Modern, dynamic and intimidating: That’s how Columbus Crew President and General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko describes Lower.com Field, as the team preps for an opening on Saturday.
The move from Historic Crew Stadium (best known as MAPFRE Stadium) comes as part of a facilities makeover for Columbus Crew, which recently moved into a new training center, the OhioHealth Performance Center.
Discussions for the new stadium first began when the new ownership group committed to buying the team from Major League Soccer.
“Conversations began with the league office, the Haslems, and Pete Edwards in October of 2018,” Bezbatchenko said. “As part of acquiring a team in Major League Soccer, you have to commit to building a soccer-specific stadium. In early January 2019, that’s when myself and our head coach Caleb Porter were officially announced. That’s when the work began to decide where the site would be located and what the design would be.”
In the early days of MLS, he added, “MLS only had 10 teams and the Crew had the best facilities. Now, there are 27 and every team that came in built a new stadium. We’re catching up and will surpass those facilities.”
The team bought a plot of unused land not far from downtown and other sports venues.
“The new stadium is situated at the end of the Arena District,” said Whitney Haslam Johnson, Partner, Haslam Sports Group and Pilot Flying J Chief Experience Officer. “The hockey team and Minor League Baseball team are in the same district. As you drive through there, you go under a bridge and our stadium is basically on the Scioto River. It’s a cool location.”
The Intimidation Factor
The Crew broke ground on Lower.com Field on October 10, 2019 and construction continued throughout the pandemic.
“We didn’t have any significant delays and not including the training center, we had about 750 people on-site every day,” Bezbatchenko said. “The City of Columbus allowed it to continue as long as COVID-19 protocols were followed and construction was outside. The number of jobs this project provided for workers was integral to the recovery of our city.”
The project stayed on schedule as the ownership group, team, construction crews, and designers worked at a fast pace.
“There was a lot of collaboration, communication, and ability to make decisions fast,” said Gerardo Prado, Sports Practice Leader at HNTB. “A lot of people have worked overtime and long hours to make sure a stadium of this magnitude could be delivered on time.”
The stadium was designed and built with a unique color palate and design. Prado says the goal was to create something iconic.
“The colors are very dark and it’s very different compared to other stadiums around the world. We didn’t want it to be translucent or light in color because a lot of stadiums nowadays use that approach.”
Architectural details also added to the intimidation factor.
“There are lots of angles on the exterior façade and some are perforated. The structural system for the canopy is at an angle. Even the stadium lights are at an angle,” Prado said. “The features were able to enforce the brand and showcase movement and speed. The edges look really sharp and that’s what we wanted.”
Lower.com Field is also an intimate experience with fans as close to the pitch as Major League Soccer rules allow. The supporters’ section, or Nordecke, was also designed to create a wall of noise during games.
“The angle is incredibly steep in size. It’s 37 degrees, which is one of the steepest in MLS,” Prado said. “The canopy all the way around the facility is so close to the top of the seats and it traps some of the noise.”
The Lower.com Field seating bowl design is also unique.
“We wanted fans to have the experience where you can go up and down to the concourse, similar to ascending to the entry of a European church and coming back down.”
For The Fans
When it came to features in the new stadium, the ownership group and investors had one thing on their minds.
“We’re really excited about the new stadium because everything was centered around Columbus and our fans,” said Johnson. “We tried to make sure it was built in a way that supported how Columbus is growing and evolving.”
The team got feedback from the fans in various focus groups made up of season ticket holders and supporters.
“One of the most magical moments of the design process was sitting down with the focus groups. They gave us a lot of ideas on what to incorporate and you can tell they cared about each other,” said Director of Design Heather Mathias. “The supporters wanted to make sure that their location also allowed season ticket holders to enjoy the game. Then, season ticket holders would pitch ideas to enhance the supporters’ experience. It was very community-minded from the beginning. It really set the design team up for success.”
Both Johnson and Mathias said they wanted the fan experience to be as easy and frictionless as possible.
“We want fans to have a great experience and that word captures how we want people to move through the match,” Johnson said. “We want them to park easily, find their gate easily, go through security easily. Is it easy for them to find their seats? Can they find restrooms or where to buy pizza? We want them to enjoy the whole process instead of hitting moments of frustration.”
The team also focused on developing programming like Chalk Talks, with more information about teams, players, and the history of soccer.
“This gives fans a chance to learn more about the game and have a deeper understanding about what they’re watching,” Bezbatchenko said. “When there’s a full stadium and people don’t want to leave their seats, it definitely affects play on the field.”
That includes the Nordecke. A special system was put in place so supporters club can display tifos. These are giant flags, banners, and signs that can cover entire seating sections.
“That’s just one of the things that makes soccer so much fun,” said Johnson. “We implemented a rigging system to provide more flexibility for fans to show off their tifos. It creates a loud, exciting environment.”
“When we had early meetings with supporters, that was one of the main topics we discussed,” said Prado. “There’s nothing super unique about the rigging system except it can handle tifos that are 180-feet wide. It’s huge and can go from field level all the way up to the other side of the canopy.”
Group areas at Lower.com Field include a lounge, pub, several clubs, team shop and beer garden. Mathias says the goal was to make each space unique and special for different groups of fans.
“We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of different groups to see how they would want that space to look. For example, the Lower.com Lounge is intimate and is the most premium club so we used rich colors and textures. The East Field Club is about fun and celebration and young professionals having a good time. The West Concourse Club is designed to be a more refined, modern classic version of Columbus and has rich woods and bright subway tiles.”
Families are the focus of the Huntington Club. Players from both the home and visiting teams pass through the club to get to the pitch.
“There’s a custom LED light fixture in the center of the space and the colors are more punch,” Mathias said. “There’s also an infinity mirror with Crew in yellow and black near where the players come out.”
The beer garden features trees growing inside the stadium complete with twinkle lights and a shipping container which hosts different food options. The pub is set to be a new match-day location for soccer fans to watch games from around the world and it provides a unique viewpoint.
“The vision is for it to be a seven-day-a-week day pub that would stay up late and always play soccer matches from around the world,” Mathias said. “The walls are glass and they fold up into the ceiling to create an open-air environment. Plus the patio overlooks the sidewalk so you can watch the pageantry of people entering the match from above.”
Lower.com Field is part of the Astor Park complex, which also has an outdoor plaza already hosting special events.
“There’s plenty of places where we can pull up food trucks or have a concert. There’s also a digital screen and we’ve had plaza parties where fans can watch the game,” Johnson said. “We’re really excited about how this could be the centerpiece of the stadium district.”
Opening The Curtain
Lower.com Field opens on Saturday, but some fans have already gotten a sneak peek at the new facility.
“Some of our suite holders came through for a tasting and they didn’t know I was involved with this project,” Mathias said. “It was cool to hear their conversations like is this really our new space? Can you believe this is real? The fact they notice what we do and all the little details is very affirming.”
Even the people involved in the project are excited with how things turned out.
“When fans round the corner at the southeast entrance, they’ll be blown away. It’s a revealing of something that was completely unexpected. It’s like opening the curtain for a show,” Prado said. “I was walking with a member of the ownership group around the stadium. He said he thinks this is one of the best facilities in the country regardless of the sport including the NFL. Coming from an NFL executive, that’s high praise. This project has been special to us and we’ve been very appreciative by the trust placed in us to create something unlike any other.”
And for Bezbatchenko, it will be special to welcome the same fans who kept the Columbus Crew alive.
“This is something for our community to be proud of. Our fans saved this team. The ownership group wanted to move to Austin and the fans said no way. It’s important for us to give back to them and give them a contender they can be proud of.”
Top photo by Colin Peterman.