Portune says Nippert, Paul Brown stadiums should suffice for FC Cincinnati to join MLS

CINCINNATI -- The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners supports FC Cincinnati in its bid to bring Major League Soccer to the Queen City, but that doesn’t necessarily extend to the idea of building the club a new stadium.

The county submitted a letter of support as part of FC Cincinnati’s application for MLS expansion consideration at the Jan. 31 deadline. A total of 12 markets hoping to earn one of the four spots left in the growing league.

Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune

However, Commissioners Chris Monzel and Todd Portune both said the club has not asked about financing a new stadium and it is “way too early” to discuss even needing one. Portune stressed Cincinnati already has two “MLS-ready” stadiums in FC Cincinnati’s current residence at Nippert Stadium and the Bengals’ home at Paul Brown Stadium, which hosted a U.S. women’s national soccer team game in October 2004.

“We’ve emphasized to MLS that Nippert Stadium is a terrific venue,” one of the local delegation that met with MLS Commissioner Don Garber during his visit to Cincinnati in November. “There are a couple million in renovations to make it more suitable for soccer to be played there. It’s a venue Cincinnati-area fans have taken to tremendously, and we are very involved in transportation infrastructure improvements to help make it more accessible and easier for people to get in and out of.

“We also own another stadium that was built and designed for soccer -- Paul Brown Stadium can host MLS events,” he continued. “We’ve been promoting both in this effort in engaging with MLS officials. As far as anyone building a stadium, it’s way, way, way too early in all this process for anyone to think that is the direction FC Cincinnati is going or needs to go or has to go. I personally do not believe, nor have I been told by anyone at MLS, that a stadium has to be built. Our first order is to express how good Nippert or Paul Brown can be to host games.”

Garber first questioned Nippert Stadium as a long-term solution for FC Cincinnati during his visit Nov. 29. Even in announcing the application process on Dec. 15 during a conference call with media, Garber did not originally say markets needed to build stadiums to be considered for expansion, but when pressed further about facility requirements, he said “club-controlled stadiums are a must.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber during his visit to Cincinnati in November.

Atlanta United FC, which joins MLS this year, will be sharing a brand new facility with the Atlanta Falcons and already has sold more than 27,000 season tickets. However, Garber seems to be sweetening the pot for MLS with stricter stadium requirements and a $150 million expansion fee for the first two of the final four expansion clubs. Those should be announced by the end of the year with a target to start play in 2020.

With 12 applicants, MLS can afford to demand markets to have soccer-specific stadiums with natural-grass fields. Nippert Stadium, which is undergoing a $2 million renovation to widen the field to MLS regulations, and Paul Brown Stadium would not meet those standards.

The Bengals had natural grass their first four seasons at PBS, which opened in 2000, but now play on synthetic turf, and FC Cincinnati would not have full control of its schedule there once the NFL season begins in September. The same is true at UC's Nippert Stadium.

FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding was not available for comment, and team spokesperson Fumi Kimura said the club would not discuss stadium sites or confirm whether FC Cincinnati has inquired about using Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals spokesperson Jack Brennan said the team could not comment on FC Cincinnati’s MLS bid.

FC Cincinnati has explored other options, though.

Berding told WCPO on Nov. 30 that the club had looked at maps to see what 15- to 20-acre properties exist in the urban core between the riverfront and University of Cincinnati areas. Since then, the club reportedly has narrowed down two potential sites and hired MEIS, a sports and entertainment architectural firm with offices in New York and Los Angeles, to help with designs for a new stadium.

Monzel said FC Cincinnati hasn’t informed the county which sites it selected, and he doesn’t know if the team would ask for public money to fund such a stadium. According to Monzel, FC Cincinnati met with the board of commissioners in December simply about getting a letter of support, and Portune drafted the letter in January expressing the county’s desire to see an MLS franchise awarded to Cincinnati.

Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel

“That was never broached in our conversations,” Monzel said of funding for a stadium. “But we understand the landscape we are in with the two stadiums we already have on the riverfront.”

Portune said the community still has not recovered from the 1996 decision to raise the county sales tax by one percent to pay $540 million toward new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals. In 2011 the Wall Street Journal called that “the worst stadium financing deal ever.”

“There are a lot of ways you can have public support for a new stadium that doesn’t necessarily include cash infusion,” Portune said. “Our community has still not recovered from the hardship that was caused by the 1996 stadium sales tax and the problems by public officials whose responsibility it was to manage those funds responsibly and their failure to do so.”

Portune said even if FC Cincinnati privately finances a stadium, that is still several hundred million dollars on top of the franchise fee and the higher cost of operating a club under MLS salaries.

Still, he emphasized again the focus should be on proving Nippert and Paul Brown stadiums can work.

“They may be looking at sites, and their model may be to look for a stadium that is soccer-specific, but we have that already here in Cincinnati in the context of Paul Brown Stadium because it was designed in a way to accommodate football and soccer, and Nippert Stadium, because we’ve already proven it works for soccer, and it’s being reconfigured to be even better,” Portune said. “We have two very soccer-specific stadiums. They are state-of-the-art. They are exciting venues to hold events. We don’t have to spend a couple hundred million to build a new stadium.”

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