| The Columbus Dispatch
Nearly 4,300 Crew fans descended on the west end of the Arena District on Oct. 10, 2019 for a ceremony that not only was a seminal chapter in the history and future of the club, but also kickstarted an offseason that would define how successful the Crew might be when the new 20,000-seat stadium opens in July 2021.
One year later, construction on the $313.9 million stadium — originally priced at $300 million — is close to 50% complete with the structure far enough along that fans can begin to dream again about their first trip to the new soccer spectacle. On the field, Crew coach Caleb Porter and the front office technical staff have constructed a team that has the foundation of a contender.
The coronavirus challenged all of that. But in the months between groundbreaking and the onset of the pandemic in March, Crew chief business officer Steve Lyons felt confident in the progress they had made to finish the job.
“A lot has happened, hasn’t it?” he said.
Once ground was broken, the next phase of the Crew’s plan became selling the future of the club as well as reshaping the roster into one worthy of a new stadium.
Lyons at that point had to finalize naming rights to a new training facility yet to be constructed, find a jersey sponsor and begin pursuing a deal on naming rights to the new stadium. Two of those three have goals have been realized.
Before the start of the Major League Soccer season in March, the Crew released renderings on the OhioHealth Performance Center and finalized a deal with Nationwide Insurance to be the jersey sponsor for more than six years, worth $3 million annually.
The Crew has yet to announce stadium naming rights, but Lyons said this week that “we are ongoing conversations, several great conversations that are happening. But no definitive timeline.”
Also a year ago, president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, technical director Pat Onstad and Porter began executing their plan to field a contender in 2020, acquiring Darlington Nagbe, Vito Wormgoor and Argentinian midfielder Lucas Zelarayan for an $8 million transfer fee to be the faces of the franchise in the team’s new home.
After only two games into a 2020 season brimming with optimism, however, MLS shut down, along with much of the world, because of the pandemic. But there never was a serious risk to the completion date of the stadium.
“It hasn’t slowed anything down as it relates to the design or construction,” said stadium architect Gerardo Prado of the firm HNTB. “That’s never even come up at all.”
Though the project has remained on schedule, Turner Construction vice president Brian Mooney scaled back hours and reduced staff in the spring to ensure health and safety.
One craft worker on the construction site tested positive, but it was determined the employee contracted the virus outside the project zone. Mooney said they stopped work in that area, disinfected and conducted proper contact tracing.
“If we can’t convince ourselves that we have the protocols and safety in place to do it, then we’re not going to do it,” Mooney said.
Since the first steel beam was placed on May 17, 86% of the steel has been set, according to the team. Work is being done on the north end, the roof and precast concrete has been set in the lower east, south and west bowls. Data provided to The Dispatch from the Crew said $113 million of the $313.9 million in project money has been spent.
Team spokesman Tim Miller said funding normally lags the actual work done on the field. The Crew has also awarded $71.5 million in contracts to build the stadium to 84 minority and women owned businesses.
The club said the additional $13.9 million being spent on the stadium, funded entirely by the ownership led by the Haslam family and Dr. Pete Edwards, was needed for a new plaza at the northwest Nordecke entrance, a video board at the plaza and additional finishes and social spaces.
Assuming the Crew can have full capacity when the stadium opens, attendance and increased ticket prices for 2021 could provide the team a stimulus for the pandemic-affected bottom line. Having only limited fans this season has hurt the balance sheet, Bezbatchenko said — though it’s not clear by how much. But it’s not something the club is concerned about.
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“With the new stadium, that will allow us to compete with some of the other teams in terms of where we’re at as a business,” he said.
To keep people coming into the stadium, the Crew needs an attractive product. Despite a recent dip in play, the Crew has been among the top teams in MLS since the league restart and is primed to make a deep run in the postseason.
But even if the Crew can’t claim a trophy in 2020, ownership showed a commitment to pursuing top players and allowed the technical staff to build the team it wanted.
“Our population doesn’t match the New Yorks and LAs, but we want to make clear that our ambition does,” Bezbatchenko said. “That’s where things are going to change with this club.”
Bezbatchenko, who grew up in Westerville, said he’s never seen excitement around the Crew like he has in the past year. Lyons said in recent months he has felt people in the community beginning to have excitement again in restarted dialogue around the future of the club.
A lot of that, they said, has to do with the Haslams’ engagement in Columbus.
“Rarely a day goes by where I don’t speak to a community member who says how different this feels compared to previous ownership group,” Bezbatchenko said.
In the meantime, change continues at the stadium site. For the rest of this year, a timeline provided by the Crew shows that the first panel of the canopy is expected to go up Nov. 12, with seats to be installed beginning Dec. 29. The stadium will be enclosed by early January.
When construction began, Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said $113.9 million of taxpayer money for projects around the new stadium and Arena District would yield $1.04 billion in private investment and hundreds of new jobs.
The mixed-use space of Confluence Village, which will include retail and offices on the west side of the stadium, won’t be realized until spring 2023. Crew ownership partnered with Pizzuti real-estate firm to develop that area.
Because the pandemic has greatly affected how and where people conduct business, financial promises of the past are no longer a sure bet. But city development director Michael Stevens said the $1.04 billion investment can still be realized on time, and the stadium is perhaps more important now in the city’s financial recovery.
“The development that’s occurring in Confluence Village and around the arena district … is really critical for us to come out of this pandemic,” Stevens said.
If the stadium can open in July with full capacity, many diehard fans will be attending their first game since before the pandemic. Much has changed in ways that weren’t even considered when 4,300 fans gathered on the site last October.
Prado, the architect, is still finalizing details on some areas, including the Crew House and Biergarten — two places the team’s fans will gather after more than a year away from the beautiful game.
They’ve made it this far. The end is in sight.
“This, without a doubt,” Prado said, “I think will be the most iconic, unique-looking venue in MLS.”