Cincinnati is a fickle sports town. While there are diehard fans for the local professional teams, many fans tend to be fair weather supporters. An on-field resurgence from NFL’s Bengals has improved their support in recent years, but their home games are still frequently blacked out on local television because they can’t regularly sell out Paul Brown Stadium. And despite the city often being described as a baseball town, attendance figures for MLB’s Reds often rises and falls with the team’s performances.
Furthermore, the average Queen City sports fan also has cornucopia of other teams competing for his attention. While the Reds and Bengals are the most popular tickets in town, UC and Xavier basketball aren’t far behind, Ohio State football sees similar interest, and high school sports also attract considerable attention.
As for professional soccer in Cincinnati? Our eighth club in thirty years was just joined by a newly announced ninth, so it’s fair to say that there’s an interest in higher level soccer here too.
But in spite of the huge per capita participation in the region and a growing interest in European and US national teams, professional soccer has just never really taken off on the banks of the Ohio River.
Growing up in Cincinnati, there was nothing I wanted more than for professional soccer to take root here. And since moving to town in 1990, I’ve attended at least one match for each of the sides that called the city home: the Cheetahs, Silverbacks, Riverhawks, Excite, Kings and now the Saints. In doing so, I’ve witnessed successes that have filled me with hope… inevitably followed by missteps to train wrecks that left my dreams shattered.
It’s a vicious cycle here: the optimism at each new attempt to kick start the pro game, which fades into despair, followed by another club rising from its ashes, only to follow the same story arc all over again.
So that all begs to question: why exactly has pro soccer struggled so much here when it seems to be flourishing all over the country?
As is the case with nearly all failures — both in and outside of soccer — blaming a single reason for the demise of so many clubs would be way oversimplifying things. But in addition to suffering the same apathy and competition issues that plague other sports’ teams, there always seems to be another hurdle soccer just can’t seem to clear.
Since pro soccer made its return to Cincinnati in the mid-90’s, there’s always been one major hurdle they’ve all had to face: competition from Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew. With top-level soccer — not to mention their own stadium, bigger names, national TV presence and burgeoning media savvy — just a quick two-hour drive up I-71, Cincinnati teams formed after MLS’ inception were always going to be at a competitive disadvantage. But poor local media exposure, ineffective marketing, the lack of beer sales at matches, playing their matches at high school stadiums, and an insufficient investment have all played their part too. Many of those factors are within the control of the clubs themselves, and so it’s fair to say many sowed the seeds of their own demise.
However, it seems as if at least some of the hard lessons learned by the city’s failed soccer clubs haven’t gone unnoticed.
Over the last few years, an upstart club by the name of the Cincinnati Saints has seen gradual success. Instead of jumping feet first into fully professional soccer, the Saints chose instead to grow slowly and organically. Starting off in less glamorous leagues lower down the US soccer pyramid allowed the club to focus on developing a fanbase before committing to a more well-known and costly league. And that decision, aided by the rise of social media, has allowed the Saints to position themselves in a way that appeals to not only the local youth soccer market, but also the desirable 20-30 year old male audience. This is evident at every home match and many of the away, where the supporters group Seven Hills Crusaders have provided an excellent atmosphere for a team that’s hovered below the professional ranks for most of its existence.
This strategy of careful, measured growth, it seems, has started to pay dividends. The Saints recently acquired the PASL territory rights from the Kings to become a professional indoor side. They have also climbed the ranks in outdoor too, recently joining the 4th division, semi-professional NPSL for the upcoming season.
Wit the Saints now freed from having to compete with the now defunct Kings for the first time in their existence — and thus making them the only team in town — it looked as if professional soccer might have finally gotten its feet under it here. It might not be as boast-worthy as having a USL or NASL team, but at least things are moving in the right direction.
Unfortunately, upheaval is never far off in Cincinnati soccer.
Neighboring Dayton also has a professional team of their own in Dayton Dutch Lions. The Lions have followed a more traditional path to professional soccer: a full club was started from scratch, including a youth academy, capped by a full men’s team playing in the fourth division USL-PDL. After one year in the fourth division, they quickly jumped up to the third division USL PRO. They also founded a secondary team, the Houston Dutch Lions, playing in the fourth-tier PDL.
And oddly, on the heels of the Saints’ announcements this summer, the Dutch Lions have opted to add a third team to their organization: a second PDL club… in Cincinnati.
So if you’re keeping track at home, that means Cincinnati will once again have two clubs playing in separate fourth division leagues. Some might be inclined to take the “more the merrier” outlook on such a move. I, on the other hand, think this is a supremely bad idea.
Let’s start with the obvious: placing yet another team in the congested, fickle Cincinnati sports market seems like a poor decision. A second club in Cincinnati not only creates confusion in the marketplace, but also forces fans and sponsors to choose a side. And that ultimately means that each will get a smaller cut of the pie than what they would have alone.
|Dayton Dutch Lions Attendances|
|2013||753||10 of 13|
|2012||725||10 of 11|
|2011||661||11 of 15|
It would be one thing if the Dutch Lions had found the winning formula when it came to solving the attendance woes suffered by Cincinnati sides. But if we’re judging them on that data point in Dayton, while the number is trending upwards, the growth isn’t exactly anything to write home about. On top of that, Dayton suffers from many of the same issues that prior Cincinnati teams have experienced. Their marketing outreach has been poor, they can’t sell the alcohol at their matches that is so vital to attracting the young professional set, and they’ve played their home matches at various high school stadiums laced with football lines all over the pitch.
To me, that sounds like a losing formula.
Ironically, I always thought the Dutch Lions dropped the ball by not trying to place themselves on the Southern half of the Dayton-metro area on the I-75 Corridor. Doing so would make them accessible to not only Dayton’s population, but also the large Northern Cincinnati suburbs that occupy the sprawl between the two cities. And while the Dutch Lions management seems to think placing the PDL team in Cincinnati with the same name and branding will create brand awareness for the Dayton side, my guess is it will cannibalize the USL PRO team’s numbers rather than boost them.
Now before anyone accuses me of an anti-Dutch Lions bias, let me clearly state that I’m not vehemently opposed to the Dutch Lions as an organization. I want to see them succeed just the same as I want to see the Saints succeed. In fact, if the Saints weren’t already in Cincinnati, I’d be singing the move’s praises. Though one could imagine that in this alternative universe without the Saints/Kings, the Dutch Lions would have set up shop in Cincinnati in the first place. But unfortunately for them, that’s not the case.
Instead, the move to add the Dutch Lions leaves Cincinnati’s professional soccer scene once again in a precarious position. Already facing an uphill battle against lethargy and distraction, soccer fans in the Cincinnati now have to pick a camp. And as Abraham Lincoln famously said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Which of the Saints and Dutch Lions will be left standing when it’s all said and done? At this point, that’s not clear. But it remains a very real possibility that neither will survive, and Cincinnati will be left without professional soccer once again.