The Hashtag That Saved A Soccer Club
By Martin Rogers
If you believe sports are just games, that games are justslices of entertainment, that the fans being entertained are just spectators, the teams they are watching are just groups of athletes and franchises are just businesses, then perhaps stop now, right here, because this probably isn’t the story for you.
“This is not a sports story,” Columbus Crew fan Morgan Hughes told me via telephone this week. “This is an everything story.”
Saturday’s MLS Cup final (8:30 p.m. ET on FOX) between the Columbus Crew and the Seattle Sounders is the culmination of a drastically altered season, the showpiece of Major League Soccer’s 25th year, a battle between two of the best teams in the league and, for supporters of the hosting Crew, the ultimate reminder of everything they have – and what they almost lost.
It became an everything story for Hughes on Oct. 16, 2017, when the Crew’s then-owner Anthony Precourt announced that he was moving the organization to Austin, Texas, and away from Central Ohio. This was no small matter. Over the previous two decades, Columbus had become a de facto home for the American soccer soul. Now it was being wiped off the MLS map.
The Crew liked to boast about being the first MLS franchise – in truth, it was one of 10 founding members when the league was formed in 1996, but the first to have the requisite 10,000 season ticket deposits required for entry eligibility. United States vs. Mexico qualifying games have been played there before the last five World Cups, not just because of the frosty weather but the passion of the local support.
Hughes, a diehard since the team was formed during his teenage years and a local small business owner, thought of the friends he had made and would no longer see, the camaraderie, the history erased. He got hurt, got angry, and finally, after blasting Tom Petty at full volume and deciding something had to be done, fired off a Tweet which included a hashtag that would become a rallying cry heard around the world.
There has been a book written about the year that followed and it is too long, complex and detailed a journey to cover in its entirety here. Yet the abridged version is that the #SaveTheCrew movement gained extraordinary traction due to the lobbying efforts of a group of fans desperate to cling to their team.
They held rallies, raised funds, begged city officials and lawmakers for support and basically did everything feasible and plenty more to show potential investors that Columbus was a market – and that the Crew had a level of following – that was worth their time and cash.
Their plight generated sympathy from soccer fans as far flung as Australia and Belarus, because while loyalties are different, losing a team is the one nightmare that crosses all sporting divides.
Somehow, in defiance of the simple truth that money talks with deafening amplitude, it worked. Precourt ultimately sold his stake to a group made up of Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam and Columbus’ Edwards family. MLS approved the deal on the condition that a new stadium close to downtown would be built (it opens next year).
Hughes received the news while on a trip to Ikea with his now-wife and celebrated by sitting on a showroom toilet and laughing uncontrollably.
“It happened because it was real,” Hughes said. “It was a group of people saying ‘no, this is too good and too special to take away.’ When you have that much passion and people who are determined for their voice to be heard and who believe as much as we all did, you have a chance of making great things happen.”
Austin will still get a team which starts in 2021, a campaign that may begin with the Crew as league champions for the second time. According to FOX Bet, Columbus is currently listed at +187 heading into Saturday's MLS Cup final, while Seattle is at +135.
The Crew will be facing an uphill battle as they will be without two of their top players, Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos, who both recently tested posittive for COVID-19 and are not medically cleared to play in the game.
With #SaveTheCrew having become #SavedTheCrew, the Columbus players know what they are representing is now something that goes beyond the typical narrative of a sports organization.
“We fight for them,” midfielder Artur said. “We fight for us, but also we want to make them proud. For sure we are going to do everything to win the game, to be champions and to give happiness to them.”
Artur hails from Northern Brazil but settled happily in the Columbus area, learned English to an impressive fluency and became a fan favorite. Club captain Jonathan Mensah, from Ghana and with career stops in South Africa, Italy, Spain, France and Russia, has also found some peace and permanence, and rarely passes up the chance to talk about the #SaveTheCrew story.
“They came together and did something incredible that I don’t think any sports market has ever done before,” Mensah said. “It is such an incredible achievement. Even though the club has done so well in the past and continues to do well, that was one significant victory for the club, community and the city. They fought so hard for us off the field, all we can do is also fight on the field for them.”
Saturday could have been a sporting blockbuster in Columbus, with the final on the same day that Michigan-Ohio State hit the schedule, before the latest edition of the epic Big Ten rivalry was called off due to COVID-19 issues.
Only 1,500 fans will be allowed for the MLS showpiece, determined by a lottery system. Hughes and his friends will instead congregate in a parking lot, with a projector screen broadcasting the action, and go black and gold crazy, as always. You see a lot of black and gold in Columbus, something Crew broadcast analyst Jordan Angeli noticed when she took on the job and moved to the city last year.
“This is a different kind of soccer city,” she said. “You see small examples of the passion for the Crew everywhere you go: flags outsides houses, stickers on cars, little things you recognize. It is part of what brings the city together and it has been that way for a long time.”
For MLS, getting to the end of the current campaign following everything 2020 has brought is a feat in itself and the final brings no shortage of intrigue. The Sounders are the defending champions and seeking to create a dynasty. Columbus wants to repeat its mightily impressive 2008 title, spearheaded by Argentinean star Guillermo Barros Schelotto.
Across sports, no one is quite sure what the benefit of hosting really means where there are no, or few fans in attendance, but consider this ... Columbus has won 12 of 13 games at Mapfre this campaign.
What is certain is that home advantage is only possible if you have a home, and whatever happens on Saturday, the truth will linger that Columbus’ greatest triumph has already been enshrined.
Without it, this weekend and any golden days that follow, would not be possible. “We’ve won,” Hughes added. “Because we are here.”