SBJ/November 19-25, 2012/Franchises

Crew makes strides off the field but remains short of season-ticket sales goal

In a season that brought key gains across its business space, the Columbus Crew remains far short of its goal of 10,000 season-ticket holders.

The Crew began its drive for that goal, labeled “Goal 10K,” in September 2011, with an event featuring MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman and attended by current and prospective corporate partners. More than 14 months later, the Crew says it is slightly above halfway to 10,000.

While the team would not divulge specific numbers, a league source said the Crew has approximately 6,000 season-ticket holders. When “Goal 10K” began, that number was less than 4,000.

The Crew has sold a little over 1,000 new full-season equivalents for 2013 since the club began that push in August.
“The next step, over these next few months, is to get three-quarters of the way there,” said Mark McCullers, Crew president and general manager.

The Crew has not had 10,000 season-ticket holders since the first year of Crew Stadium, in 1999. It has been an uphill battle ever since. Even when the team won the MLS Cup in 2008 it was unable to capitalize at the box office.

“It may have been the worst timing possible, if you can say that about a championship,” McCullers said. “The economy crashed. Tickets to soccer games were a tough sell.”

McCullers estimated that just 13 percent of the Crew’s season-ticket base is corporate. “For many teams in our league, it’s over 30 percent,” he said.

Still, the club feels good about its performance off the pitch in 2012. The team averaged 14,397 fans. That’s below the leaguewide average (18,807), but the Crew’s 18.2 percent year-over-year improvement was second only to Houston, playing at first-year BBVA Compass Stadium (up 18.8 percent).

The Crew signed a multiyear deal with Ohio-based Perio that placed Barbasol as the club’s jersey sponsor. The team also extended its reach in the market through a deal for 32 games with Fox Sports Ohio, which is in 5.5 million homes in the region. Crew games in 2011 aired on the Ohio News Network, which was available in 1.7 million households. ONN ceased operations in August of this year.

Including the MLS team’s 17 regular-season matches, Crew Stadium hosted 80 events in 2012 with more than 425,000 attendees. The stadium was sold out for a concert by country star Jason Aldean and for a U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifier against Jamaica.

Crew season-ticket holders, without an added fee, receive a first-option to buy all non-Crew events. But even with this perk, selling season tickets has been a struggle.

“Our goal to get 10,000 season-ticket holders is still there. It’s necessary,” McCullers said. “It impacts perception, atmosphere and our ability to close corporate sales.”

The club sees Ohio State athletics as its main competition for corporate dollars.

“We’re an option to the higher costs of Ohio State,” said Mike Malo, Crew senior vice president of sales and marketing. “We need to look at where we continue to show value. We’ll make big progress as we continue to drive attendance.”

Team owner Hunt Sports Group has said that it is looking at adding local investors for the Crew, but McCullers was adamant in response when asked if there was the possibility the club might move to another city if it does not reach its goal of 10,000 in the next few years.

“No,” he said. “No one has ever thought that. There is no alternative. We’re absolutely convinced that this is achievable.”
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