To join MLS, FC Cincinnati feels pressure to build a soccer-specific stadium

'We feel we have world-class facility at Nippert'

CINCINNATI -- Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber raised some eyebrows at his town hall meeting with FC Cincinnati supporters last week when he said the club needs to figure out whether Nippert Stadium is its "long-term solution."

FC Cincinnati is hoping to convince Garber that its shared facility at the University of Cincinnati is suitable for MLS competition; however, the trend is heading toward more soccer-specific stadiums.

"I think what they've been able to do (at Nippert) is spectacular, but we do believe that our clubs will be more successful in soccer-specific stadiums," Garber said at the town hall meeting.

FC Cincinnati fans set a United Soccer League attendance record during the May 14, 2016, match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at UC's Nippert Stadium.

MLS has not made soccer-specific stadiums a requirement just yet for new teams joining the league, though.

The Columbus Crew built the first soccer-specific stadium in MLS in 1999, but the concept didn’t catch on until more recently. This year, 13 of 20 MLS teams had their own stadiums, and at least four more are currently in the works.

Orlando City, which played its first two seasons at the former Citrus Bowl football stadium, is set to move into its new 25,500-seat soccer stadium in 2017, and MLS original D.C. United began construction on a new facility this year and will move in by 2018.

Minnesota United FC, which will play its first season next year at the University of Minnesota, and Los Angeles FC, joining the following year, will move into their own stadiums in 2018 as well.

FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said he understands why soccer-specific stadiums are attractive to MLS, but exceptions have been and should be made when the market proves itself worthy without it.

"They like the natural grass, which most share venues don't have … and obviously it takes revenue to support a professional soccer team and if you have a team that has the opportunity to secure all the parking revenue, all other event revenue, like if you're hosting concerts or things of that nature there, all the concessions revenue -- they think that gives you the best opportunity to be successful long term," Berding said. "But we have a pretty good partnership with UC, and we explored that with them during their visit, and they didn't say it's a requirement. He expressly said it's a preference."

Atlanta United FC earned a bid to join the league next year without plans for its own stadium. It will share a new multi-purpose stadium with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons.

Additionally, New York City FC joined the league in 2015 with hopes to have its own facility, but plans to build in Queens were shot down, forcing the club to settle for a lease at Yankee Stadium. Plans for a soccer facility adjacent to that venue have not been finalized.

Orlando City founder and president Phil Rawlins told WCPO in September that his club tried to sell MLS on the newly renovated Citrus Bowl -- now known as Campus World Stadium -- but the league wouldn’t extend an expansion bid without a new facility.

Rawlins’ club sold out the 62,500-seat football stadium for its inaugural MLS game in 2015, but the league wanted a downtown facility, and the Citrus Bowl was on the outskirts of town.

"I think what they are going to do is they are going to look at each market independently, and look at the circumstances and the logistics of the city," Rawlins told WCPO during that interview. "I've not been to Cincinnati in a while, but from what ownership tells me, they've got a great location pretty much in the heart of downtown, on a campus of the university, and it seems obvious they are drawing great crowds to that facility, so it's obviously accessible and people want to go there, they want to go to a game there and enjoy the atmosphere there.

"You've got to look at that and say, 'Can that work?' I'm not the expert or the final say on that, but it sounds like they've got a good facility right now. Could it be developed and enhanced a little more? Possibly. But if you look at the supporters' base for Major League Soccer, it's very definitely targeted to the millennials and they want to be in downtown. They want to walk to the stadium from the bars and go back to the bars after the game. It's an urban experience. That's the way it works in MLS, and I think that's the key is not so much the building itself but more the location and does it lend itself to your supporter base. Where they are now, it's pretty evident it's working out."

Teams have proven they can succeed without their own stadiums. An article in Forbes showed that the Seattle Sounders -- who share a facility with the NFL’s Seahawks -- are the most valuable franchise in the league, valued at $285 million.

FC Cincinnati, which reportedly turned a profit in its inaugural United Soccer League season, averaged 17,296 fans, outdrawing five MLS clubs, and topped the 30,000 mark twice -- once for a friendly with English Premier League side Crystal Palace and once in the playoffs. Orlando averaged around 8,000 during its final season in the USL.

The soccer-specific stadiums hosting MLS clubs range in size from 18,500-seat capacity to 27,000, while Nippert can hold 40,000, which could be another advantage for FC Cincinnati.

Nippert Stadium is currently undergoing more than $2 million in club-paid renovations to widen the pitch to FIFA regulations, and Berding said once those are complete in time for the 2017 season, the facility will be MLS-ready.

"We feel we have a world-class facility at Nippert Stadium, and that it will be MLS-ready with the widening of the pitch and some of the other improvements we’ve made over the last year," Berding said. "We were able to share with the commissioner how our partnership works with the University of Cincinnati, and now we just need to get him back for a game so he can see how it all comes together in the game-day environment."

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