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As every other MLS team opens their sparkling new soccer-specific stadium, homage is always paid to the original, Columbus Crew Stadium. While it may be lacking in the modern amenities that have become commonplace in the leagues’ newer stadiums, it makes up for it by representing the anchor facility of America’s top-flight soccer league. In a way, Crew Stadium fits perfectly in its midwestern environs of Columbus, Ohio. The pragmatic approach that league founder & former team owner Lamar Hunt laid out in the design of Columbus Crew Stadium is befitting a team named the Crew.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
One of the big complaints fans had in years past was the quality of the food served. The club took note and has attempted to upgrade the offerings. There's the usual hot dogs and popcorn, etc. with some additions like a pulled pork sandwich ($6.50 on its own; $8.50 w/ a popcorn and soda). The beers are a bit overpriced: 16oz domestic bottles at $7.50 is less than ideal. You can get some more interesting imports on draft at stands around the concourses, and in many cases this was the only product sold so the lines were much shorter than at the main stands. In soccer, halftime is only 15 minutes, and many fans use the break to make a run for the concession or restroom. The staff churned through the lines, but if the crowds are big you may miss the start of the 2nd half.
While the stadium is certainly a spartan design, this is a great place to watch soccer. The immaculate pitch is maintained by an award-winning grounds crew, and the seating capacity is small enough and spread out that there's not a bad seat in the place.
However, there are these dead zones within the stadium that seem to detract a bit. Case in point, in the south end there's a rentable party area directly behind the goal, a black and gold awning framed in by a white picket fence. It's puzzling as to why it's there, and I hope that eventually the team decides to add benches back there as the south end is usually a dead zone for the stadium if it's not inhabited by the visiting team's fans.
The stage in the north end also took out a number of prime seats behind the opposite goal, but usually it's open to fans during the game and serves as an impromptu beer garden. If you want to move around and socialize you can watch from the four corner plazas, or in the southeast corner there's the Upper 90 Club, which has an open air plaza, but also has its own air-conditioned bar with a bunch of TVs.
One unintended benefit of the stadium's seating being steel is, even if the crowd is lighter, the fans can generate a good amount of noise. It's a nice home-field advantage for the team.
This is the big knock about Crew Stadium when compared to the other local facilities in Columbus, there's not much in the way of pre- and post-game entertainment around the Crew Stadium grounds. Since the stadium sits on the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center (yes, where the state fair is held) the immediate neighbors to the south are many of the buildings for those purposes. To the north the stadium is neighbored by a home improvement store, a grocery store, and a Big Boy restaurant.
Luckily, the stadium isn't far from the Ohio State University campus so there are plenty of bars a short drive away. A lot of fans still hope that if a replacement for CCS is indeed undertaken, that it will be located in downtown Columbus' Arena District, or another dense, walkable area in the city proper. Look in the Food/Drink section for links to the bars nearby.
One of the city's most overlooked attractions is actually on the Expo grounds as well. The Ohio Historical Society is a great museum done in the Brutalist architectural style showcasing some great exhibits on not just Ohio history but also racial politics, a photographic examination of the American soldier through time, and the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Fans have certainly made the best of the surroundings of Crew Stadium. Some make use of the few bars that are nearby but since the stadium is surrounded by parking lots and grass fields, Crew fans have made the tailgate culture part of the Crew experience. Walking around the lots before the game, you'll see fans sharing food and drinks and a general sense of camaraderie before everyone marches in for the game.
Inside the gates is one of the league's more intimidating supporters sections, the Nordecke. When the franchise decided it would add a stage in the north end of CCS a few years back, it displaced many fans and as a result of talks over that off-season, resulted in a plan to bring the team's three major supporters groups, who were previously spread out across the stadium, together in the North Corner, next to the new stage. What's resulted is a union of the team's most passionate fans who, even when the crowds are light overall, generate a ton of noise with drums, chants, and maybe a few choice words for the opposition. Note: You can only stand in the Nordecke if you have a ticket for it, and those are only sold by the individual supporters groups. If you have a problem with "language" and just want to sit and watch the game, I'd recommend you either sit in the upper decks, or at least in the west stands.
In Columbus, Crew fans have become the black sheep of sports fans in the city. Ohio State dominates the media, with the Blue Jackets fighting for their own coverage, as well as the Triple-A baseball Clippers. The lack of attention in their own city has only seemed to help generate a stronger sense of pride for the fans, with a decent sense of self-deprecating humor (fans have adopted the mantra of "MASSIVE" to describe the team). While crowds have been a bit disappointing during the 2012 season (66% of the 21,000 seat capacity), average attendance over the past few seasons has been trending up considerably due to increased effort by the front office.
The stadium sits just off I-71 and is 5 minutes east of the Ohio State campus. Parking is $10 and you're stuck paying it as there's nowhere else to go to find cheaper parking. The team has battled with the state government (who owns the land) to get more of the grass lots paved, but the majority of it is still grass, so be forewarned if there's inclement weather. I'd advise getting there early if you can to avoid lines, as fans were still lined up outside the stadium grounds as the game kicked off. When leaving, again, take your time getting back to your car, as the lots are congested as people try to get back to the highway.
A tip for anyone heading to the stadium from downtown Columbus, don't bother driving north on High Street, a popular north-south artery. Instead, take 4th Street north to either 17th Avenue or Hudson Street, if you time it right, you can catch every green light and you'll be there in minutes.
Tickets start at $26.50 (Ticketmaster fees included) in the south end. For a few bucks more you can sit in the upper decks on the sidelines. I actually prefer to sit up a bit higher to watch soccer as the play can be so spread out and you can see the progression of everything well. The lack of parking alternatives is unfortunate, but $10 is pretty standard. The food costs have been a sore spot for a lot of fans versus the quality of the offerings, but that's just what sporting events charge these days.
The team does market a lot of value added packages, with add-ons like discounted food or in some cases, discounts on other attractions in the city, so check the Crew site to see what's available. Also, since these games aren't selling out, it's a buyer's market on the secondary ticket sites like ScoreBig.
One major point to the Crew front office for some of the value added promotions they're doing to try and entice more fans. On this particular night there was a free post-game concert by the Celtic punk band, Flogging Molly.
Another point for the returned presence of Crew legend Frankie Hejduk. A fan favorite, who after finishing his playing career in L.A., the SoCal native chose to come back to Ohio to live and work for the Crew as a "Brand Ambassador", which in addition to other duties apparently means you also get to drink beer with the fans. Not a bad deal.
Another point for the increased public effort to spread the Crew brand by the front office. On the national scale, the Crew are an afterthought and are often tagged as the next franchise that should be relocated. While the Crew front office hasn't always made decisions that have endeared them to the fanbase, the current 'Dare to be Massive' drive seems like an earnest attempt to reinvigorate the casual fan as well as corporate advertisers, with the goal of securing the long-term stability of the club.
A final point for the club attempting to honor past greats. In recent years, the club has reached out to Crew legends like Brian McBride, Guillermo Barros Schelotto, and others who have impacted the team.
As a native midwesterner, I can't help but appreciate Ohio's take on Major League Soccer. It's not metropolitan like the Seattle Sounders, and it's not a state of the art facility like Sporting KC's LiveStrong Park. This is a pure, unobtrusive experience. The vast majority of fans aren't here to hang out, they're here to cheer on the Crew. It's interesting that the fan culture surrounding Columbus' soccer club has really grown into its working-class nickname.
When the MLS began play in 1996 it was hard to know whether or not the league would be able to capture the mind's of the American audience. Professional soccer leagues had been attempted in the states before, but none had been able to sustain the kind of support to achieve lasting success.
One of the original teams in Major League Soccer was the Columbus Crew. The team drew instant support in the inaugural season drawing an average of more than 18,000 spectators per game. Those numbers dwindled through the years, especially in years when the Crew were not quite good enough to make the playoffs, but overall the attendance has remained steady.
Today, the Columbus Crew continue to draw support from this largely college-focused community. Located just a mile or so from the main drag of Ohio State University, High Street, the Crew seem to draw a young and exuberant crowd, as well as a following of fans that have established their loyalty over the 15+ seasons.
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