New Crew President Tim Bezbatchenko is a Westerville native whose family has been Crew season ticket members since 1996. After building an MLS Cup champion in Toronto, “Bez” has returned home to oversee the rejuvenation of his beloved Crew under committed local ownership.
What follows, in Q &A format, are some highlights from our conversation at media day. It started with some of my usual #SavedTheCrew series of questions, but obviously the answers were a little different coming from the man tasked by ownership to lead the reinvigorated organization into this exciting new era.
As this whole thing unfolded, you were obviously in Toronto, but you probably heard a lot about it from your family. So what was it like for you to watch what was happening as someone who grew up a Crew fan and to think that the Crew may not be here?
It was really depressing to think about a club that was not just an original member, but the first charter member of the league in 1996 was going to be ripped from the community. At the same time, given that my family has been season ticket members since game one in 1996, you saw at times there wasn’t commitment from the community. So in some ways, you understood a little bit, and it was unfortunate, but then you also knew that if you had the right ownership in place and the right vision from them and that they were going to engage with the community and the city, you knew it would work in this city. We all knew.
So what was amazing for me to watch from the outside was to see Dr. Pete Edwards and Alex Fischer from the Columbus Partnership and the #SaveTheCrew members and the former players all step up and be active to show that the Crew belongs in Columbus and that Columbus cares about the team. That, for me, was integral to why I even considered coming back. And that was before they even put in a call. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking, “Hey, if this actually happens, wouldn’t it be great to be a part of it?”
And then I saw what they did, where the #SaveTheCrew members set up a leadership group that met every Monday night, and I’m like, “I have to be part of it.” So it’s really incredible and people are stepping up now in the community, and that’s maybe something that didn’t happen before for so many reasons, including that the league for the first 15-20 years was still trying to find its form and was still gaining an identity in the global soccer marketplace.
Normally this is where I ask people about their reaction to the Crew being 100% officially saved, but in this case, you’re coming at a different angle because you’re part of it. When did you get looped into this and get involved with Dr. Pete and the Haslams?
It wasn’t until early December. I was actually on a scouting trip in Mexico watching the Liga MX playoffs when I caught word that there was maybe some interest from the ownership group in bringing me on board. I spoke to our president up in Toronto, Bill Manning, who has been a great mentor of mine, and we sat down and spoke about the opportunity and what situation would need to happen for me to be able to go to Columbus. So then I was able to speak to J.W. Johnson, Jimmy & Dee, Pete, and Jim Smith. We all went and had a nice dinner and at one point you could just tell that they had the right vision and that they were committed in a way that had never happened before in Columbus.
When we talk about those relationships and commitments from the fans and businesses of Columbus, is that something you felt you bring to the table as a Columbus native?
I hope so, but I’m still learning. The city has grown and changed so much. I’m from here, which is important because I do understand the values and the Columbus way, but the city has reached new levels in the last ten years.
I really just want to spend a lot of time listening. That’s my theme for the next six months. I want to talk to our alumni and just listen. I want to speak to fans and listen to what they want, including at the new stadium. I want to speak to the local businesses, large and small, to listen to what they want out of this club. I’m not going to pretend to know everything about Columbus just because I grew up here. That’s not how it works. I’m just excited because I feel like I at least understand where we’re coming from when people say things about Columbus and the pride that we have and how we want to be treated as people.
You and the new organization have had to hit the ground running. You’ve literally had two months from the ownership transition to the start of the new season. What’s that been like?
Crazy! Eight months of work in two months’ time! It’s been insane. It’s so fun to work with the incredibly passionate people who stayed back. I’m so thankful for them because not everybody stayed. Some people left with the former ownership, so the last eight weeks have been nothing but pure insanity. I have to thank a lot of people from the Cleveland Browns. Dave Jenkins, the COO of the Browns, and their whole executive team have stepped in and have been making the trek daily going back and forth from Cleveland. It’s been a collaborative effort, and Pete Edwards and Jim Smith have stepped in to provide vision and guidance, so we’ve done a lot in very little time, but we have a lot more to do.
What fans are going to experience on Saturday is not the finished product. It’s not going to be perfect, but we’ve made improvements on parking and concessions, but it’s not finished. We know that and we’ve got a lot of work to do.
There’s not a bad seat in the house (at MAPFRE Stadium.) In spite of people saying we need to move into a new stadium in order to give our fans a new and different experience, it’s still a great stadium. It just needs some improvements. It just needs a little TLC, which we’re going to give it.
Were you as blown away as I was by the plans to keep MAPFRE Stadium as part of the new training facility and sports park so as to preserve that landmark?
Absolutely. It’s a very unique way or approaching community development and using a historic venue as a foundation for something that can be used to give back to the community and to grow the game and encourage kids to live an active lifestyle. Again, that’s another reason I wanted to come back. Toronto built their training facility five years ago, and for the Crew to reach the next level, it’s going to need a top-class training facility. We had the first one in the league down in Obetz, and it’s still a great facility, but what can you do with this mixed space with CSP (Community Sports Park) and MAPFRE Stadium? It’s going to be fantastic.
And finally, what would you say to the fans of the #SaveTheCrew movement?
Thank you! And now we need them to help drive the club forward. We want their ideas because that’s what’s going to help take us to the next level. It’s not done. The work is not done. It’s only beginning now.
A MASSIVE SEASON is now available as an ebook.