Precourt takes thoughtful approach in remaking Crew
Columbus Crew SC is a team of many firsts. A charter member of MLS, its home stadium was the first soccer-specific venue built for one of the league’s teams. It was the first major league franchise to operate in Columbus, and it was the first team to bring a pro championship home to the city.
So when Anthony Precourt, an established managing partner at an energy-focused private equity and investment management firm, set his sights on acquiring a piece of the team more than two years ago, it seemed fitting that the first match he attended in Columbus also became of note.
|Columbus Crew SC owner Anthony Precourt oversaw the team’s rebranding.
“We’ve always had some fun talking about it,” Precourt said, recalling that game in April 2013.
Despite the ominous introduction, Precourt was steadfast in his belief that engaging with Columbus would be a well-suited match. In July 2013, his Precourt Sports Ventures acquired 100 percent of the club from its original owners, the Hunt family, for a reported $68 million.
“My conviction grew with the research I had done and the conversations I had with the Hunts,” he said. “Ultimately, we felt that full ownership would allow us to get the right people in place and set up the right processes to have the vision and strategy to succeed. It became clear we had an opportunity to really take control, and we jumped at it.”
What’s followed has been a run of activity that’s served to transform the franchise. Among the moves:
■ Signing naming-rights deals for the team’s stadium and its training complex.
■ Bringing on a new food and beverage provider for the stadium.
■ Investing in facility upgrades.
■ A wholesale rebrand of the club’s identity.
“Thoughtful and thorough,” Precourt said, in describing his approach. To that end, rather than force quick changes after taking ownership midseason in 2013, Precourt observed for the first few months and researched potential hires who would share his vision for the club.
Precourt had formed PSV in 2012, looking to link his passion for sports and investment. It was an offshoot of his energy-focused firm, Precourt Capital Management.
He also had recruited sports executive and former Chicago Fire President Dave Greeley to join him at PSV. Introduced in 2012 by a mutual business associate who knew of Precourt’s sports ambitions, Greeley agreed to assist Precourt in the acquisition and was hired as president of PSV.
“Anthony would be best described as an ‘owner-slash-operator,’ with a big emphasis on operator,” Greeley said. “But even so, it was his approach that the organization would focus on measuring two or three times before cutting once, and that we’d stand by every decision.”
Another key early piece in Precourt’s puzzle was Gregg Berhalter, the former MLS player turned coach who had been working for a Swedish club. Precourt desired a soccer mind that could improve the team’s on-field direction, which had slipped since the club won an MLS Cup title in 2008. Impressed by Berhalter’s data-driven approach in assessing players and contracts, Precourt put him in control of scouting, player management and coaching — tasks that previously were delegated to three individuals. Berhalter was hired as head coach and sporting director in November 2013.
“The first few times we met, the thing that really struck me about [Precourt] was his thoughtfulness and his belief in where we could take the club,” Berhalter said. “He’s willing to take time to make the right decisions for long-term success as well as stand by them throughout. It’s that confidence that makes any challenge motivating, not daunting.”
Things stood pat longer on the business side, as processes were analyzed further, but Precourt made a major hire in August 2104. He brought on Andy Loughnane, who previously worked in sponsorship sales positions for Palace Sports and Entertainment and the Columbus Blue Jackets, as president of business operations.
“Anthony’s vision has always been that good business would lead to good soccer, and good soccer would lead to good business,” Loughnane said.
With Loughnane running the day-to-day business operations of the club, and Berhalter handling the player side, Precourt and Greeley are able to provide guidance and long-term direction. Those clearly defined roles also have fostered the collaborative environment Precourt wanted to create, something he cribbed from his years in finance. For example, Berhalter is a fixture at the club’s weekly business leadership meetings, where conversation is often more about ticket strategy than soccer formations.
“Gregg is exceptionally involved on the business side, which is a very healthy byproduct of the structure Anthony set up,” Loughnane said. “He knows what makes our business tick and how the soccer product can influence that.”
In addition, Precourt speaks nearly daily, whether by phone or text, with both Loughnane and Berhalter, and Greeley often leans in as well.
|The Crew’s scoreboard structure, which famously caught fire in 2013, is now topped by the name of a new stadium naming-rights sponsor.
That has led to a number of successes since the four have come together.
The club finished 2014 with record highs in ticket sales and home sellouts. Paid attendance is up 75 percent this year, and the Crew has added more than 1,000 season-ticket holders since the end of last season.
On the sponsorship side, the team in 2015 signed the first naming-rights deal in the history of its stadium, a multiyear, multimillion-dollar deal with insurance company Mapfre that stands as the largest sponsorship deal in club history. A deal with Abbott’s EAS Sports Nutrition for naming rights to the club’s training facilities followed, as did deals with Audi and Heineken. Together, the deals have meant a gross sponsorship revenue increase of 35 percent year over year and the highest sum in the team’s history.
Moving inside the stadium, Columbus in March brought on Levy Restaurants to be its new food and beverage provider, replacing Sodexo. Food from a host of local restaurants and a local beer stand are now available. Precourt also has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars to stadium renovations, making improvements to the locker rooms as well an upgrade to the scoreboard and sound system. For the season, the team reports that food and beverage spending per capita is up 25 percent, with little in the way of price increases.
But perhaps the most striking development under Precourt has been the redesign of the team’s brand, something he personally pushed for from the early stages of his acquisition. Introduced in October 2014, a new circular logo was presented, a shift from the previous “men in hard hats” logo that had been a staple of the team since its 1996 inaugural year. This new brand identity, Precourt said, reflects the team’s past but also sets the stage for its future.
“When Anthony came in, you could really tell he did his homework, and that really energized us all,” said Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission. “Without any disrespect to the legacy of the Hunt family, it was a breath of fresh air.”
While all of these changes seem to suggest a drastic evolution from the days of the Hunt family’s operation of the team, Precourt remains mindful of the importance that family played in the success of the team in the marketplace, as well as for MLS.
“This league wouldn’t be here today without their vision,” he said. “We have great respect for all that’s been accomplished here in Columbus, and we’ve tried to reflect that while moving the club forward and positioning ourselves in a new MLS.”
Precourt freely admits more work is still to be done. That includes getting the club to profitability. He also notes that Columbus’ smaller marketplace does not provide the same resources available to teams such as Toronto, Los Angeles or New York City FC, but he looks at the success of similar smaller-market clubs like Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake as what Columbus should be able to achieve and in some respects eclipse.
“Anthony is a part of a group of young owners in MLS that really help bring a fresh perspective to both the league and operating their clubs,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “He’s done many great things to take what was and still is a legacy team in this league and turn it into something that reflects his vision of soccer going forward in both the country and in Columbus.”
When asked about changing valuations across the league and expansion fees of more than $100 million a team, Precourt said he focuses far more on the bottom line of his own club, noting what have been an “anxious couple of years trying to right the ship while trying to keep up with ever more resourceful peers.”
Still, Precourt recalls just a few years ago, when he would dive into the sports section each morning with hopes that one day he might be in the position he is now.
“On any given day, I might be dealing with the commissioner and the league office, our front office and staff, our fan groups, corporate partners and the local business community and politicians on all sorts of issues,” he said. “There are certainly tough days in this business, but I’m living a lifelong dream.”