Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Arena

I was wrapping up photographs of the Showboat Majestic nearby, trying to get a clear shot of the boat from above. As I finished the day's assignment, I found myself walking around where the arena's plaza meets the bridge, making photographs of the ‘venue formerly known as the Riverfront Coliseum.’

- Suicide barriers on the Taylor-Southgate Bridge near the arena.

Although the weather on this particular day made things look a bit more dramatic, US Bank Arena is sort of the “odd man out” on the riverfront and skyline. Its 70’s aesthetic, flanked by concrete, harkens back to a previous era of development within the City of Cincinnati. There are new stadiums, new parks, new roads, and new buildings all around it. Yet, I have a soft spot for the place. I've been seeing events here since I was a kid and while it lacks the historic charm of the now deceased Cincinnati Gardens, I find the structure's stoic and dated appearance to be somewhat endearing. I've got a lot of memories (and stories) from time spent in this building. I saw the circus pass through one last time and even had the chance to do a really fun interview with the zamboni driver for this website almost ten years go (time flies).

The arena has played home to various minor league sports clubs and the usual touring acts found within wrestling rings and on ice. There were some upgrades made in '97 and proposals have been floated over the years, but the lack of a “major league” tenant in the privately owned facility has made the notion of a publicly-assisted replacement debatable. All three local D1 college basketball teams play in their own, newer facilities, but the arena still serves as one of the primary venues for large-scale musical acts who come through town.

The building is a unique sight within the city, a vestige of a different time. To me, it represents one of my favorite pieces of local lore. Although I wasn’t born until ten years after their demise, the tale of the Cincinnati Stingers and the World Hockey Association has always fascinated me. It’s an interesting subject because it encapsulates a recurring theme in the mythos of the Queen City: “what we could’ve had.”

I own a Stingers jersey and occasionally break it out when headed to Blue Jackets games up North, but other than a QC/D article in 2014, I had kind of put the Stingers at the back of my mind these past few years. Then they came up again, right as I was getting ready to share these photographs.

- Discarded popcorn container on the bridge outside the arena.

There’s this great podcast called Good Seats Still Available. Each week, host Tim Hanlon and his guests take listeners down the path of “what used to be in professional sports.” Back in 2017, I was a guest on the show and discussed the defunct Cincinnati Comets soccer club. In a more recent episode, though, Tim’s guest was former New England/Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin. On the show, Mr. Baldwin shared some great insights about his time owning a founding club in the “renegade” World Hockey Association. Baldwin eventually became President of the league and helped guide it to an agreement with the National Hockey League. That merger saw four of the WHA’s teams join the senior, more established NHL. Two teams were not admitted.

One of them was Birmingham.

The other was Cincinnati.

- The arena's pedestrian connection to the nearby bridge.

As I’ve written before: “we” were “this close” to having an NHL team. Tim’s interview with Howard Baldwin is a great listen, but since I’m slightly biased: I really took notice of the times when Cincinnati was mentioned throughout the episode. I can’t recommend Good Seats Still Available enough (available wherever podcasts can be found) and this particular audio entry features some comments from Mr. Baldwin that offer clarity to the aura surrounding the brief existence of the Stingers.

So here are some interesting quotes to keep in mind as you scroll through these photographs of Cincinnati’s WHA-era arena, made on a dreary day in February 2019 nearly forty years after the Stingers were left out of the NHL:

*emphasis added for Cincinnati

“Not every market is the same. Winnipeg always did well. Edmonton did well. Quebec did well. And we [Hartford] did well. And then you had teams that just didn’t have—the market wasn’t quite—Cincinnati had great ownership and wanted to get in the NHL, but the NHL didn’t want them. Same with Houston. Birmingham was always marginal. Indianapolis: marginal.” 
- Howard Baldwin to Tim Hanlon while discussing the four teams (including his) that were admitted to the NHL as others were left out. Note: Indianapolis folded mid-season before the merger was completed. 

- Arena steps leading to the bridge.

“…and frankly, I think Cincinnati would’ve done really well if they had gotten in. And Houston would’ve done well. But the the league wanted to take four and so we had to, you know, shrink the league down. That’s all there was to it.” 
- Baldwin discussing how, despite some historical perceptions, several WHA markets were doing fine (including Cincinnati). Note: Houston folded in 1978, one year before the merger.

- Signage, US Bank Arena.

“…at the end of the fifth year in the WHA we had our first attempt at the merger. And a guy named Bill DeWitt—he owns the St. Lous Cardinals now—Billy and I sort of led the charge and we failed, but we knew then our mission had to be to get a merger done. And so that was the way we were moving forward.” 
- Baldwin discussing how he and Cincinnati Stingers owner Bill DeWitt Jr. were key figures in early merger talks with the NHL. 
- Arena plaza.

“Billy DeWitt signed Mark Messier.” 
- Baldwin discussing the strategy after initial merger talks failed: WHA clubs began targeting promising young talent with lucrative salaries the NHL wasn’t willing to match. While he’d later go on to be a legend in the NHL, Messier’s career began in the WHA with the Indianapolis Racers and then the Cincinnati Stingers.

- The arena was previously known as "The Riverfront Coliseum," "The Crown," and "The Firstar Center."

“Johnny got two and a half million dollars out of Birmingham for not going in. Billy DeWitt got four million bucks for not going in. Others got less.” 
- Baldwin describing how Birmingham Bulls owner John Bassett and Cincinnati Stingers owner Bill DeWitt Jr. received compensation from the NHL when their teams weren’t admitted. It should be noted, though, that these figures have been reported in varying amounts across multiple other sources over the years and DeWitt was only 1/2 of the Stingers main ownership. Birmingham and Cincinnati were the only teams not admitted to the NHL. John Bassett had long been an entrepreneur of renegade sports leagues. A beloved figure in sports history, he challenged Donald Trump for control of the United States Football League a few years after the WHA folded. 
- Plaza speaker.

“How do you make that call? How does Cincinnati not make the last cut and all that kind of stuff?” 

“It became pretty easy, because it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. The league [WHA] in its 6th, 7th year was struggling and franchises were dropping and we didn’t prop them up, we didn’t try to move them because we knew at the end of the day we wanted a merger.”

- Arena wall.

Baldwin’s words shed light on Cincinnati's WHA/NHL plight, a footnote that often gets overlooked in the greater context of the two leagues combining. I’ve always felt that the Stingers must've been very, very close (some sources over the years certainly implied that) and that their lack of admittance was such a huge missed opportunity. But I didn't live in that time. I’d heard the Stingers were successful and I had also heard that the team only found mixed success amongst fan apathy. Baldwin, though, seems to think Cincinnati could’ve made it.

If only the NHL had wanted "us."

“We thought at one point we might’ve had six teams go in with Cincinnati and Houston going in…we knew, we just knew, that no matter what there were just certain teams that just weren’t gonna make it.” 
- Howard Baldwin to Tim Hanlon on Good Seats Still Available. 

- Arena plaza.

- The arena sits adjacent to Great American Ballpark.

- Bicycle racks (used to construct the outdoor smoking sections) stored outside of the arena.

- Arena plaza and 70s era lighting fixtures.

- The side of the arena plaza that faces the Ohio River.

- Arena plaza.

- Arena steps that connect to the riverfront.

- Riverfront stairway.

- Bottom of the stairway below the arena.


  1. I just saw the Local 12 piece on the Torrence Road station. Great job. Let's see what happens now. I'll bet you had something to do with that. Nick

    1. Thanks! I've known Jeff from Channel 12 for a bit and we connected after I did a followup story about Torrence for QC/D back in Nov. 18. It'll be interesting to watch those developments.

  2. Will never forget The Who stampede on that plaza...I honestly think about it every time I hear The Who

    1. Hopefully no one ever forgets.

      Were you there?

  3. Great piece on the arena. I've seen many an event in that arena, mostly for pro wrestling but also Cyclones games. It's got a bit of character to it definitely. Not as much as the old Gardens, but definitely a bit of character.

    Also, I've been a subscriber to the Good Seats podcast since you plugged your appearance on it. The episode you mentioned with Howard Baldwin was fantastic. I loved hearing about the WHA in general and especially the Stingers. I'd like to hear them do an episode just devoted to the Stingers at some point.

    Great work as always!

    1. Hey, thanks Adam!

      So glad to hear you're a good seats listener. As for a Stingers episode, well, stay tuned...

  4. Did you ever post a story on the Torrence road station? I accidentally "discovered" it a few weeks ago when looking at St. Rose Church. I went on and and saw it had a connection with the railroad, but not what specifically. I just saw that you "discovered" it about 10 years ago. So back to my original question: Did you ever do a story on it? If so, I'd love to read it.

    1. Hey there, Anon, yes—two times.

      This was ten years ago, I think you read this one:

      This was Nov. 2018 with an update:

    2. Thank you for the links. I will definitely have to read them!