Speaking one year to the day that he took the reins at One Black & Gold Boulevard, Columbus Crew Chairman and Investor-Operator Anthony Precourt caught-up with TheCrew.com to give his perspective on his first year with the organization, in addition to providing insight on the club’s near-term and long-term future. With some major milestones on the horizon, including the Crew’s much-discussed brand evolution, there is reason for optimism and excitement at Crew Stadium as the team enters the home stretch of its 2014 season.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Anthony. When you look back on this past year, what do you remember most about your first 365 days at the helm of the Crew?
"It’s been an incredibly exciting and rewarding first year with the Columbus Crew. We’re very pleased with the advancements we’ve made with the club in terms of improving the fan experience and the player experience. I think we’re on the road to an improved product on the field. I’m really excited and proud of what Gregg [Berhalter’s] staff is doing. Obviously, it’s going to take time. Winners are not built overnight, but I think we’re trending in the right way. I wouldn’t cite just one particular example, but it’s been a very busy year."
Has there been anything that’s surprised you about being the Chairman and Investor-Operator of a Major League Soccer club?
"I have high expectations for where I want the Columbus Crew to go. I guess one of the surprises or learnings from the past year is that things take time. It’s a people business. Getting people organized and excited around a new vision takes time. The results on the field take time. The results of our business take time to improve. We’re working extremely hard. There’s a lot of things that are going on behind the scenes to position the club to become stronger. I’m really optimistic about the future, but it’s taking more time than I initially thought."
You touched on building a first-class player experience and a player environment within the organization. That’s something that Gregg has been vocal about as well in his first season with the club. What does it mean to you to create a unique player experience and a compelling environment for potential new players?
"I’m so proud of the advancements that have been made on the technical side of our club. Gregg and Asher [Mendelsohn] bring a level of professionalism that I welcome. I think you’ll see it in visiting Obetz, you’ll see it in visiting our locker room, you’ll see it in how our training sessions are run — we want to be a professional organization. We’re a Major League team. In recruiting players to Columbus, that’s one of our big selling points. They’re going to have exposure to a world-class coaching staff from Gregg to Asher to Pat [Onstad], Josh [Wolff] and Robert [Maaskant] — they all bring professionalism on a daily basis. That’s what players want. They want to come to an environment where they’re comfortable, they have access to get training, nutrition and coaching, and they live in a community that has a wonderful quality of life. They can hopefully come and win some games and championships. That’s what we’re trying to offer in Columbus."
We know you can’t talk specifics as a lot of conversations are ongoing, but what has excited you so far about your first crack at the summer transfer window?
"First of all, it’s a really exciting time for the League. There’s world-class talent coming back to the U.S. and Major League Soccer. As a League investor, I’m very proud of that. Locally, I’ll tell you we are working diligently every day. It’s been thrilling and it’s been exhausting. I’m learning that things take time to do it right. I’ll tell you that for better or for worse, we’re trying to under-promise and over-deliver. We’re working tirelessly behind the scenes and not be so public in our pursuits of some quality players out there. I know the fans want to hear more from us, and we soon hope to have some exciting information for them, but we do have some really encouraging things in the hopper."
The technical staff has been methodical about building this team piece-by-piece to achieve consistent success. Obviously all of those pieces can’t be acquired in one transfer window. What is it like working behind the scenes with Gregg and his staff to build the club brick-by-brick?
"It feels right. It feels authentic. It feels organic. We talk a lot about continuous improvement. Working with Gregg, that’s what it’s about. It’s every day, ‘how do we get better?’ We reassess everything almost every day. We’re striving to get better every day. Moving forward as a club, Gregg has brought in some really valuable pieces, starting with Steve Clark, who has been a tremendous addition. Giancarlo [Gonzalez], Waylon [Francis], Michael Parkhurst, Hector Jimenez — we’ve brought some nice pieces in to complement some existing pieces that we had that we’re really exciting about. We’re right now in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. The table is moving around a lot. We like how the schedule is setting-up for the second half of the year. Everyone struggled throughout that 15-game stretch, but let’s remind ourselves that for a large period of that time we weren’t playing with Giancarlo Gonzalez, Waylon Francis, Michael Parkhurst, Wil Trapp, Federico Higuain, Josh Williams — we dealt with a number of injuries. We’re coming together, we’re healthy, our pieces are back. We’re trying to be active in the transfer window here to improve the team. I’m confident in our future."
How have you seen Gregg Berhalter evolve over his first half-season on the job?
"I think he’s finding his stride. His staff has come together really well. I think the players are getting into a rhythm now. Obviously, we’ve started a number of different players and different formations. It’s been somewhat of a disruptive first half, but that disruption brings us together and makes us stronger. It makes us believe that we can go through adversity together. As the roster and the starting eleven comes together post-World Cup, transfer window and injuries, I think people will have confidence that they’ve been through some adversity. Gregg, as a coach, will have confidence that he’s led through adversity. Gregg is just finding his stride — not that he hadn’t had it at the beginning. Not unlike [Sporting Kansas City manager] Peter Vermes, it took him two or three years to really see true accomplishment on the field. I hope that we see it sooner."
The soccer operations side of the organization is growing in all the areas you’ve described. How is the search for the club’s next executive leader on the business side going?
"I’m pleased with where we are in that process. It’s been an expansive search, and we’re in the final stages right now. We should have something to announce publicly very soon. I might add that the title will be President of Business Operations, and the role will report to me and Dave Greeley from Precourt Sports Ventures. Gregg Berhalter, as Sporting Director, has full authority to manage our soccer operations and will continue to report to me."
You’re an owner that is hands-on, engaged and has a direct line to the fans through social media and other avenues. What have you learned about the Crew fanbase over the past year?
"They’re extremely passionate. They care. The feedback that we get on Twitter is noticed and appreciated. As we evolve our brand, we want to be a community that celebrates soccer and celebrates Columbus. The fans are the biggest part of that equation. We couldn’t do it without them. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with the fans, whether it was our first pub crawl tour or walking around the stadium at games to interacting with them on social media or seeing them around town. They’re full of great ideas and I welcome those ideas."
What’s it like being the owner, generally speaking, of a professional sports team, particularly one in a league that’s on the rise like MLS?
"It’s probably my greatest honor to date professionally. I have enjoyed it to the ‘nth’ degree. I’m proud to be a part of Major League Soccer and to represent the Columbus Crew at Board of Governors meetings. It’s an accomplished group, an entrepreneurial group — I’ve learned so much from my partners. I believe that we have an ownership group that’s going to take this League to the next level. I’m convinced of that and the future looks extremely bright."
You’ve sampled a lot of Columbus over the past year. What have you come to like most about the city? Do you have any favorite destination spots?
"I’m an urban person. I kind of hang around German Village, Short North and the Arena District, personally. I have a number of little restaurants that I love and pubs that I like to stop in and visit. That’s where I’m enjoying Columbus."
The Crew’s brand evolution is something that has been discussed for some time and is on the horizon now. What can you share about the brand identity at this time?
"I’m very passionate about our brand evolution. I think it’s going to be an exciting time next year, the 20th year for our club in the city of Columbus and the 20th year in Major League Soccer as a Charter Member. I look forward to lots of celebrations around our new brand in our 20th season. The brand itself, I think we are looking to introduce it to the community in October. We’re putting together a major celebration with details forthcoming in the next several weeks."