Friday, April 27, 2012

Major League Soccer in Cincinnati?

- The cheering section at an MLS Columbus Crew game. Photo c/o The Columbus Crew.

"We love ya, we love ya, we love ya!
And where you go we'll follow, we'll follow, we'll follow!
Cause we support Columbus, Columbus, Columbus!
And that's the way we like it, we like it, we like it!"

That was just one of the chants. In front of the large section of die hard fans known as the "Hudson Street Hooligans," a yell leader was directing the chants. They set off smoke bombs when the team scored, beat drums and had previously marched together into the game. Despite the downpour, a sea of black and gold dotted the stands that Saturday night at Columbus Crew Stadium. Formerly indifferent to soccer, I was amazed at the fan support, the atmosphere, the intense game and the good time that a Crew game provided. Since their debut in 1994, the Crew have developed an intense fan following and won an MLS Cup in 2008. While many critics argue that American soccer pales in comparison and popularity to that of the European "football" variety, Major League Soccer has truly come to be recognized as what its name defines: a "Major League" sport in the United States. The experience of that 2011 night in Columbus got me thinking: why not Major League Soccer in Cincinnati?

- Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. Photo c/o The Columbus Crew.

There's many factors to consider when it comes to the thought of an MLS team in the Queen City: What's the market like? What about competition with other Cincinnati sports teams? What about the proximity to The Crew? What about a stadium? Would anyone really go watch soccer in this city?

The last question for me in particular was the argument I made against soccer for years. Until the night mentioned above, I had no desire to see an MLS game. I shrugged soccer off, never really following the hype surrounding the World Cup and never really feeling a desire to seek out the MLS' Crew. My opinion of the league and sport changed though when I took my friends Josh, Dave and Tony up on their offer to go see The Crew one night. Despite my skepticism, they convinced me to go and assured me I would have a good time.

They weren't lying.

The atmosphere was great and once they explained the rules, I had a lot more respect for the game. I went to my second MLS game later that summer in Chicago. Just like in Columbus, the experience was absolutely awesome.

- "Section 8" fans in Chicago after a goal.

It then became apparent to me how much excitement there was about teams in other American cities. A quick search of the internet reveals just how prevalent the fan base is. With the MLS breaking its all time attendance records last year, the league is growing in cities with well established major league sport teams and cities without. So could Major League Soccer work in Cincinnati?

First, lets look at the market for another pro sports team. Cincinnati is currently home to the Reds and Bengals of the MLB and NFL respectively. Our NBA team left in 72 and our pre-NHL/WHA merger hockey team left in 79. In Columbus, the Crew have the Blue Jackets of the NHL and Ohio State - which for all intents and purposes isn't major league, but draws a rather large fan base to its athletic events. An MLS season typically runs from March to October with a regular season schedule of 34 games. The MLS schedule pretty much runs right along with the MLB and a little bit into the NFL's season. With a Cincinnati club playing approximately 17 games at home in a regular season, is there enough of a market to draw sports fans?

What has to be considered are the niche fans. It seems many die hard soccer fans wouldn't be likely to attend an MLB game, while a few baseball loyalists wouldn't even consider attending a game where the players kick the ball. Then you'd have people like me who'd support both. You also have to consider families with entertainment budgets, group sales and corporate sponsors. Truthfully, I don't have enough market research information to say if a Cincinnati MLS team would be a detriment, complement or competitor to the other major league teams, but one big thing to consider is the youth market.

In 200,9 SAY Soccer, a local youth recreational soccer league, boasted over 150,000 players. Soccer is extremely popular in the Tri-State area, with one website even ranking Cincinnati as the 2nd largest youth soccer market. One would have to think that with such a large youth interest, an MLS team in Cincinnati could prove to be quite popular.

- Map of current MLS team locations.

As for the rest of the league, MLS boasts 19 teams in 18 cities from both the United States and Canada. If Cincinnati were to join the current lineup, it would be the 10th largest market in the league. Not the biggest, but certainly not the smallest. We would have a natural rival in Columbus and an already established reputation for major league sporting events. MLS is the strongest its ever been with many cities competing for expansion bids. Currently no formal effort has been made on Cincinnati's part, while Baltimore, Detroit, Las Vegas, Minneapolis and a push for a second New York City team are working out plans.

What about being too close to Columbus? In other sports, territorial rights have become longstanding agreements for market share. Currently, no such thing exists in Major League Soccer. While Cincinnati and Columbus would certainly be close in distance, there's plenty of fans to go around in the nation's 7th largest state.

With a large market to draw from, enthusiasm in youth soccer, a reputation as a major league city and immediate competition with a nearby rival, Cincinnati seems like a good fit for the MLS. But where would a team play?

- Columbus Crew Stadium is credited as being the first soccer specific stadium in MLS.

Currently 14 of the MLS teams play in 13 Soccer Specific Stadiums (The two LA teams share once facility similar to the NY Giants and Jets of the NFL), San Jose will debut theirs next year putting 15 teams in soccer only facilities, leaving four in multipurpose stadiums. While the growing trend has been towards more intimate, smaller capacity stadiums that cater specifically to the MLS teams, who says you have to build one? Not Seattle, who shares the 67,000 seat CenturyLink Field with the NFL's Seahawks. With the negativity of the Reds and Bengals stadiums being funded by public dollars in Hamilton County, a taxpayer funded soccer specific stadium probably wouldn't be likely in the foreseeable political future. Private investment has worked well for other soccer stadiums though. Often they're built to be utilized as revenue generating concert venues and their smaller size doesn't cost nearly as much as MLB and NFL stadiums.

Interestingly enough, when Cincinnati bid for the 2012 Olympics there were plans for an 80,000 seat Olympic stadium that could've been renovated into a smaller soccer stadium for a potential MLS expansion team. Obviously the Olympics never made it here, neither did that stadium. So where does that leave us?

The answer is simple: Paul Brown Stadium.

- A rendering of Paul Brown Stadium with a Columbus Crew soccer field placed over it.

Currently home solely to the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL, Paul Brown Stadium (PBS) was completed in 1999 and has the capability to accommodate a tradition soccer playing surface. In the corners, retractable seats can be adjusted for the dimensions of a soccer field. A venue that seats nearly 66,000 seems like a little bit of overkill for a league that in 2011 averaged around 18,000 fans per game. However, as mentioned earlier, that's where the Seattle approach comes into play.

- CenturyLink Field in configuration for a Seattle Sounders MLS game. Note that the upper decks are closed off and decorated with seating only offered in the lower bowls. Image from Wikipedia.

In Seattle, The Sounders currently play at the 67,000 seat CenturyLink Field. To create a more "intimate" atmosphere and bring the crowd together, seating is only offered in the lower sections. The upper decks are decorated with advertisements and only opened for highly attended games like when the Sounders play their Portland or Vancouver rivals. A similar treatment could be given to PBS. Seating in the lower bowl would create a tightly packed crowd with loyal cheering sections gathered on the ends, the advertising in the upper decks could generate additional revenue and the main luxury suites wouldn't be cut off allowing for corporate sponsorships. The location of the stadium puts it nearby the bustling "Banks" and a team would lure even more visitors to the city of Cincinnati.

The big question though, is: Would the Bengals let it happen?

- Mike Brown in all his Gridiron Glory.

Bengals owner Mike Brown, son of the stadium's late namesake, has a tight grip on what goes down at PBS mainly due to a contract with the county. There's no doubt that he would dominate a lot of the conversation for an MLS team to play in Paul Brown Stadium. However, apparently the Bengals were once open to bringing an MLS team to Cincinnati.

Per The Cincinnati Enquirer on June 20, 2002:
The last inquiries the Bengals made about bringing soccer to Paul Brown Stadium was about 12-16 months ago, said [Bengals Representative] Mr. Blackburn, in discussions with Major League Soccer about bringing a team to Cincinnati. Major League Soccer is considering expanding in 2004.
Paul Brown Stadium and the area's interest in soccer make Cincinnati a potential location for expansion, league chief executive officer Mark Abbott said.
“We have a mix of markets,” Mr. Abbott said. “We're in Columbus (the Crew); it's been a tremendous success for us. I've heard the statistics about Cincinnati (and soccer participation); it's a fairly active community.”
If there were open to it then, what happened and would they be open to it now?

At the present time, no official effort is being led to try and lure MLS to Cincinnati. Could it happen? Certainly. Would it work? I'd like to think so. Will it happen soon? Doesn't look like it. Overall, the experience of an MLS game, the atmosphere it creates and the pride felt by fans is what makes me think a Queen City MLS club would be a hell of a time to support and see. What would you call it?

Gregory Adams suggested "Football Club Queen City," on the QC/D Faceook page:  "FC Queen City" has a nice ring to it, doesn't it? Going with the royalty theme, you could even do a sponsorship deal with Little Kings Cream Ale. Soccer fans love their pubs and beer, why not?

We have the fans, we have the market and we have a facility, but who will make it happen? Would anyone make it happen?

Updates | Oct. 21, 2017:

When this article was published, the consensus seemed to be: "Yeah, an MLS team in Cincinnati would be nice, but it's probably not going to happen." Things have turned out quite differently...
  • At the end of the summer of 2015, FC Cincinnati was announced. Backed by local politician/Bengals executive Jeff Berding as General Manager and principally financed by local billionaire Carl Linder III, the team was set to play in the United Soccer League, the third division of pro soccer in the United States. Before even having a match, the club announced a huge goal: join Major League Soccer and hired US Soccer legend John Harkes as the inaugural head coach. 
  • At the end of 2015/early 2016, I joined with some friends to start a supporters group for the new club. Die Innenstadt was born and now boasts over 500 members. We support local bars, local charities, and stand in Nippert Stadium's supporters section, singing and chanting. I get to enjoy being one of the people with a megaphone leading chants and lighting off smoke bombs. I penned this article expressing my support for the new endeavor. 
  • In July 2016, FC Cincinnati hosted Crystal Palace of the English Premier League while a capacity crowd attended. The international friendly was just one of many massive crowds that, along with competitive play, were garnering attention for the new club and potential expansion candidates. 
  • In November 2016, after a successful first season, Cincinnati was visited by Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber. The club also formally applied for MLS expansion along with 11 other cities. 
  • The United Soccer League was promoted to "provisional Division 2" status, one step below Major League Soccer. 
  • The 2017 season has once again been successful both on the pitch and in the stands. FC Cincinnati defeated two MLS clubs in the US Open Cup (coincidentally, The Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire mentioned earlier in the article) and once again made the league playoffs. Along with continued strong attendance and ownership, their case for expansion has grown stronger. 
  • In October 2017, it was revealed that Columbus Crew owner Anthony Precourt had been angling to relocate the original MLS team to Austin, TX. While the move could potentially help FC Cincinnati's MLS case, most fans (myself included) want to see Columbus remain as a potential rival and have a respect for the senior Ohio team's history. 
  • The Crew aren't officially relocated yet and FC Cincinnati isn't in MLS yet either. The first two of four announced MLS expansion slots will be announced in December 2017 and the situation in Columbus is ongoing. 
  • A key piece of FC Cincinnati's expansion bid is securing their own soccer-specific stadium. That has been a conentious debate with ongoing drama. As of this update, the stadium situation hasn't been formally resolved, but you can read about the situation in this August 2017 QC/D article.
  • I've also authored two stories on Cincinnati pro soccer history. Read up on the Cincinnati Riverhawks and Cincinnati Comets.

Update | August 2, 2018:


  1. I love the idea of having an MLS team in Cincinnati. I lived in Columbus during the early years of the Crew when they played at Ohio States Horse Shoe. The fan base and fans were incredible. Before having a team in Cincinnati we would need to consider how well the Cincinnati Kings do in Northern Kentucky and previous teams did in Cincinnati (The Riverhawks disbanded in 2003) . I understand that the times have changed since then, I know that there are a couple of pubs in the area that can draw in die hard fans to watch there European footie (myself included). These may be the ones to talk to see if Cincy MLS is a possible dream. With all that babbling yes I want the MLS here a rivalry w/ Columbus would be a blast.
    Gus-It Hunter

    1. I don't think you can compare an MLS team to the Riverhawks or Kings. Those aren't real professional squads. The idea of bringing in London Donovan, David Beckham, Thierry Henry and whoever else joins the league would have to be considered. They also bring over teams like Man City, Real Madrid, etc... top teams with top names coming in for matches would be incredible. I think it would be an amazing step for the city.

  2. That would be incredible. If I had a little extra cash, I would definitely get season tickets to FC Queen City. The number of games is manageable (unlike MLB) and the price would be just right (unlike NFL). I support this fully! Someone needs to get this discussion moving further.

  3. Move the Crew to Cincinnati; hell, I'd buy season tickets. Even the commissioner says that the team is struggling in that market. Let the people of Columbus keep their heads firmly planted up the crooked ass of Ohio State.

    1. Have to say that I agree with the Ohio State comment, but are The Crew really doing poorly in Columbus?

    2. I'd love to see them move to Cincinnati. I hate Crew Stadium, or Mapfre, or whatever it's called. You are either getting sunburned, or trying to avoid getting struck by lightning while looking for shelter when it's monsoon season. It's a basic stadium, the first one for the MLS, but also the worst stadium. My High School stadium had better facilities. If Cincinnati could use Paul Brown for a while, then build something a little bit better than Crew Stadium, I'd be all over a move to Cincinnati.

  4. I would love to see more top tier sports teams in Cincinnati like MLS, NBA(move the kings back and make them the royals again) NHL(Move the Carolina Hurricanes here and rename them the Cyclones) hell even Major league lacrosse would be cool...but I think as long as Columbus has an NHL and MLS team neither Cincinnati or Cleveland have a chance at landing a team. An NBA team would be nice though

  5. You weren't far off 5 years ago