Why Columbus has angered fans after dropping 'Crew' from its name

"Save the Crew" is taking on a whole different meaning. What was once a mantra (and a hashtag) to galvanize support to keep the Columbus Crew from relocating to Austin, Texas, the phrase may now need to be revived in order to save the Crew nickname itself.

The Columbus organization announced Monday that it is dropping the word Crew as part of its official team name and replacing it with the utterly generic Columbus SC. The news has been met with immense anger within the most die-hard elements of the Crew -- make that Columbus -- fan base, which organized a protest at Crew Stadium on Monday, but the club pushed ahead anyway.

"The current direction of our Club and our city provides a natural time to examine our identity going forward," said Crew president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko in a statement. "Our identity and brand evolution includes a shift in our mindset to be consistent contenders on the pitch, but also includes evolving our look both in the community and across competitions. With the upcoming completion of our new, modern, dynamic stadium, our world-class OhioHealth Performance Center and coming off an MLS Cup championship, our marks are aligned with where we are headed as a city and as an organization. We are proud to represent Columbus on the global stage of soccer and aspire to help elevate the city and honor it for what it has done for the Club. We are Columbus Soccer Club, we are The Crew, and we will always be the Black & Gold."

So let's dive into this news by asking three key questions: Why is the team doing this, why are the fans mad and why is the Crew name sacred?

Why is the team doing this?

To hear the Columbus organization describe it, the move is about "elevating Columbus" to a grander stage, as in the city itself. The timing is also meant to coincide with the opening of the team's new $313.9 million stadium set to happen later this summer, the better to position the organization "locally and globally." The rebrand is being pitched as an evolution rather than a complete overhaul.

But that explanation only invites more questions, the biggest being: Couldn't the organization do all of those things and still keep the Crew as the official nickname? The Columbus organization contends that it isn't dropping the name completely. The term "Crew" will be visible in and around the stadium. The official store will be named "Crew Shop," while the food and beverage stands in the venue will be called "Crew Kitchen." While Crew will no longer be on the team's jerseys, the organization will continue to sell hats and T-shirts with the Crew name on them in addition to the now Crew-less logo.

"[The Crew name] isn't going anywhere," Bezbatchenko said in an exclusive interview with ESPN. "If anything it's more prevalent."

That is open to interpretation, though Bezbatchenko told ESPN that the rebranding effort wasn't done in a vacuum, with a focus group of 2,500 people involved that included fans and non-fans. What was driven home was the importance of the black and gold colors and keeping the word "Crew" as part of what the team is doing.

The team is quick to compare its approach to that of other clubs around the world. Liga MX side Monterrey's official name is "CF Monterrey," while its nickname is "Rayados." One club source also pointed out that what Columbus is doing is different than say, Montreal, which abandoned its longtime nickname "Impact" and now goes by Club de Foot Montreal.

None of that really addresses the need to drop the "Crew" as the team's nickname. Certainly there is a school of thought that emphasizing Columbus will help with international appeal. But the presence of a nickname hasn't stopped teams in other American sports from becoming international brands.

Bezbatchenko countered that the terms "The Crew" and "Columbus SC" are interchangeable, and reiterated the desire to highlight the name of the city.

"When you had Columbus Crew SC, people really ignored Columbus," Bezbatchenko said. "They talked about Crew SC. Everything was Crew, and that was only part of our identity and what we want to be about going forward."

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Why are the fans mad?

There are two aspects to this: One is about process, the other is about history. Let's tackle the process first.

Bezbatchenko told ESPN that the impetus for the rebrand was the change in ownership in which the Haslam and Edwards families purchased the team from previous owner Anthony Precourt. Bezbatchenko contends that a task force comprising (in part) Save The Crew members, "Day One" fans, as well as two members of the Nordecke supporters group leadership, was informed about where this was heading. But the Columbus organization required them to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) preventing them from sharing the direction with other stakeholders. The news still leaked.

Of course, there is a difference between informing people about what is going to happen and allowing them to collaborate in the process. To hear the Nordecke describe it, the former scenario is what took place. In a statement posted on social media, the Nordecke said that "neither the Nordecke nor any Crew Supporters Group was involved at any time with the conception, development, or design of the rebrand. The Board was only shown the rebrand in the last few days, and it was presented to us as a completed product with no chance for input."

Earlier this year, Nordecke board members Charles Campisano and Jeff Barger were made aware of the proposed changes and submitted a report -- a copy of which has been obtained by ESPN -- to the Columbus organization, warning the team of what they could expect in terms of fan reaction if they went ahead with the proposed rebranding without sufficient input from fans. With respect to the name change, the report warned that the likely response to dropping "Crew" moniker would be "negative to catastrophic."

The report added that "major portions of the rebrand essentially trade out what is liked and recognized for components that will not be well received." This includes the new logo, which has been criticized for being too generic and does nothing to set the team apart in terms of branding. The report notes that in Ohio alone there are seven other professional sports teams incorporating a "C" in their logo or crest.

And yet the Columbus organization forged ahead, and it wasn't until last Friday that supporters were informed of the details of the rebrand.

"Our understanding is what was presented to us was, 'This is happening,' not that 'This is up for discussion,'" said Campisano, the Nordecke's general counsel, who was present at the meeting.

The response was overwhelmingly negative. Campisano added that "there was some emotion" and confirmed a report in the Columbus Dispatch that one individual called Bezbatchenko "a traitor."

Some of that is down to Bezbatchenko's previous statements. When word leaked in January of 2020 that the team was considering a change of name and colors, he told the Columbus Dispatch, "The colors Black & Gold and the moniker 'The Crew' are critical parts of our Club's identity and have been beloved by supporters since 1996. ... Discussions regarding overall brand identity include critical supporter feedback, and any reports suggesting a departure from the above by the Club would be inaccurate."

Now at least the name change is coming to pass.

"It's just so lame," said Morgan Hughes, who started #SaveTheCrew and was the group's spokesperson. "It's just such an unnecessary own goal. What are they doing? The logo is lame, the name is lame. And when you combine those two, the presence of each other just make the other one look worse."

Why is the Crew name sacred?

MLS teams have long struggled to forge bonds with the local community, but Columbus has succeeded more than most. Some of that is down to being one of MLS' original teams, and the history that comes with it. But the attachment to the Crew nickname intensified in 2017 when then-owner Precourt announced his intention to move the team to Austin, Texas.

The fan backlash was intense, sustained and ultimately effective, with the #SaveTheCrew hashtag helping to galvanize widespread support on social media and elsewhere. Even then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine got involved, suing Precourt Sports Ventures citing the Modell Rule that requires teams getting state funding to provide six months' notice of its intention to leave.

MLS, with considerable help from the city of Columbus, found a solution whereby Precourt would acquire an expansion team that he could place in Austin, while the Haslam and Edwards families would take over the Crew and thereby keep the team in Columbus. That development was viewed as a victory not only for fans in Columbus, but those in supporters' groups from around the league.

Adding to the angst is that at one point, Precourt considered changing the team name to ... Columbus SC. He ultimately settled on a less controversial rebrand -- the official name was changed to Columbus Crew SC -- but in the view of some fans, the very name is toxic given the former owner's attempts to relocate the team.

When the Crew prevailed in the MLS Cup final last December, it seemed a fitting tribute to a team, its fans and the new owners who made it possible. Now damage to the relationship with hardcore fans, the very heart and soul of the team, is being done. The effort to keep the team in Columbus has been diminished, and a chunk of the goodwill the new owners had accumulated is being squandered.

"I hope that the goodwill isn't exhausted on a brand evolution, a revision of a logo," Bezbatchenko said. "I think for everything that [the new owners] stood for and have done over the past two-and-a-half years means more than a naming convention. I truly do."

The fans will be the ultimate arbiters.