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Columbus Crew’s bland rebrand adds to a worrying trend in football

The MLS side's much-derided renaming as Columbus SC actively seeks to erase the club's history in pursuit of a more marketable product. The strategy is fundamentally flawed, writes JAMES NALTON

JUST months after being crowned Major League Soccer champions, the Columbus Crew are no more. At least not by that name.

Last week, club executives announced that they were officially changing the name from Columbus Crew SC to simply Columbus SC, and released a new logo containing no use of the word “Crew.”

The Crew would now be a nickname only. But in removing this identity from the official club name displayed on various media and documentation across the world, they are erasing a big part of their history and identity.

It’s the latest example of a growing trend in football that sees fans, tradition and a club’s character disregarded for the sake of supposed improvements to marketing and branding.

It’s also another example of a club, as a singular entity represented by the owners, going over the heads of the club as a collective — represented by fans and players.

Columbus Crew are one of the original MLS clubs and participated in the league’s inaugural season in 1996.

Of the 10 founding clubs, only New England Revolution retain their logo from that first season, and only four still bear their original team name.

Such a young league should not want to erase its history so readily, but that’s what MLS does on a regular basis.

Following the announcement of the name change, Columbus Crew supporters’ group the Nordecke released a statement.

“The Nordecke is deeply saddened by the decision to rebrand the club, in the process stripping it of its name and heritage,” it read. 

“The Crew has been the club’s name and heart since its inception, it has served our rallying cry when we had to save the team from relocation, and our unified cheer when we have seen victory.”

As will be familiar to football fans across the world, the Nordecke were not consulted ahead of a big decision that will affect them and the club they helped build, and to which they and the wider fan base helped give an identity.

Fans of clubs involved in Europe’s failed breakaway Super League, and indeed those whose clubs it might have affected, will empathise with such disregard for supporters that sees key decisions taken without them.

“We condemn these changes and, more importantly, the lack of transparency in this process, and urge the team to reconsider with meaningful input from the Crew community,” continued the Nordecke’s statement.

“In the meantime, we will continue to do what we always have: support the players, coaches, and community of Columbus Crew.”

Crew fans have taken a stand before, as alluded to in the Nordecke’s remarks about saving the club from relocation.

From 2017 to 2018, the Save The Crew movement rescued their very existence when then owner Anthony Precourt planned to relocate the “franchise” to Austin, Texas.

Without the subsequent fan backlash, campaigning and enthusiasm, there now wouldn’t be an MLS club in Columbus.

But thanks to that supporter movement, one still exists and heads into the 2021 season as defending MLS Cup champions.

The latest decision obviously wasn’t taken on a whim, and once the Columbus Crew were saved in 2018 there was a realisation that they did need to get their name out to a greater audience.

But if Columbus are looking to become more global, they should begin by building on one of the largest supporter-led movements seen in US soccer, one that itself went beyond American shores. 

Rather than erasing the word “Crew,” which played a big part in that movement, from their official club name, it should remain front and centre.

As US soccer broadcaster Jason Davis commented on Twitter: “Save The Crew was the most successful fan-led campaign in American sports history, full stop. That’s something you lean into, not away from.”

The official moniker was originally derived from a ship’s crew, a reference to Christopher Columbus after whom the city is named. But during the development of the new club’s identity in the mid-nineties, it came to represent an Ohioan working-class, blue-collar crew.

This is demonstrated most clearly on the original Columbus Crew badge, used from 1996 to 2014, which depicted three construction workers below “the Crew” name, with no reference to Columbus.

Over time, the Crew name took a different meaning. It became more associated with the club’s fan base and the teamwork of the players on the pitch. Save The Crew only increased its attachment to an identity provided by the supporters and players.

The Crew have changed their logo before. In 2014 they removed the construction workers from the club badge; replacing them with the club colours, a 96 to indicate their status as one of the originals, and the addition of the city name along with the word “Crew.”

The issue this time is the removal of Crew from the name on a new logo as a result of the renaming of the club to Columbus SC.

This name change is another demonstration of MLS branding becoming increasingly bland and monotonous. 

Once famous for its imaginative team names and quirky branding, soccer in the United States is now full of Uniteds, Citys and FCs.

That’s not to say that many of these clubs haven’t gone about things the right way — there are some very well-run clubs called City or United — but the variation across the board is gradually disappearing.

A reason often given for this is that US Soccer, and MLS in particular, is trying to attract a global audience, so they are looking to make their names more European.

The last expansion club not named United, City, or plain FC (or SC) were Montreal Impact, who joined the league in 2012. This year, the Impact themselves rebranded and dropped their original name.

This was met with a backlash from Impact fans who wanted to keep the original name but, despite this, the club go into 2021 as CF Montreal, complete with new logo.

Expansion sides post-Montreal include Orlando City, Atlanta United, Minnesota United, Los Angeles FC, and Inter Miami — all attempts to Europeanise the league at the expense of US soccer’s own unique history and character.

It’s a mistake to think that this is the way to go, and even in other regions around the world of football it’s not always the case that a club needs a big or generic name in order to gain popularity.

There is no association football club called London, for example, and many of the most well-known and well-supported clubs around the world such as Ajax, Flamengo, Celtic, Everton, and Boca Juniors are unique names or named after smaller districts within a big city.

The same could be said of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, who have built their reputation not on the name of a big city, but on the way they are run and their fan base.

Even clubs like Arsenal, named after the original armaments factory team, and Juventus, formed by teenagers who used the Latin name for “youth” for their team, carry no locational identity, but are two of the biggest names in world football.

Speaking of Juventus, they are also a club that removed part of their history to accommodate a marketing strategy. They ditched their famous black-and-white stripes, borrowed from Notts County, so their shirts looked less like American referee uniforms in order to encourage shirt sales in the US.

So this isn’t limited to American and Canadian teams. Many clubs need to somehow justify their shiny new marketing departments with action, even if such action is unnecessary and erases rich histories. Histories and stories which themselves are much better at creating an identity or branding than a new logo, kit design, or club name.

This said, it’s probably wise for new clubs in the United States to build an identity based around a city or region given the popularity of their big cities across the globe. But beyond that, they should look more towards the history and constitution of their clubs rather than resetting such things every decade or so. 

Just as North American association football discourse defends the use of the word soccer, and rightly so, it should defend an identity that produces team names such as Crew, Impact, Timbers, Rapids, Revolution, and Galaxy.

Columbus Crew’s rebrand seems counter-intuitive, especially given the club’s history and the strength of the Crew name on the back of Save The Crew and a 2020 MLS Cup win.

The retelling of these stories and successes, and in some cases even those that came before MLS, is more likely to attract a global audience than gradually deleting a club’s character until it becomes just another generic global brand.

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