At the end of last month, 12 cities officially applied for MLS expansion. One of those was Cincinnati. In 2016, FC Cincinnati burst onto the American soccer scene and shattered USL attendance records. Continuing that trend, the team recently announced the sale of over ten thousand season tickets in advance of the 2017 season. Big crowds and season ticket sales are good indicators of Cincinnati’s appetite for an MLS team, but is attendance enough? Does Cincinnati have what it takes beyond the numbers to earn a spot in American’s top division?
MLS Expansion Profile: Cincinnati
Ownership Group and Stadium Plan
Carl Lindner III leads a group of investors that owns FC Cincinnati and steers their bid for MLS expansion. Lindner III is the co-CEO of the American Financial Group and the son of one of Cincinnati’s most successful businessmen, the late Carl H. Lindner, Jr.
His father, who was worth an estimated $2.2B in 2006, helped build the family’s fortune by turning the family dairy business into a successful chain of convenience stores. The family parlayed that success into banking and insurance, founding the American Financial Group, a Fortune 500 company. The family has professional sports credentials as well. Carl Lindner Jr. held a controlling ownership in MLB’s Cincinnati Reds from 1995 until 2005.
While Lindner III is the team’s financial front-man, former Cincinnati Bengals executive (and former city councilman) Jeff Berding is the President and General Manager of the club. Berding is a part owner, and is the most active spokesperson for both the USL team and the MLS expansion bid.
FC Cincinnati currently plays at Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati (UC). The university has strong ties to the Lindner family, and the UC business school is named after Carl Lindner, Jr. The club invested in the 102 year-old stadium last year when they resurfaced the field with a FIFA approved field turf prior to their first season. They are investing an additional $2 million prior to the start of the 2017 season to widen the field to a FIFA regulation width.
MLS wants their teams to play in a soccer specific stadium that they own. Don Garber emphasized that point when he visited Cincinnati last November. FC Cincinnati included “initial thoughts” on a newly constructed soccer stadium in their MLS application. Ownership is still bullish on their current stadium arrangement however. They will build if MLS demands it, but they are not giving up on Nippert easily.
Details of the stadium plan included in the MLS application are sparse. The ownership group prefers to remain confidential and understated relative to other bids. There are no stadium renderings, promotional websites, stadium cost numbers, or publicly-targeted site locations that other ownership groups seem pleased to provide.
Current Soccer Environment
Several attempts have been made since the 1970’s to bring professional soccer to the Queen City. Pro soccer isn’t new to Cincinnati, but financially successful pro soccer with big business backing is. None of FC Cincinnati’s predecessors had anything close the financial muscle, sports management clout, or corporate sponsorship that FC Cincinnati currently enjoys.
Like many midwestern cities, soccer has been a part of the town’s culture for some time, but primarily at the youth level. The city boasts an array of clubs and development programs supporting over 50,000 youth players.
The response to FC Cincinnati’s first USL season revealed a pent-up demand for professional soccer. FC Cincinnati hosted a mid-summer friendly with Crystal Palace of the English Premier League. They sold out Nippert Stadium for that match, drawing over 35,000 people.
The other professional teams in Cincinnati are making things easier on FC Cincinnati. The Reds and Bengals have both turned in their worst seasons in recent memory. Sports fans aren’t hesitating to turn their attention to the new show in town.
Other Contributing Factors
Cincinnati has a few natural obstacles to overcome. It’s TV market size is smaller than most of the cities competing for expansion. Also, its close proximity to Columbus (just over 100 miles away) means it’s not adding much to the MLS coverage map. While Cincinnatians will disagree, Cincinnati also doesn’t have the allure that destinations like San Diego or Tampa might have in MLS’s eyes.
Cincinnati is good at business though. It boasts ten Fortune 500 companies and two Fortune 50 powerhouses in Kroger and Proctor & Gamble. FC Cincinnati has been able to rack up sponsorships in its first year, to the point where Louisville City coach James O’Connor called out the challenge of competing with their gate revenue and corporate support.
Cincinnati is also having an urban rebirth. The town is benefitting from recent investment in its downtown, especially in the historic Over the Rhine neighborhood. It’s becoming especially popular with young professionals, who are finding a renewed interest in making the city their home. Cincinnati has recently featured on several lists of up and coming cities. These include Forbes Best Cities for College Graduates, Forbes Top 20 Cities for Young Professionals, and Realtor.com’s Top 10 Trendiest Cities That You Can Still Afford To Buy In.
In December, Garber established that MLS will make their expansion decisions based on (1) committed ownership with resources to invest in soccer infrastructure, (2) an attractive market that is geographically desirable, has fan support, and is attractive to TV and corporate sponsors and, (3) a comprehensive stadium plan.
The Cincinnati bid is well rounded. The current ownership, experienced pro-sports management, corporate presence, and fan support rival the best of the other eleven markets. Will those factors be enough to overcome its market size and geographic location?
A lot rides on the stadium plan as a differentiator. There’s not a lot of information available on that plan, so it’s hard to handicap the city’s chances without details on that key piece of the puzzle.
A lot also rides on how MLS weighs the different decision-making criteria. If MLS just wants the biggest markets available, then Cincinnati, even with their record setting numbers, may get left out in the cold. If MLS is seriously considering the smaller markets AND the stadium plan impresses the MLS expansion committee, then Cincinnati has a good chance of adding a third major league franchise to the Queen City.