” Edwards said. “We’re just excited to present an option for them that they didn’t have before when the park is done. The community, the neighborhood is going to be fabulous.”
While the main attraction of Lower.com Field is what happens with the Crew on match days, ownership wanted to be able to sell an experience to those who may not yet bleed black and gold in the hopes that coming in the door and seeing what this new state-of-the-art venue has to offer will make them want to come back and see more. The belief is that having a stadium that can be used for various events outside of soccer will showcase the venue and create a buzz that will lead to people returning for a match.
From there, it will be up to Caleb Porter and his team, as well as the Nordecke and all of the new features of the stadium, to turn a casual fan into a diehard supporter who wants to return game after game, creating that demand around the Crew that other teams in MLS now have.
“I have faith in this market. That might not be something people believe, but it’s absolutely true or we wouldn’t be here today,” Garber said. “We need to get those supporters to create an environment that with this group will be explosive and have that energy shared with new fans that need to come into this shared experience and what can be for our city and for our league and for our sport. And it happened at the right time... So I have an amazing level of belief in what this market can do and I look forward to seeing that happen.”