Q&A: Crew President of Business Operations Andy Loughnane

Photo Credit: 
Greg Bartram

Although Andy Loughnane has had just three full days in the office, the freshly appointed Crew President of Business Operations has already delved deep into his newfound role as he shepherds the organization into a new era under Precourt Sports Ventures. A sports industry veteran with experience at the Columbus Blue Jackets, Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Pistons, as well as other non-sports entities such as Columbus-based Glimcher Realty Trust, Loughnane sat down with TheCrew.com to discuss his first impressions of life with the Black & Gold and what he envisions for the future.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us this morning, Andy. Now that you've had a few days on the job, what are your immediate impressions of the Columbus Crew?

"It didn’t take long to recognize that we have an impressive, welcoming and hard-working staff. A large number of staff members have proactively stopped by, and I love the enthusiasm and approachability of this group. Our intention is to operate a collaborative and innovative workplace, and at first glance, we have the ingredients here on-staff. Although I wouldn’t have been surprised or disappointed if our staff didn’t stop by my office to share their perspective on the business, I would have felt like there was a missed opportunity for us to learn more about each other, and the great news is that there has been really healthy dialogue in a short amount of time. And I hope there’s a lot more to come.”

Has anything surprised you so far? Maybe something you didn't expect?

“My intention was to quickly spend time with the leadership team on the staff and be inquisitive and listen. It has been refreshing how quickly the senior staff has worked to integrate me into important decisions facing the business and carefully listen to my perspective. We've aggressively rolled-up our sleeves inside of the first two days and uncovered opportunities for growth and improvement. But just as importantly, we’ve spent time assessing what’s working well. So if there has been a pleasant surprise, it is how well-prepared the group was to share.”

What were your focuses over the first few days on the job?

"First and foremost, I wanted to immediately integrate and assimilate with the staff. I want for us to focus on working collaboratively to improve our capacity to serve more fans, serve more partners and certainly serve our soccer operations team. The fact that Gregg [Berhalter] and I can work well together is an important step for this franchise to take and it will undoubtedly help accelerate the growth of our club.

I want to make this not just a better place to work, but the best place to work in professional sports. And that doesn’t happen overnight but we will make it a goal. Part of my first few days in-seat has been attempting to understand where we're at and where we want to go. I'll give you an example: one thing that I noticed from an employee engagement perspective is that there aren't a plethora of food options within a very short drive. To help improve operational efficiency, collaboration and employee engagement, we should at least consider our options to offer limited food service here on site. It could be an opportunity to have our staff eat a healthy lunch, sit down with their peers, and develop a conversation that could advance the business. That's a very modest example of a potential quick improvement that could be evaluated to improve our working campus.

And it is hard to do inside of your first few days, but I want to quickly focus on making key introductions to our fans, our partners and of course our political allies. As I have said a few times across the last few days, that is an important objective because we need to demonstrate, with a great amount of humility, that we are ready to listen and ready to act."

You've mentioned the importance of being inquisitive and introspective as you assimilate into the job. What kinds of things have you been inquisitive about and what is on your priority list for the near future?

"How we serve our fans, how we serve our partners and how we serve Gregg. I absolutely want want to understand the culture of our office so, again, we can help this be more than a better place to work; I want this to be the best place to work. I want the Crew to be a talent magnet for young sports professionals who are starting their careers. The biggest priorities right now are strengthening our family-like and professional environment among our staff, enhancing the profile of our brand and players in the community, insuring that our content has broad distribution, and actively engage business leaders about big picture initiatives. Certainly our upcoming rebrand is the first order of business, and I can tease that in October our supporters, fans and partners will have a chance to get their first look at our new brand.”

How have your previous career stops, sports or otherwise, shaped your philosophies?

"I’ve carefully absorbed best practices from my previous roles and what I can share is that I’m not too proud to admit that some of my approaches come right out the playbooks of managers that I have previously served under. I have definitely adopted leadership approaches, selling approaches and marketing approaches from my mentors, and I have assembled what I believe are the best ways to treat people well and move a business forward. While there are revenue expectations that we intend to surpass eventually, this is a relationship business, and if we fail to treat people well, we will undermine our ability to be relevant. I look forward to strengthening the relationship aspects of our business. But again, this does not happen overnight and it cannot be demanded. It must be earned."

What attributes from your non-sports background have you combined with your sports industry experience to aid with your current role?

"While I am very proud of my sports accomplishments, I am equally as proud of my non-sports background. I have had the privilege of working for some very smart and innovative companies, in particular Corporate Executive Board. CEB has an impressive array of insights into sales strategy and if there’s a point of distinction that I’m particularly proud of, it would be the time I spent learning commercial strategy at CEB. Even though I only spent a short amount of time there, I felt like I earned an advanced degree in business savvy. I was also lucky enough to satisfy my entrepreneurial appetite by launching a small business in 2008, which incidentally was a tough time to think about capitalizing a new business. Thankfully, it worked well, and along the way I realized that innovation and well-calculated risks can lead to success. I think my entrepreneurial spirit was part of the reason why Precourt Sports Ventures felt I was a good candidate to assume this important role.”

Are there any best practices initiatives that you think can transfer over to MLS from your NBA and NHL background?

"The NBA formed an internal resource for the NBA teams called Team Marketing Business Operations, or TMBO for short. TMBO was revolutionary when it was first created, and essentially TMBO collects best sales and marketing practices from the member clubs and shares them with the rest of the league. For example, TMBO might uncover a great story about a small-market team successfully selling season tickets despite not having a winning team on the court. They would then perform detailed research and develop a case study to share with other teams that may fall inside of the same scenario in their own local market. The same can be said for sponsorship and marketing, and it has certainly helped drive revenues across NBA teams. Not surprisingly, MLS has a club services equivalent to help uncover great case studies, and I intend to use them as a resource and encourage my staff to use them as a resource.”

You've mentioned that you intend to take a hands-on role. What kinds of ideas would you like to integrate?

"I intend to become an evangelist for our brand and our sport. I want to engage fans and potential fans as frequently as I can, whether it be in the media, at a Chamber of Commerce event, a local community event, fundraisers – I want to be very active in helping share the benefits of working with the Crew, the benefits of soccer and the upside of investing with MLS. I intend to be actively involved in major sales initiatives such as naming rights and corporate partnerships. I will initially find myself spending a fair amount of time in that space not only because I am passionate about that side of our business, but also because I believe we have a compelling story to share with leaders in this community. If the soles on my shoes are not worn down at the end of each week, I have not done my job."

Do you anticipate a relationship with the other sports entities in town?

"I am very interested in working alongside the other sports organizations here in Columbus. Even though it is absolutely fair to say that Ohio State, the Blue Jackets, the Clippers and the Machine are classified as competition, I hope that my counterparts at those organizations share my sentiment to work cooperatively together to help bolster Columbus. I had coffee the other day with Frankie [Hejduk] and he told me a great story about working with Jody Shelley on finding a way to integrate the Blue Jacket brand with the Crew brand during the Blue Jackets’ playoff run last year, and I can tell you that I would love to see more of that in both directions. Thankfully I have longstanding friendships with many executives at Nationwide [Arena] and I think they share my vision to work together on growing Columbus’ profile."

What would you say is your proudest career moment to date?

"My proudest moment, up until working for the Crew, was my experience launching the Blue Jackets. There are three things that I think anyone would want to accomplish in sports. The first is working for a championship-caliber team that wins titles. Luckily, out of college at Miami University, I was able to work for the Detroit Red Wings, who won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Numbers two and three tend to go together. You would love to be able to open a new building, arena or stadium, and you'd love to be able to launch a new franchise. The opportunity to launch a major professional sports franchise like the Crew or the Blue Jackets does not come along very often. It’s interesting, because the expansion era in the other four professional sports is largely behind us. We’ll see a few relocations and we may see a little bit of expansion, but the MLS is a new frontier for expansion. The opening of the Jackets and the arena created such camaraderie and such energy. I think we literally worked 24-hour days, many days a week, and I'm not kidding. We worked around the clock and struck many friendships. I think about the time the first season ticket holder picked his location in the building – that's a silly example, but it just comes to mind immediately. There are very few moments in a team's illustrious history where you can say 'I watched the very first season ticket holder put a pin on his or her seat. I watched the very first free agent signing in person. I watched the very first draft.' It delivers me goose-bumps to think about that period in my life and how hard we all worked to pull together what is today a very strong franchise."

How similar is what the Crew is about to do in terms of a brand evolution to launching a new franchise?

"I've launched business units inside of public companies. I've started a company. I worked for the Blue Jackets. Most recently, in Detroit with the Pistons, I worked on what I think we can all agree is a turnaround project. That experience is likely why Anthony [Precourt], Dave [Greeley] and Precourt Sports Ventures identified me as a candidate, because I've worked in projects that require a little bit more brain power and team-building than just simply watching a franchise play itself out on autopilot. I don't want to diminish the fact that maybe everything here is running smoothly. I want to presume innocence, not guilt. But it is fair to say that there aspects of our business that need strengthening and I intend to help jumpstart our evolution into a new brand and a championship-caliber team. My experience in helping businesses create new processes, energy, enthusiasm and relationships while respecting the heritage of the franchise is something that I'm adept at, given my past background."

What about the recent success and momentum of soccer in the United States excites you?

"This is one of the reasons why this job was so compelling. This sport is clearly on a meteoric rise. That is very exciting. If we think about average attendance in the three sports that I've worked in now – NHL, NBA and MLS – I am guessing that many people would be surprised to realize that MLS has the highest average in-game attendance among those three sports. That in and of itself is a pretty indicative story of the trend-lines. We think about where this sport is headed with our national media partners – deals with FOX, ESPN, Univision – this sport is set for long-term acceleration given those media vehicles. It's an exciting time to lead a club through this period of growth."

What were your impressions and feedback from Saturday's 4-1 win over the LA Galaxy?

"I have seen games in Crew Stadium before, but I have never seen this building sold-out. My impression was what an awesome crowd it was. I think Gregg would say that a sold-out crowd helps fuel the players. He’d tell you that it's an advantage to play at home and it's an advantage to have a full building. As I go back to one of my core objectives, it's to help us have more sellouts. More sellouts equals more passionate and better play, better play equals championship-caliber teams, and championship-caliber teams equal a strong legacy for this organization. For me, seeing a sold-out crowd was inspirational. Let's think about where we're at compared to other seasons. We have three sellouts this season, which we haven't seen in a long time. That speaks to some of these trend-lines, whether it's League-related or Columbus Crew-related – we are now seeing the growth of this sport play itself out. The Nordecke was loud; it was inspirational. Who wouldn't want to be a part of that environment? I loved seeing the post-match fireworks. A lot of people stuck around, so there was fan engagement post-match. The energy in the building was fantastic. It was a wonderful first game as an employee."

What would you want fans to know about you and what you bring to the team?

"I want to enhance the fan experience. I want to deliver more inside content. I want to deliver more unique experiences. I want to expand our distribution more broadly. I want to have more shoulder programming. I want us to become a fan-centric organization.”

How can your position and the role of President of Business Operations affect what happens on the field?

"One element is playing in full-stadiums and delivering Gregg sold-out crowds. Another is working with Gregg and Asher [Mendelsohn] on understanding their priorities, needs and how we can further serve them. Gregg and I intend to be joined at the hip. We are going to be collaborative and communicative. I can tell you that that is the progressive model in sports. Not every team breaks that wall down. We're going to break that wall down, and it's already started. I want to make sure that Gregg has every tool at his disposal for him to do his job better. That's my job."

Lastly, what's something about you that the fans might not yet know in terms of your life away from the office?

"I'm a lover of dogs. I have two of them right now. I love rescuing dogs; that's kind of a passion. I'm a fan of 'The Big Lebowski,' and my great-great-great-great grandfather was the Vice President of the United States. His name was John Cabell Breckinridge, and he ran in the Presidential Election against a guy named Abraham Lincoln. He lost." [laughs]