Sitting in an auditorium on the campus of University of Cincinnati yesterday morning, before the press conference had even started, I got the feeling that what was about to unfold at today’s official FC Cincinnati unveiling was going to change the face of soccer in the Queen City forever.
I’ve been around the Cincinnati soccer scene for 25 years — seeing “professional” clubs come and go as a player, a fan and a member of the media — and I can honestly say that I’ve never before had that kind of feeling about anything soccer related here before.
Perhaps I felt that way due to the long list of big names in attendance.
There was United Soccer League’s president Jake Edwards, as would be expected at a USL expansion announcement. The Dayton Dutch Lions ownership was there as well, being minority investors in the team. Too, there was former Columbus Crew president Mark McCullers, who we would learn will be an Assistant General Manager for FCC. And how could we forget John Harkes, the former US men’s national team captain who will be taking the reigns on the sideline for the clubs inaugural season in 2016. But not only that, but some of the coaches and directors of the most influential youth clubs in Cincinnati were also in the room.
Those were just some of the soccer names involved. From a local perspective, the room was a venerable who’s who of Cincinnati power players. Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley played the role of occasional emcee at the event, introducing the likes of Edwards, former city council man club president Jeff Berding, and eventually majority team owner Carl Lindner III. The latter whom, with a net worth approaching $2 billion, brought an air of prestige that no previous professional soccer efforts in this city has ever managed before.
Then there were the Cincinnati media bigwigs in attendance, from the Cincinnati Enquirer to local radio stations to the local television names. Seeing them all show up at one time, for one soccer event, is another occurrence we’ve never seen before in this town. Normally it’s just me, my podcast partner Jeremy, and the occasional one-off reporter who had a side interest in the sport.
If you’ve followed me on Twitter for any length of time before today, or have listened to our podcast, you’ll know that I’ve been skeptical of what FC Cincinnati were allegedly pursuing. That position has largely been built by the city’s checkered past with the higher levels of the sport, but it was further solidified by the seeming audacity of the goals the team were allegedly being associated with.
Not helping any of that is my association with the city’s pre-existing club. I naturally felt defensive; the NPSL’s Cincinnati Saints had been left out of the equation, despite six years of effort from their ownership and other members of the Cincinnati soccer community — myself included.
But checking allegiances and pre-conceived notions at the door, I wanted to ensure that I gave FCC a chance to prove themselves before casting them to the side as just another efforts to bring professional soccer work on the banks of the Ohio River.
The scale of everything and the names involved made that a lot easier. Everything just seemed so much larger, so much better organized, and far more ambitious than anyone in this town has ever managed before. Deep pockets will often do that for you, and with the Lindners on board, those pockets go really deep.
Of everything that the club and people there spoke about today, it was FC Cincinnati’s ambition that I walked away the most captivated by.
Not that other clubs here haven’t shown ambition. It’s quite the opposite, actually. But the scope and means are on a different level.
As has become somewhat regular for newly announced USL sides, rumors prior to today’s launch had indicated that Major League Soccer was FCC’s true ambition. I had quickly written that off as speculative for the pure fact of the money that would have been necessary to pull that off. But other impediments stand in the way of achieving that goal, too. For one, MLS has — or at bare minimum, had — an exclusivity clause with the Crew granting them the sole franchise rights in Ohio. Too, there’s the issue of the city’s routinely poor support for the other professional grade clubs that have been propped up in town.
A billionaire’s involvement could potentially change all of that, though.
The Lindner’s are in no way a “minor league” investor, as is evident with their previous ownership of MLB’s Reds and investment into the NFL’s Bengals. As for the Ohio-exclusivity deal with Columbus, offer to throw a hundred million in Major League Soccer’s direction, and they’ll at least be willing to hear you out — if not change the rules entirely. And with that type of money on the table, that means that FC Cincinnati do have the means to market the side in a way that no other club here has been able to afford to do.
Does the club actually foster those kind of audacious ambitions, though?
Club President and General Manager Jeff Berding certainly didn’t shy away from it at the press conference. “The vision that we have for professional soccer that we have for Cincinnati is at the highest level.” When asked more directly if the club held aspirations to become an MLS franchise, Berding answered far more directly. “Absolutely, yes.”
But even more interesting is what Berding had to say at one of the club’s first public events, a meet and greet at my home soccer bar, Rhinehaus in the city’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood in the evening after yesterday’s press conference.
Not only do FC Cincinnati aspire to be in MLS, they’ve already held discussions to do so. Berding claimed that the club have already spoken with MLS commissioner Don Garber, and that the pursuit of an MLS franchise is the reason why Carl Lindner — reportedly good friends with principal MLS investor and LA Galaxy owner Phil Anschutz — is even involved in the first place. And shockingly, the time table he referred to was in the next 5 years.
I mean, that’s pretty freaking ambitious.
That, however, doesn’t mean I still don’t hold on to some skepticism. Is the possibility of a rivalry between Cincinnati and Columbus enough for MLS to overturn any Ohio exclusivity that the Crew may still hold on to? To answer that question, Cincinnati will have to prove it even has the fans to create that rivalry. And as I’ve stated many times before, the city’s appetite for pro soccer here in the past hasn’t exactly proven it does.
To be fair, Berding and FCC are aware of that, too. “[Our vision for high level soccer in Cincinnati] will only be realized by the community as a whole… fans coming to games. You have to show the US soccer community that Cincinnati is a viable, strong soccer community. All of our aspirations will only be achieved together.”
Can they draw that kind of support? We’ll see.
There were a large number of “fans” in attendance today, often referenced by the Berding and USL commissioner Edwards. But considering the club was just announced yesterday, those supporters are likely only there via astroturfing efforts by the club. That’s natural for a new franchise — though different from recent USL expansions to Louisville and St. Louis that had fans calling for a team before their announcements — but not a guarantee of long term success on the attendance front.
But what is clear is that FC Cincinnati want to go down that path to growing more organic support and grow this club in a way they see fit. Their plans to forgo an MLS club affiliation support that theory too; they obviously want to steer their own ship.
What happens if that MLS dream never comes to fruition? Have the Lindners signed on for life permanently in the lower tiers? They’ll think they can avoid that scenario, but it is something they’ll need to address. And they’ll focus on efforts to dance around that as best they can.
And with the ambition and money there, what’s left for FC Cincinnati, Harkes, Berding and Lindner to do? Everything necessary to make those lofty objectives happen.
For more info and additional perspective, be sure to check out the write up on the event from USL insider, Chad Hollingsworth, at ScratchingthePitch.com.