A groundswell of local fan fervor helped to save the Columbus Crew and keep the club in the city. Now, with a new stadium on the horizon, the Crew are focused on creating a fan experience in its new home that is worthy of that support.
To aid in that process, the Crew have signed a partnership with IBM Services to help create a roadmap for the club to follow as it looks to create a unique and engaging environment for fans in the new stadium.
“When people talk about what is really going to change with a new stadium, a lot of the focus is on location, on being downtown and being on the river,” said Columbus Crew President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko. “All of those are key components, but that’s only half of what is going to transform the fan experience – the rest is how exactly you experience the team and the match inside the stadium.”
That’s where IBM Services will come in. It started with doing a fan survey and research project, collecting information not only on what fans say they want in the stadium, but also providing the Crew with more insight on both current and potential fans in the region. Those data points will help the Crew and its ownership group outline exactly how it can deliver a top-class experience in the new stadium.
Secondly, the partnership will also help the Crew determine the technology that will be used in the stadium, and how it can best be utilized to improve the fan experience. That will also include a strategy around how to use technology to draw fans on non-Crew matchdays to the stadium, whether that is around other events at the stadium or to the broader mixed-use development around it.
“I think this will be a welcomed new approach in the eyes of Crew fans,” said Shannon Miller, IBM’s iX customer engagement and design practice lead. “This is a new ownership group that is paying attention to fans and heavily focusing on creating a fan-first stadium.”
IBM has found a niche in MLS in recent years helping the league’s clubs make their stadiums “future flexible,” Miller said. Other clients include LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium and Atlanta United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which also houses the Falcons. IBM is also the digital reinvention partner for The Masters, Wimbledon and US Open Tennis Championships, and helped FIFA create a highlight machine platform in 2018.
“We tell all of our partners that you have to start designing for an amazing fan experience as soon as possible,” Miller said. “As you’re building a new venue, that means you do it before you break ground – when it comes to planning technology and infrastructure, once you start pouring concrete it’s hard to plan that.”
While it has still yet to be decided how exactly technology will be integrated into the Crew’s new stadium, Miller pointed to past projects where IBM Services’ work with teams and organizations has led to things like AI in the stadium and in apps, the usage of digital boards in key points in the stadium to provide more information as well as other ways technology can be used to elevate the fan experience ranging from food and beverage to merchandise.
The new Crew stadium, expected to be completed in 2021, is currently projected to be around 20,000 seats which would include 30 suites and 1,900 club seats. It is estimated to cost $249 million.
The Crew currently play at Mapfre Stadium, which was the first soccer-specific stadium built for MLS when it opened in 1999. Columbus has struggled to draw fans in recent years, partially due to the aging stadium. This season through 11 home matches,, the Crew are averaging 13,463 fans per game. While that is well below full capacity for the 19,968-seat stadium, it is up 8.2% from last season, when the team averaged 12,447 fans per game.
Bezbatchenko said the club is aiming to break ground on the site in October, opening a sales and experience center that utilizes technology to help fans visualize what this new stadium will look like not long after. He said the club is currently aiming to open the stadium in July 2021.
“As we move forward as a club, we are putting the community first in everything we do,” Bezbatchenko said. “We want the stadium to provide an elevated experience and to be a place that is built around and for this community – I think our fans don’t even know what they’re missing out on, and we can’t wait to deliver that for them.”