a house divided

Cincinnati Saints vs Cincinnati Dutch Lions

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?

WSOTP - Cincinnati Soccer Timeline

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.

Cincinnati Kids
cincinnati’s soccer history reaches all the way back to the 1970’s, but is full of more failures than successes.

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
Year Average/Match USL Rank
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.

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4 Comments

  1. No such thing as “semi-professional.” You are either “professional” or you are “amateur.” That is defined by numerous governing bodies: NCAA/NAIA, USSF, FIFA, etc. Sorry, just really don’t like seeing that term.

    Who’s to say that CDL are trying to be professional? Why can’t they become just the best amateur team? Meanwhile, the Saints can continue to strive to be professional. Nothing is holding that dream back. I don’t imagine CDL will strive to be professional since there already is the pro DDL side.

    What’s wrong with trying to be “the best” amateur side without striving to be pro? That is exactly what Chattanooga is doing. That’s essentially what Austin Aztecs are doing. That’s what the Michigan Bucks are doing.

    Up until 2011, there was only one amateur team in the state of Ohio. That’s pathetic for a state that houses 40+ colleges and universities — then count the surrounding states’ institutions. There simply wasn’t the opportunities for amateurs to play competitively through the springs/summers. Now, with the expansion of NPSL (and sort of contraction/expansion of PDL) there are more. There are still all kinds of PDL/NPSL teams who struggle in finding bodies to make them competitive. There needs to continue being these amateur options, and I don’t think two in Cincy is that big of a problem, especially considering CDL may attract more internationals since they’ve done the same with their Super 20 team and pro team.

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    1. First off, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to the post. And though I agree with some of the points you make (the need for more high-level amateur opportunities for players to develop, being okay with just being an NPSL/PDL team), I think a few of your other ones are a little off base.

      First, the PDL in particular is absolutely a “semi-professional” league. There are a growing number of teams (such as Sounders U-23 and Kitsap Pumas) that do pay their players, though playing with those sides will nullify college eligibility. Additionally, PDL teams that don’t pay salaries do “compensate” some players by providing free housing and lining them up with coaching gigs and camps — something I experienced first hand when I played in the league nearly a decade ago. PDL is well regarded for the professionalism it embraces, and most players playing in it aspire to be professionals. NPSL, while fully amateur, also considers its teams “professionally operated” and aims to showcase players that want to climb into the pro ranks. Wouldn’t you think that kids that play for the Cincinnati Dutch Lions would hope to move up to the Dayton side?

      But secondly, if you want to throw out the term “semi-professional”, that’s fine. But let’s not ignore the bigger issue at hand. Cincinnati has been unable to sustain any “professionally run” soccer club in the longer term, and adding a second team to the mix thins the talent pool for each, reduces sponsorship opportunities, and creates confusion for the fan. As you pointed out, many PDL/NPSL clubs struggle to find bodies. Having two in Cincinnati might pan out, but one or both sides could be left short of adequate players.

      And lastly, I frown heavily upon PDL and NPSL sides recruiting foreign players. Their primary purpose is to aid in player development, and I’d much rather us be working to develop local talent over foreign players that couldn’t cut the mustard at home.

      But either way, thanks again for participating in the discussion. Hopefully we’ll see you around here again!

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      1. I understand your usage of “semiprofessional,” but it’s a term I try to weed out due to the amount of youth players who have no clue of “professional” or “amateurism” is. Youth players need to understand you are either “professional” or “amateur.” You either get paid for your services or you don’t. Amateurs can still get compensated for some things (i.e., housing, travel, food). There’s no doubt about it these amateur teams have players that aspire to be professional — even if there is or isn’t a connection between Houston and Cincinnati with the Dayton squads.

        What has Cincinnati’s problem been with sustainability with these soccer programs? I think that’s what needs to be figured out. I went to the Kings USL-2 matches. Venue was nice, but not adequate for spectators (for multiple reasons). I think it’s easy to say that other USL venues are still not adequate (DDL being one of them). Teams cannot and should not rely on gate revenue to financially provide for the clubs.That funding is a perk, not the primary financial means.

        I completely understand what you are saying about international players coming to play in our domestic development leagues — and to me, that includes the college ranks. But, if the club exists for that reason, then so be it. There is a limit in USL Pro on how many internationals can play on any club. I don’t know if the same exists in PDL (I imagine it does). Either way, every amateur or “pre-professional” desires the same things or things: development, desire to move upward, competitive ability, and hopefully growing the game.

        I’m glad I found you here. I’ll be looking around and staying. :)

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        1. I see your point when it comes to the use of the terms. Unfortunately, the PDL allowing both amateurism and professionalism within a single league does muddy the waters a bit. Perhaps the price of progress?

          As for Cincinnati’s struggles to maintain a team, it mostly comes down to the inability to drive interest in coming out to the games (gate revenue) and sponsorship (investment). And of course, the first begets the second. To me at least, there’s only a finite amount of interest in investing in the game in Cincinnati, and having to split that between two teams is what the biggest impediment with CDL’s arrival in the market. We’ll see how it plays out.

          Anyway, thanks for adding to the discussion, and I look forward to having you around!

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