Months before the fatigue and frustration that came with a “will they or won’t they” relocation process, there was shock, fear and anger among Crew SC front-office staff members who did not see it coming.
Those emotions linger still.
At 10:51 p.m. on Oct. 16, 2017, Sports Illustrated reporter Grant Wahl sent out the initial tweet reporting Crew investor-operator Anthony Precourt’s intention to explore the possibility of relocating to Austin, Texas, after the 2018 season.
“At first I didn’t think it was real,” one former employee said. “It felt like a bomb was dropped on me.”
Added a current Crew staff member: “It was, no question, a shock. It’s just not something you expect to happen.”
The Monday night gut punch, followed by the ownership group’s formal announcement at 9 a.m. the next day, set off a 10-month saga that has included a handful of contentious Austin City Council meetings, a lawsuit from Ohio and Columbus, and Precourt Sports Ventures’ pursuit of a stadium solution in Austin.
Through the twists and turns of legal motions, changed stadium locations and Austin City Council votes, the team’s front-office employees have shown up to work each day with as many answers regarding the team’s future as the general public. For months they have been instructed to operate “business as usual” while managing the burden of unanswered questions and unknown job security.
The Dispatch spoke with seven people employed by the team at the time of the announcement and in the months that followed, some of whom have since left the organization. The current and former employees were granted anonymity so that they could freely discuss their experiences. The employees detailed a work environment in which people have tried to make the best of their situations but have struggled with low morale, few answers and outside accusations that their silence is indicative of being complicit with relocation efforts.
“I kind of feel like a college senior again,” one current staffer said. “There’s an establishment in your career and you’re kind of moving along and then all of a sudden there’s this big unknown: ‘Where am I going to end up? What’s going to happen?'”
Crew employees left work Oct. 16 knowing a regularly scheduled staff meeting was set for the following morning. There were multiple opportunities during the day for a heads-up, a former employee said.
“And we weren’t told anything,” the person said. “There was no advance notice.”
After the potential move became public, Crew president of business operations Andy Loughnane moved up the meeting time to the start of the Oct. 17 work day. He asked that employees not speak with media members.
Multiple people present for the meeting confirmed that Loughnane spoke, followed by PSV President Dave Greeley, who answered staff questions. Their message served to backpedal some from the narrative that had been delivered in multiple reports by Columbus Partnership CEO Alex Fischer the previous evening indicating the city and business community were blindsided by PSV’s plans.
Employees were informed that the city and Fischer had been delivered data from the Barrett Sports Group stadium survey conducted in late 2016. The subject of three potential Columbus stadium sites researched by PSV also came up.
“Greeley was obviously upset from the remarks from Fischer about PSV’s lack of engagement with city officials and investors,” said an employee who was at the meeting. “I felt worse after hearing Dave Greeley. He had a negative view of Columbus. I could tell right there that if Austin was even a small option, they would be out of here.”
According to multiple people, Greeley addressed ownership’s desire to build one of the best products in MLS, both in its infrastructure and on-field competitiveness.
One meeting attendee called the message “hollow.”
“You’re talking to staff … not to the first team and the technical staff,” the person said. “It was just the most heartless and cold conversation that I’ve ever professionally been a part of. There was no empathy for people whose entire lives had been this team and working for this club.”
The talk was also not, multiple staffers said, a definitive declaration of ownership’s plans one way or the other. PSV was exploring its options and employees were expected to do their jobs until further notice.
“It was almost like, ‘That’s really how they’re going to address it? Like it’s no big deal and like nothing’s changing?'” one employee said. “The mood in the office was this one of, ‘Is it real? Is it not real? Is it gonna happen? Is it not gonna happen?’ Just a lot of questions.”
‘Business as usual’
A common refrain for Crew players and coach Gregg Berhalter this season when asked about the team’s potential relocation is that they are able to stay focused because the decision on whether to move is out of their hands.
A lack of control also is true for regular front-office employees, but they didn’t choose the life of a professional soccer player, in which high turnover and sudden departures are more normal than in other professions.
Three players on the Crew’s roster are from Ohio. The percentage is much higher within the front office. Many employees grew up and went to college in-state. Some moved to Columbus with the idea of building a future — buying a house and starting a family.
“Half of the employees that are here are from here or raised here or not too many of them are coming from outside (of Ohio) to do this, so this affects them,” a current employee said. “A lot of these kids are out of college and they couldn’t wait to do this. This is what they wanted to do for their lives.”
One former employee called working for the Crew “a dream job,” but one that became complicated after the announcement.
“Just going to the stadium every day and eating lunch on the patio overlooking the field, every part of it was a dream job,” the former employee said. “Looking back on it, I feel like I was really naive. I’ve never been cheated on, but that’s the best equivalent I can come up with.”
The bulk of the staff’s information on the potential move, multiple current and former employees said, has been delivered via Twitter updates and media reports.
“Any communication internally was always, it’s business as usual, business as usual, business as usual,” another former employee said.
Loughnane delivered that message last month after Crew employees learned of PSV’s “Austin FC” branding for its potential Austin team at the same time as the general public. Loughnane said in an interview this week that it is difficult to provide a comforting response to a question that has no known answer.
“It’s very understandable that each of us on staff look forward to a swift conclusion in the near term,” he said. “The strength and resolve of our colleagues has been both commendable and remarkable during a period where questions with no known answers remain unanswerable, and during a period where staff are subjected to unwarranted harassments and false accusations.”
One employee described conversations of the potential move among employees as “walking on eggshells” with so many unknowns, especially early on.
“You didn’t know who was a part of that circle of people that were working on things for Austin and who wasn’t,” the person said. “As everybody kind of figured out who was who or what side they chose, then the conversations became much easier.”
As one might expect, Crew employees don’t have a green light on social media to identify with the “Save the Crew” campaign. Because of that, some outsiders concluded the whole staff was involved in and even supported the relocation process. Some opponents of relocation improperly took out their frustrations, Loughnane said.
“On behalf of our club, I want to express our sincere sadness for the pain that is affecting who have chosen to vandalize our homes, those who have chosen to threaten us over the phone or on social media and those who have chosen to manufacture lies or propagate misleading statements about anyone affiliated with our club,” Loughnane said.
“What is certain is that our staff and for that matter many of our former staff who have since moved on continue to perform courageously and professionally during a very difficult period and we remain proud of their accomplishments.”
One employee, asked what they hope fans and outsiders would understand about their situation, said it’s “really hard” and that quitting is easier said than done, especially with mortgages, cars and student loans to pay off and families to take care of.
“We had invested so much of our heart and time into the club to just walk away from it all at a drop of a hat,” the employee said.
Said another: “I feel terrible and at times I feel sorry for myself, but that ain’t gonna pay the bills.”
An offer to stay
Amid the uncertainty surrounding PSV’s potential move to Austin, some Crew employees have been offered incentive in the form of a one-time bonus to stay for the rest of the year.
The exact number of bonuses offered is not known, nor is the average total offered.
One employee who was offered $10,000 described walking into a room with two senior staff members and being told discussing the offer with other employees or even direct supervisors would result in the offer being removed.
The bonus presented a dilemma, according to multiple employees. A large check meant there was a little extra cushion or some reason to stay. It did not, however, guarantee a job with the team in 2019 should it move to Austin.
“It was a way to get them through the current season and had no effect on my future with the company,” one person familiar with the bonuses said.
Another employee saw the bonus as its potential worst-case scenario: two to three months of unemployment after a dismissal in early 2019.
“I would rather have the full-time job,” the employee said. “Anybody’s gonna say, ‘Oh, that’s cool, I’m pumped about that (bonus),’ but when you really dive into it and think about it, it’s a poisoned chalice.”
One former employee said a hope for current employees is that they use the remaining months of the season to try to better their respective situations.
“You get a chance to look for a job while you’re getting paid and I hope they see that and that they’re not too blinded by optimism,” the former employee said. “I would hate to see those people in a bad place.”
Out of sight
Several of the current and former staffers said Precourt has not addressed the full Crew front office in person since October but that he has addressed front-office staff in the form of written communication sent to employees.
Greeley helped conduct the Oct. 17 meeting and visited Mapfre Stadium for meetings in early January, and Loughnane has handled staff updates and interactions. Precourt’s last public appearance in Columbus was Oct. 31, 2017, for the Crew’s Eastern Conference semifinal home leg against New York City FC.
For some employees, being in the same room as Precourt goes as far back as the 2016 office holiday party.
Since late June, when PSV’s pursuit of a term sheet for a stadium in Austin began to heat up, Precourt has been seen at three Austin City Council meetings.
“It’s tough when you’re working in an organization and you’re putting your time, energy and effort into it and you believe in what it is and then the person that’s running the organization is spending their time and energy somewhere else,” a former employee said.
Relocations happen periodically in sports, but no organization would wish the Crew front office’s situation on its own employees, one current staffer speculated, “And if they do, that’s a shame.”
Said another current employee: “We have just been brushed aside.”
(c)2018 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
Visit The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio) at www.dispatch.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.