CINCINNATI -- Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber drew cheers and applause throughout various portions of his town hall meeting with FC Cincinnati fans on Tuesday but the loudest response might have been when he said Cincinnati deserves to be part of MLS.
As impressed as he was with his visit to Cincinnati, Garber made it clear there is still a lot to figure out before the organization signs Cincinnati up as one of the next expansion markets.
"This is the beginning of your chapter," Garber told the wall-to-wall audience at the town hall meeting. “It starts with this visit today. I think it really started with what you've done in your first year in USL.
"We all have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of things we have to figure out with the league, and there is a lot that still needs to be done here to continue to build this club, to continue to build the fan base, to continue to figure out what it's long-term stadium solution is, but I will say I'm very impressed with what I've seen here. Cincinnati deserves an MLS team."
His visit was just the next big step in the process as MLS tries to figure out the last four or five markets to be included in its plans to expand to 28 teams. Here’s a look at what fans can take away from Garber’s visit:
1. Cincinnati is one very good example.
Garber didn’t publicly downplay how impressed he was by what he saw Tuesday while touring Cincinnati and meeting with various FC Cincinnati, city and business leaders.
However, in an interview with media following the town hall question-and-answer session with fans, Garber said he wishes he could say Cincinnati was unique.
"The reality is that there is enormous passion for professional soccer in our country in many cities outside of Major League Soccer, and I think Cincinnati is another example of that," Garber said. "We've had similar events in Orlando before they came in. We've been to Sacramento, St. Louis and that just speaks to how far the soccer culture has come in the U.S. and Canada. But, that doesn't take away anything from how impressed I am from what I saw today from my initial meetings with (owner) Carl Lindner and his partners, to the tour of the city and meeting with mayors and other politicians, to see some of the unique things in Over-the-Rhine and the cool, funky downtown development they have there to the rally here today. These are the days that allow us to get up in the morning with a little bounce in our step."
— Don Garber (@thesoccerdon) November 29, 2016
Garber declined to say where Cincinnati and other cities ranked in the pecking order for expansion consideration, but there is little reason to believe a club that averaged 17,296 fans in its first season would be any lower on the list than another market.
2. Timeline remains up in the air
The first three of eight planned expansion teams are in place with Atlanta and Minnesota joining MLS in 2017 and Los Angeles getting a second team in 2018. Miami could follow in 2018 or 2019 but hasn’t finalized stadium plans.
Garber said the next wave would not come before 2020, and the league will take its time deciding on the last markets to include -- despite the town hall crowd’s repeated chants to bring FC Cincinnati in “right now, right now, right now."
The MLS expansion committee will meet Dec. 15 to discuss a timeline and process to determine the next batch of clubs to add.
3. Three main factors to consider
There are three main factors Garber considers when looking at expansion possibilities. Teams with a committed ownership group in a sustainable market and with the right facility will be favored, he said.
"It starts with ownership," Garber said. "You've got owners that believe, that are committed, that want to create a legacy in the community, believe in our sport and want to be one of those pioneers to help build the sport. Then, you need this. The city that supports the club, that's got great fans and passionate fans, and then you've got the right building. And it’s really in that order."
FC Cincinnati passes the first two criteria with flying colors, as Garber pointed out in the town hall meeting. The facility remains the question. FC Cincinnati continues to rent the field at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, and the team paid for renovations to widen the field for 2017. (Work began Monday, according to club president and general manager Jeff Berding).
The club at least seemed more open to other options Tuesday, whereas before officials have maintained they are committed to Nippert working out.
“Our commitment has been to have what has been a proven venue at Nippert, be ready from Day 1 to be an MLS facility,” Berding said. “It's going to be an MLS-worthy facility starting in 2017 and we're committed to that partnership with the University of Cincinnati. If at some point down the road, MLS says that long-term they want to see our franchise continue to develop and potentially develop a new soccer-specific stadium, then we'll look at that challenge at the time. Our commitment is to bring professional soccer at the highest level to Cincinnati, and we'll take the challenges as they come.”
4. Nippert is a question, but not an immediate drawback
Although MLS has made it known it prefers teams to have a soccer-specific stadium in a downtown location, Garber indicated that FC Cincinnati won’t be overlooked because of its shared facility with UC.
"I think for now it's a great solution," Garber said. "If we could wave a magic wand, we would love to have soccer stadiums downtown in every market. That's not always the situation for us. We have teams like Seattle that play in a football stadium downtown and about 42,000 fans a game come. I think Nippert has been great, but you've got lots of time to figure out whether or not that's the long-term solution."
When asked to expand on how necessary a soccer-specific stadium plan would be for a team to be included in expansion, Garber said "all expansion candidates must have a long-term stadium plan."
"FC Cincinnati will develop that plan," Garber added. "I'm sure Nippert will be part of that plan, and whether or not it's their long-term solution is for them to decide."
5. MLS needs more Midwest teams
One fan pointed out to Garber that the majority of MLS teams are located on the east and west coasts, with Columbus Crew being one of the few Midwest teams, and Garber agreed the middle of the U.S. needs more representation.
Cincinnati could help fill that need.
"When you think about expansion, ... what goes into the market is geographic location," Garber said. “When you are a pro sports league, you try to have as many connecting, eccentric circles because those connections create this national fan base, which is what we needed. If you look at our television ratings, they are not as high as they need to be. If you want to bring a (dual passport player) Chris Pulisic back, you've got to pay him $10 million a year. To do that, you have to have the right television base and to do that, you have to build your national fan base. All that requires your eccentric circle to be connected and we are not covered in the Midwest as much as we are on the coast. That's why I'm here in Cincinnati."
6. Cincinnati visit could shape future discussions
Lindner, the team’s majority owner, said he believes FC Cincinnati would fit in well with the other MLS clubs, and hopes Garber’s visit helps shape future expansion discussions.
"I think our season and momentum we have speaks for itself," Lindner said. “We have a great ownership group. We have a great venue we’re playing in. I think this could be one other reason to build momentum.
"I think we can learn a lot (from this visit), no doubt, but I think with some of the things happening here in Cincinnati, we're surprising the whole world. ... I think we could be a great part of MLS if we were so blessed to get a bid."
7. Challenge for supporters
When someone asked Garber what FC Cincinnati fans could do to help bring MLS to Cincinnati, Garber challenged supporters' groups to keep growing and getting out in the community.
He said they should seek to build up to 5,000 members, then 10,000 and eventually 20,000.
"When I'm on social media and I’m following supporters groups, it's not to see what nasty things they are saying about me," Garber said. "It's to see what they are doing in the community. This group can go and take our sport and take this club and leave a legacy behind even before you're in MLS, and that's what is going to set our sport aside against two major league teams that have been here a really long time. Build your supporters' group and go out and do some things in your community so the rest of the soccer public pays attention to that. We're going to change our country with our sport."
FC Cincinnati has passionate "diehard" fans in its various supporters groups, such as Die Innenstadt, The Pride and The Den, which helped make the game-day atmosphere exciting for everyone. Many members were in attendance at the town hall meeting Tuesday and about 100 of them also welcomed Garber when he arrived by plane at Lunken Airport and even more were on hand as he arrived for his tour of Nippert Stadium later in the morning.
8. Garber sees excitement around the city
The commissioner saw excitement not just from fans but also from the local government and business leaders he met with throughout the day. Mayor John Cranley guided him on the tour of the urban core of Cincinnati, which included stops at Fountain Square, Moerlein Lager House, Smale Park, Cintrifuse, Rhinehaus and Washington Park.
"The enormous passion that FC Cincinnati fans have for their club and their commitment to come together to try to bring this club into Major League Soccer -- you can't be anything other than inspired by the energy the fans have," Garber said. "But beyond the excited fans, the corporate community. who I've met with twice today and who I will meet with later tonight, has shown similar passion. The mayor and other city officials have been with us throughout the day, and they, too, are very proud of their city and would love to see Cincinnati be an MLS team."
The city was covered in orange and blue on Monday as businesses and fans showed their support.
"They (supporters' groups) worked so well with the front office and the front office worked so well with them that it's easy to put together a day like today," said Tom Grabo, who is known to most as Cincy Super Fan. "It was so much fun. It was excellent. ... I still don't believe it. It's so amazing that we're here to this point."
9. Fans should be encouraged
ESPN lead MLS analyst Taylor Twellman, who served as the town hall emcee, said fans should be encouraged by Garber’s visit and not be discouraged if the process takes time.
"The way the soccer landscape is in the United States, this is just part of the business growth of Major League Soccer," Twellman said in an interview Tuesday morning. “I'm here on behalf of FC Cincinnati and ESPN. I'm not here on behalf of Major League Soccer. Don Garber is here because he's seen from the outside looking in, going, 'Wait a minute,' so I take it as a compliment. There are some people that will see that comment and go, 'Whatever. Why is FC Cincinnati pandering to one man or one organization?' It's not really what this is about. They want to be a first division club, and the way the landscape is in U.S. soccer, that's how it's going to be. I look at it as a positive. I don't know how you can look at it any other way.”
For what it’s worth, he doesn’t see expansion happening without Cincinnati.