New stadium a must for FC Cincinnati to join Major League Soccer

Nippert renovations not enough

CINCINNATI -- With no public plan for a new stadium, FC Cincinnati might seem behind in the bidding process for Major League Soccer expansion, but MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott made it clear in a conference call with media Wednesday that there is still time for finalizing those details of the application.

Cincinnati was among 12 markets to submit an application for MLS expansion consideration by Tuesday’s deadline, joined by Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego, and Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg.

MLS will be selecting four from that pool for the next rounds of expansion with hopes to announce the first two by the end of the year, targeting play to begin in 2020. The selections will be made based on three main criteria: having a committed and financially stable ownership group, a supportive market and a club-controlled stadium. Abbott declined to rank any of the markets that applied.

“We recognized that by yesterday when expansion applications were due ... not every club or market would have a finalized stadium plan,” Abbott said. “What we asked for at this time was for people to provide us with information about the status of their stadium plan and what the path is for finalizing a stadium plan.

"We can't select a market without a finalized stadium plan, so there is a difference in what you have to have when you filed yesterday and ultimately when we make the selection process, which is why we have said it could take all the way until the end of this year before we make those selection.”

Originally, MLS had anticipated a decision on the first two teams would come by the second or third quarter, but Abbott said it could take until the end of the year. The league will be reviewing in detail all the applications over the next few weeks and following up with markets regarding any questions or further information it seeks before taking the process to the expansion committee in the coming months.

Abbott expects stadium plans to be finalized over the course of the year.

FC Cincinnati had been hoping its current home at 40,000-seat Nippert Stadium, where it drew 17,962 fans a game in its inaugural year, would suffice; however, the club has been scouting out sites for a new location since MLS announced in mid-December that it required a soccer-specific venue.

Despite renovations FC Cincinnati has made to Nippert Stadium, the team would need a new soccer-specific stadium to be accepted into Major League Soccer.

Club President and General Manager Jeff Berding won’t go into specifics about the stadium plan, but told SI.com’s Brian Straus the map has been narrowed down to two sites between the Ohio River Downtown and University of Cincinnati.

According to Abbott, MLS just needs to know a stadium is going to be built before it selects any market, which requires the club to have the site under control, relevant approval necessary to build and funding secured.

“We have had discussion with them about a plan for a new stadium,” Abbott said of Cincinnati’s ownership group. “I think we're obviously at the beginning of the process here. I know they have been spending time evaluating that, and those are conversations we look forward to continuing to have with them. Other than that, I don't really have any other specific comments on the stadium plan in Cincinnati, but we have talked to them about a new stadium.”

While FC Cincinnati was busy investing in Nippert Stadium (they put $2 million into widening the pitch this offseason), many of the other ownership groups or cities already had announced new stadium plans. More recently, others have received approval from local government channels regarding the location or funding.

However, Abbott said that Cincinnati’s lingering hopes that Nippert would work out didn’t put them behind in the bidding. At the time of MLS Commissioner Don Garber’s visit to Cincinnati, the club had only looked at a map to see what 20-acre properties might be available, according to past interviews with Berding.

“I wouldn't categorize anyone as ahead or behind,” Abbott said. “People are in different stages of where they are, but I actually talked to Carl (Lindner) yesterday and exchanged notes with Jeff (Berding) this morning, and they are extremely focused on this. They have been successful in a number of endeavors obviously in other businesses, and I think they are bringing that attitude towards it.”

Ownership groups had just six weeks since the application process was announced and the time they were due, which Berding told WCPO.com made for some late nights at the office.

He had no complaints because it is part of the job and something he loves, but one reporter on the conference call expressed there seems to be some general frustrations in the short timeframe allowed for completing the applications.

A large crowd of FC Cincinnati fans gathered at Woodward Theater to meet MLS Commissioner Don Garber during a visit in November.

“When we issued the applications in December, that wasn't the first time we had been talking to any of these markets, and in some cases, those discussions have been taking places literally over the course of years and some cases multiple months,” Abbott said when asked about those frustrations. “It wasn't the beginning of the process, it was the start of the next phase of the process.” 

Abbott was pleased overall with the strength of the applications, though MLS has not fully gone through all of them yet.

“I've been very fortunate to be involved with the league since its inception,” Abbott said. “As you know, we had 10 teams when we launched the league in 1996, and to be able to see on a single day 12 markets submit applications with the strength of ownership groups and the strength of stadium plans that we saw is really something that is quite amazing.”

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