How Crew SC's new downtown stadium is set to transform club, Columbus

COLUMBUS, Ohio — When MAPFRE Stadium opened its doors in 1999, it was the crown jewel of both Major League Soccer and US Soccer.

After MLS's first three seasons saw teams playing exclusively in stadiums built for other sports -- the Crew played at then 91,000-seat Ohio Stadium, the home of Ohio State football -- MAPFRE Stadium became the country’s first professional, first-division soccer-specific stadium, setting a standard for others throughout the country. Columbus Crew SC’s new home was a trendsetter for the LA Galaxy, FC Dallas and others as they moved from cavernous football stadiums owned by other organizations to friendly confines of their own.

But the newness and excitement of MAPFRE Stadium quickly diminished. The stadium’s location on Ohio’s state fairground, which previously sat vacant for the majority of the year, didn't make it a destination for many casual fans in the city. Game attendance took a hit, too.

On Thursday, the Crew SC ownership group comprised of Dee and Jimmy Haslam, as well Pete Edwards, fulfilled a promise made in January. They broke ground on the club's new stadium in the downtown Arena District of Columbus, just west of Nationwide Arena (NHL's Columbus Blue Jackets) and Huntington Park (Triple-A baseball team Columbus Clippers).

With a plan to open in 2021, this stadium will place the Crew in the heart of the city, helping to bring the team into the new era of MLS and boost attendance. Bars and restaurants, previously unavailable at MAPFRE Stadium, will be within walking distance for fans' pre- and post-game activities.

“I think that the league recognized that a downtown stadium was the turning point in many other MLS markets, like Kansas City,” Edwards said. “So a new stadium is really important because we're committed to a fan experience that is beyond excellent. And part of that is the facility itself. So we're committed to making our fan environment the best we can and the stadium is a big part of that.”

To do this, the Haslams and Edwards are sparing no expense. After initially pledging $230 million to build the stadium, the new investor-operators of the Crew announced on Thursday an increase of $70 million, taking the price tag to $300 million. The new owners don't just want the structure to be built, but want it to be a standard-bearer in MLS.

“We want this to be the best,” Edwards emphasized. “And if it's just a little bit more of an investment on our part, we're willing to make that in order to make the stadium great. So we're not focused on a number, we're focused on making the stadium as beautiful and functional and as exciting as it can be.”

Although the stadium's primary focus will be for Crew and soccer games, the Haslams and Edwards had a plan in mind to make it a destination for all of Columbus. The 28-acre land parcel previously sat vacant, though the stadium will help connect downtown to the suburban area to the west.

The location expedites the city's plans to expand the Arena District, and plans for nearby office spaces and apartments are already in discussion.

“We talk about it just being a stadium, but then there's so much more,” Haslam said. “You're talking about living spaces, commercial buildings. We're talking about a park-like setting, you're talking about a plaza. They can have dozens and dozens of events all the time.”

Like at MAPFRE Stadium, the club wants to host other sporting events, such as high school soccer and football games. The city, once again, could become the unofficial home of the US men's national team.

The stadium will have a bar/restaurant/event space that will be open for those in the downtown area. The 40,000 square-foot plaza outside the stadium is a unique addition, which will allow for concerts and city-wide events.

“The plaza is going to be the city's space to use how they want,” Edwards said. “Whether it's concerts, whether it's gatherings, whether it's food trucks on Wednesdays, movie nights, farmers markets. We want people to be at the stadium every day that the weather's nice, and maybe some days when it's not so nice.”

From a Crew perspective, the new stadium allows the team access to a new segment of Columbus that was not interested in traveling to a fairgrounds site just off the interstate.

But the opportunities don't stop there.

“We want to make sure it's a perfect stadium,” Haslam said. “So we've all worked really hard. It's just not a stadium … it’s so much more.”