As deadline nears, Hamilton County Commissioners consider Paul Brown Stadium for FC Cincinnati

CINCINNATI -- Hamilton County commissioners, who have just weeks to decide how and if they'll kick in money to help FC Cincinnati build a new soccer stadium, are looking at whether Paul Brown Stadium could be home to a potential Major League Soccer team.

Commissioners are offering up the stadium, which county taxpayers own, as a solution to keep FC Cincinnati in Ohio -- without spending the $100 million from the public the team says it needs to build a $200 million stadium.

“We own a stadium on the riverfront, that from my understanding, soccer can be played at,” Hamilton County Commission Vice President Denise Driehaus said. “I’ve asked the (county) administration to take a hard look at Paul Brown, to pursue it or get it off the table.”

The county’s latest bid to spare taxpayers $100 million and keep the team in Ohio shows just how little agreement has been reached between public leaders and FC Cincinnati on a stadium deal.

And the clock is ticking: FC Cincinnati needs to ink a deal by November. MLS is expected to select two new cities to join the league in December.

But the county's three-member county commission sounded unified on the issue Wednesday. In a rare consensus, they agreed Paul Brown Stadium should be looked at as a serious option.

Commissioners put pressure on both FC Cincinnati and the Bengals to work out a deal.

Commissioner Chris Monzel, the lone Republican, said Paul Brown could work for professional soccer.

"If it's good enough for the World Cup, I'm sure it's good enough for any soccer team," he said at a Wednesday meeting. Paul Brown Stadium is one of 32 North American venues now vying to host the international men's soccer tournament in 2026.

“In reality, it’s the Hamilton County taxpayers' stadium," Monzel added. "I think it’s about time that we might be able to use the lease that’s been such a burden to our advantage here."

Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune, who started Wednesday’s meeting passing out copies of an article noting MLS Commissioner Don Garber was re-thinking the soccer-specific stadium requirement, said he’s discussed the issue with the Bengals. 

“We all encourage the Cincinnati Bengals to work with us,” Portune said. For months, Portune has push FC Cincinnati to consider Paul Brown Stadium or Nippert Stadium at University of Cincinnati as an MLS stadium. 

The Bengals organization declined comment. FC Cincinnati did not respond to a request for comment. 

Conversations have also taken place between Berding and the Bengals’ director of business development Bob Bedinghaus, according to a memo the county’s lawyers released Wednesday. The two were longtime coworkers: Berding was a Bengals executive before leaving to run FC Cincinnati.

FC Cincinnati and the Bengals could negotiate a new, separate deal together, the memo notes.

“Although the lease terms with the Cincinnati Bengals Inc. give certain rights to the Bengals, there is nothing to prevent the negotiation of different terms with a professional soccer franchise led by Jeff Berding,” the county memo states.

FC Cincinnati and its fans have lobbied county leaders with chants and parades to help pay for a new stadium’s construction, but the team has offered no official financing plan for the public’s contribution. Team owners plan to kick in half -- $100 million -- of the stadium’s cost.

Offering up Paul Brown as a stadium plan for FC Cincinnati is tricky.

Berding has repeatedly knocked down suggestions to use Nippert or Paul Brown Stadium, which was initially designed to accommodate professional soccer games 20 years ago.

While some MLS teams play in football stadiums, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said new teams entering the league must have a soccer-specific stadium. FC Cincinnati is competing with 11 other cities to earn a spot in the league, some of which have a soccer stadium plan ready to go.

In addition to all of that, there's a sticky lease situation.

The lease gives the county the power to select a soccer team to play at Paul Brown Stadium -- only after the Bengals have refused to put together a professional soccer team of their own to play there, Hamilton County Administrator Jeff Aluotto said.

That’s good news for the county, since it’s unlikely Bengals owner Mike Brown could cobble together a professional soccer team in the next few weeks.

But the biggest problem with the lease is that team controls any money made from advertising and concessions at Paul Brown -- no matter who plays there. That means FC Cincinnati would miss out on a huge chunk of revenue; this also bolsters the team’s arguments that it needs its own stadium.

The county does, however, get half of parking money generated on non-football-game days from garages around Paul Brown Stadium. County leaders could offer that money up to FC Cincinnati.

“Part of the question is the economics of the lease and how the revenues would flow to who,” Aluotto said. “At the end of the day, the taxpayer is owed an answer as to whether or not it works.”

FC Cincinnati will have to access at least one of those revenue streams to make Paul Brown Stadium work, Portune acknowledged Wednesday.

In recent weeks, Berding has suggested tax breaks could help the team build the stadium, but that won’t make up for the entirety of the $100 million the team says it needs to make the deal work.

Portune, who has also pressed FC Cincinnati to consider staying at Nippert Stadium, said using one of the city’s existing stadiums is the “best answer.” It’s unlikely, he said, that the county will come up with a way to fund the $100 million ask from the soccer team.

“Short of getting the city and the state to contribute to all of this, it’s going to be a real challenge and heavy lift for a soccer-specific stadium,” Portune said.

Hamilton County memo on FC Cincinnati at Paul Brown Stadium by WCPO Web Team on Scribd

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