FC Cincinnati was officially introduced as a USL expansion franchise that will begin play in 2016. The announcement came at a press conference held at the University of Cincinnati’s Varsity Village this morning. Not much new information was presented that Scratching the Pitch and Wrong Side of the Pond had not already reported, but the press conference served as the first litmus test for new franchise. FC Cincinnati staged a media event that was organized and professional, projecting a strong, positive image in the franchise’s first interaction with the public.
The ownership group for FC Cincinnati reads like a Who’s Who of prominent Cincinnati business leaders and philanthropists. Principal owner, Carl Lindner III, is the Co-Chief Executive Officer at American Financial Group and Chairman at Great American Insurance Company. Other major investors include George Joseph of the Joseph Automotive Group, Steven L. Hightower of Hightower Petroleum, and Jack Wyant of Blue Chip Venture.
“This is really tremendous,” remarked City of Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley. “Every sports franchise needs a passionate leader to succeed, and I can think of no better owner to lead FC Cincinnati as our city’s next professional sports team than Carl and Martha Lindner. The Lindner family is synonymous with Cincinnati given their incredible generosity and investment in our home town over so many years.”
“It’s really perfect timing for FC Cincinnati with the renovation of Nippert Stadium, the new leadership of USL, as well as our own great leadership team,” said Lindner. “For me, the opportunity to bring professional soccer to our city was too good to pass up.”
Several members of the FC Cincinnati organization credited Jeff Berding with having the vision and doing the legwork to bring USL to Cincinnati. Berding, a former member of the Cincinnati City Council, left a position as Director of Sales and Public Affairs with the Cincinnati Bengals in order to serve as President and General Manager for the expansion soccer club.
“I’m a huge soccer fan and was in a leadership position with Kings Hammer at the youth soccer level and coaching my children. I worked in professional football. I’ve been watching soccer grow all over the United States, watching the ratings grow and attendance. As someone who loves Cincinnati, I thought why don’t we have our own team in Cincinnati,” said Berding. “So, I started talking to some folks here locally to see if anyone else thought there might be the opportunity to do this and eventually connected with United Soccer League, who had an interest in coming here to Cincinnati.”
Berding doesn’t think FC Cincinnati will be a tough sell, even with competition for fan’s attention by the Bengals and Reds.
“There is an enormous interest in professional soccer in this community. Nationally, soccer is the most popular sport for millennials. It is the most popular sport in the world. There is a groundswell of interest that I think we’re going to see here over the next few weeks,” said Berding.
Interest in the club will get a big boost from name recognition of Head Coach Jon Harkes, an American soccer legend. Harkes was the first American to play in the English Premier League and was one of the early stars in Major League Soccer in the 1990s. He also captained the United States Men’s National Team.
Harkes explained why he selected FC Cincinnati from the several opportunities with which he was presented.
“It’s all about the people involved, sharing the same vision, knowing that from a leadership standpoint what Jeff Berding was able to do in coming on board with soccer, the Lindner family and understanding the history of what they to in the community and building something special,” said Harkes. “From a coaching standpoint, it’s good to have that support and the resources. We just hit it off. We really did.”
Harkes has been involved with youth soccer in Virginia. He served as an assistant coach under Bruce Arena at New York Red Bulls, but it has been some time since he coached in the professional ranks. At FC Cincinnati, he hopes to pull from his experience coaching at many different levels.
“There’s a lot more responsibility, obviously, at the higher levels, a different approach. In terms of teaching the game, it’s the same. You can’t reinvent the wheel in terms of soccer,” said Harkes.
FC Cincinnati will host USL opponents at Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. The stadium nearing the end of a big renovation project. The addition of a professional soccer franchise may require more changes in the future.
Berding said, “Long term we will have a new field on this field that will be a soccer field with only soccer lines. In the first year it’s likely that we will play on a painted existing field. We will not be playing on a field that shows football lines, football end zones, or any other football markings.”
He continued, “We’re going to make a lot of fan improvements that improve the fan experience, not just for soccer, but for all intercollegiate athletics that are here at Nippert Stadium. We’ve begun the process of identifying some of those improvements. We’ve had the work of MSA architects here locally, who have done an outstanding job. We certainly have concepts that we’re working through. One of the improvements is we would like to have an MLS-width field, 75 yards. We will working with the University of Cincinnati to bring those improvements to Nippert Stadium.”
USL has stated its desire to have each of its teams as the owner or primary tenant in a soccer specific stadium by 2020. FC Cincinnati, however, has no plans to move from Nippert or build a new stadium in the near future.
“We’re well aware of their goals, and they are thrilled to have FC Cincinnati at Nippert Stadium. This stadium has everything you would need to be successful at any high-level soccer league in the United States,” said Berding.
“We take things on a case by case basis,” said USL President Jake Edwards. “It’s still very important to us, and it’s still our long-term goal by the end of the decade to have all our teams playing in soccer specific stadiums… This is going to be a great environment, and it will be up to the supporters to make it so. Time will tell if this stadium will be suitable for a long-term home for them… This is a fantastic stadium.”
This is not the USL’s first foray into the Cincinnati market. The Cincinnati Riverhawks and Cincinnati Kings both tried and failed to succeed in Ohio’s Queen City. FC Cincinnati and USL are confident that it will be different this go around.
“You go back 10+ years, the sport was in a different place. In lower-league football here it was quite commonplace to see teams coming and going in markets. We’ve seen that in a number of markets that we’re in currently. When we took over this league in 2010, we set about putting a new structure in place to get away from those days, so when teams come to cities they stay and they start to become a part of that community,” Edwards said. “What’s changed? The league has changed. The sport has changed. The fan demographics have changed. The supporters are far more savvy about the game.”
“The group that put it together is at a whole other level,” Edwards continued. “You’ve got an ownership group here… that are fully committed to making FC Cincinnati one of the best teams in the league”
The league is also fully committed to FC Cincinnati. It took a year and a half of work between USL and FC Cincinnati to arrive at the day the franchise could be announced. Edwards indicated that USL would be working even more closely with the team as it prepares for its first season.
“Our club services department will be actively involved with all of their ticket sales, sponsorship sales, making sure they’re out selling, setting their goals at the right level, making sure they have all the support they need. They’ll be travelling now and spending time with ownership and executive teams from our other clubs, learning from them. We’ll be running an operational summit in November. This team will come to that. We’ll be helping them on a national scale, promoting and marketing the club,” said Edwards. “It never ends. We’ll be on the phone with these guys weekly, helping them and sharing best practices from other clubs during their ramp-up year.”
That kind of support from the league certainly weighed into the decision for FC Cincinnati to choose USL as opposed to other options in the American professional soccer landscape. There were other factors, though, that led to the selection of USL.
“It’s the largest league. It’s the fastest growing league. Sponsorships are up. Attendance is up. Season tickets are up. The quality of the play on the field is outstanding. The level of the coaches in this league is outstanding,” said Berding.
Similar to most other new USL franchises, FC Cincinnati has it targets set on playing at the highest level of professional soccer in the United States. Although Mayor Cranley hinted at it, no one mentioned MLS aspirations for the almost entirety of the press conference. A local reporter, though, asked Berding if the franchise hoped to be in MLS someday. Berding answered in the affirmative.
Any talk of MLS is premature, especially before the club has played a single minute in USL. There are several candidate markets that have been on the list of potential MLS expansion markets for a lot longer than a day. It might be wise, though, to place FC Cincinnati in the “someday maybe” column instead of the “never” column when it comes to MLS. This ownership group and management team have the resources and drive to pull it off. The club knows, though, that it has to prove itself as a viable market while competing in USL before serious overtures to MLS can be made.
- Berding was resolute when declaring that FC Cincinnati will not form an official affiliation with an MLS franchise.
- He also stated that FC Cincinnati is not looking to start its own youth academy.
- There is minimal crossover between Dutch Lions ownership and FC Cincinnati. The color-scheme, however, was chosen independently of that relationship. The colors represent the image that the franchise desires to project.