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Crew fans unite

November 12, 2008
By MICHAEL S. BURICH, Assistant Sports Editor

If you read any amount of sports business news these days, you'll find it very hard to find any positive news as it relates to fans.

Even though the economy is in a dangerous downward spiral, sports operations are continuing like it's business as usual - meaning ticket prices are high and salaries are even higher.

The thing is, fans largely aren't getting more bang for the buck. The players are distant, the atmosphere at games is stagnant or artificial and in many cases its just not that fun anymore.

If you went back to the start of the Major League Soccer season, that's exactly the kind of bleak reality the Columbus Crew faced.

Coming off a season of less than impressive play on the field and even less impressive attendance numbers, the owners of Columbus Crew Stadium decided to gut most of the North End of the stadium to make room for a giant concert stage as a way of increasing revenue opportunities for the stadium.

The move was not popular with the three major Columbus Crew supporter groups who would usually stand -far apart- in that section behind the goal. The Crew informed the groups that they would have to stand together in a section located in the northeast corner of the stadium for the upcoming season.

Unaccustomed to actually standing near each other, the supporter groups -The Crew Union, Hudson Street Hooligans and the Latino-flavored La Turbina -didn't know what to expect in the new mix.

Would the fan groups cooperate? Would they sing over each other's songs? Would they fight each other?

These were all legitimate concerns, but as the season got going in April the barriers quickly melted away and the section took on a life of its own. The closeness forced the groups to pay attention to each other's songs and chants, and soon they all started working in unison to deliver a lively colorful roar which was arguably the first real significant voice created by fans in the more than 10-year history of the club.

In a tribute to the city's German heritage, the corner was dubbed Nordecke by the fans which is German for north corner. Fans from around the league started to take notice and about this time the Crew's on-the-field performance took off.

But just when it seemed like the Crew was on to something grand, a fan sitting in or relatively near the Nordecke section was caught on a YouTube video uttering a racial slur toward a black New England Revolution player in a late May match. The incident was well-reported in international soccer circles and in response the Crew management vowed to find and ban the person behind the slur. To this day, the person who made the slur has not been identified.

As if the club needed another black eye, English Premiership side West Ham United visited the Crew on July 20 for an exhibition match which resulted in relatively minor halftime and post match altercations between fans of both clubs. Even though the squabbles resulted in just one arrest outside the stadium, the incident was front page news in England.

Faced with a mountain of negative press and an increasingly aggressive security presence in the Nordecke, the supporters groups carried on and as word traveled throughout the region of the good times to be had in the section, more fans started showing up to throw their voices behind the Crew in the Nordecke.

It wasn't just the fans getting excited however. Suspended for the early October match against David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy, Columbus Crew defender Frankie Hejduk got involved with the Crew's burgeoning fan culture when he decided to chug beers and lead cheers with the fans in the tailgate party area before the game. To top it off he is also to have allegedly joined the fans in the Nordecke to cheer on his teammates during the match.

Not that they have needed that level of help. The team, led by Argentine legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto, completed the regular season with the best record in MLS. If the Crew win at home Thursday in the MLS Cup semifinals against the Chicago Fire at Crew Stadium, they'll advance to their first MLS championship final in team history.

The buzz behind all of these converging factors has been healthy enough to recharge the batteries in the Columbus Crew front office which is reporting a season ticket renewal rate that is up 200 percent from last season.

This is great news for the league and Crew, but there has still been plenty of speculation as to the longterm viability of the Crew in Columbus. For now, though, passion rules the day and that alone might be enough to sustain this new energy for a long time to come.

 
 

 

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