Twenty years ago to the day, Crew Stadium opened its gates three miles north of Downtown Columbus along the banks of Interstate 71 and adjacent to the schoolhouse of a 19th-century model Ohio town.
A new stadium neighboring a Civil War-era display within the confines of New Deal-era construction on the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center; an interesting combination to say the least. But juxtapositions aside, it was a fitting event for the nature of the franchise – the first soccer-specific stadium in the country will now be home to the first charter member in Major League Soccer, but what would any worthwhile accomplishment be without trials and tribulations?
The first phase of the stadium’s construction began on August 14, 1998, and just over nine months to the day, an overflow crowd of 24,741 made their way to the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center to witness a process that took nearly five years to come to fruition.
Following the announcement of Columbus being award a franchise on June 15, 1994 and the naming of Lamar Hunt as the Investor-Operator of the Columbus franchise on June 8, 1995, the search for a permanent home began, and with it, a spectrum of expectations and concerns.
Among the concerning trends were two failed ballot initiatives – once in 1997 and another in 1998 – to build a publicly-financed home for the Crew.
After the dismissal of Issue 1, a Franklin County vote to raise taxes .5 percent for a downtown arena and stadium, and a failed Dublin City vote to provide a Northwest Suburban Columbus home, the Ohio Expositions Commission voted 6-2 to approve the form and content of a land lease to build a soccer-specific stadium on the grounds of the Ohio Expo Center on May 15, 1998.
That ultimately proved to be the tipping point. Following necessary approvals on the lease, the site, and the signing of the actual lease by Ohio Governor George Voinovich on June 9, 1998, the route was paved for the eventual construction of a 22,500-seat stadium on 15 acres of state fairgrounds as part of a deal that did not require public approval.
The first phase of the stadium’s construction itself began on August 14, 1998, and just over nine months to the day, an overflow crowd of 24,741 people would make their way to a stadium that, for as bare-bones as it seemed, had the privilege of calling itself entirely unique.
As for the look of the stadium, it was designed to be a confluence of European and American notions as agreed upon by the design company, NBBJ Architects, and the Investor-Operating group. On one hand, it would be a center for entertainment & close-to-the-action viewing, while on the other hand, a fan-friendly & versatile gathering environment.
The stadium’s 58,000 square-foot plaza was designed to host pre-match parties and musical acts and the 30 open-air club loges would provide comfortable seating, while the close fan proximity and angled lights would replicate the feel of Ulrich Haberland Stadium, the home of Bayer Leverkusen and the model for which a number of Crew Stadium’s features were based on.
The unveiling of the designs took place on July 8, 1998, and nearly three months later, the first piece of sod was laid at the stadium, with the entire field being installed in just over a week.
Meanwhile, during this process, Columbus’ team defeated D.C. United 4-2 on Oct. 18. 1998, marking the Crew’s last match at Ohio Stadium and snapping D.C.’s 13-match playoff win streak in the process. It was a remarkable way to end an era, as Brian McBride went on to capture the 1998 Goal of the Year while Thomas Dooley won the Fair Play Award. Additionally, both Dooley and Stern John earned spots on the MLS Best XI team.
All the while, the hype on the field paralleled the hype of the field, and with 11 scheduled openings of major league stadiums and arenas in 1999, the aura surrounding Crew Stadium wasn’t just intended to establish Columbus as a soccer town, but to further the promotion of Major League Soccer and the idea of building fandom – and albeit new revenue streams – with soccer-specific stadiums.
With much anticipation, the announcement of the stadium’s inaugural match took place on Dec. 1, 1998, and within five short months – and 500 tons of steel – the days of playing in the cavernous Ohio Stadium came to an end as the Crew christened the $28.5 million soccer-specific stadium with a 2-0 defeat over the New England Revolution on May 15, 1999.
As for the immediate response, Crew forward Jeff Cunningham described his feeling pre-, during, and post-match as being on cloud nine. Then-Crew head coach Tom Fitzgerald described it as “just an unbelievable day.”
Even Revolution player Joe-Max Moore described the atmosphere and tipped his cap to Lamar Hunt while teammate John Harkes said it was “a perfect atmosphere, like Europe.”
For a day that felt as much like the start of something special as it did the culmination, May 15, 1999 will always be remembered as the birthday of something uniquely “Columbus,” whether you were a Contractor or not.