CINCINNATI -- To be or not to be is not just a question from a moody Danish prince, but seems to be one FC Cincinnati supporters are debating lately.
When it comes to the local professional soccer club, the question is less about agonizing over vengeance than it is about whether or not to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in their current place, the United Soccer League, or push for a move to the top tier of their sport in America, Major League Soccer.
FC Cincinnati currently resides in sixth-place in the Eastern Conference of the USL, but a recent victory over MLS neighbor Columbus Crew in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup has many supporters leaning toward making the jump.
“We feel like we deserve to be there and I think we will get there,” said Payne Rankin, president of The Pride, one of the club’s six supporters’ groups. “We’ve worked really hard to build a fan culture as the most raucous, loudest, and passionate fan base. To play in the highest league in this country would be an honor for us and a testament to what the fans and the club have achieved.”
There are aspects of the USL that appeal to fans, but the next level is enticing.
“Personally, I could be content with the Louisville rivalry in the USL, but I worry about how strong the league will be five or 10 years down the line,” said Geoff Tebbetts, who has purchased season tickets for both years of FC Cincinnati’s existence. “I feel a move to the MLS is important if Cincy wishes to grow as a sports market. We can't depend on the Bengals and Reds forever.”
Tebbetts, a Boston native, came to town over four years ago with MLS club loyalty already in place as a New England Revolution fan. If FC Cincinnati rises to that level, he said he could see switching that allegiance, while still respecting the Revs.
“I like what FCC has done for the city in general,” he said. “If anything, it’s helped me become more passionate towards the city.”
Conflicting loyalties are just one question FC Cincinnati fans would have to answer, especially those who have supported the Crew for years, as the area’s closest MLS team.
“As a Crew supporter for 12 years, my fandom had not been tested until the Hell is Real derby, at which I sported my FCC gear,” said Bert Hehman, referring to FC Cincinnati's 1-0 win in the U.S. Open Cup match. “Should FCC become an MLS franchise, my support will lie solely with my hometown team.”
Hehman also believes that move is crucial for the future of the sport in the Queen City.
“I think it is paramount for the club to make it to MLS, mainly because this city is starving for a professional organization of that caliber with the unique relationship to its fan base that FCC has,” he said. “I think the success of the team and the enthusiasm of its fan base are directly connected, they’ve risen together, and should MLS pass on Cincinnati, I can honestly see both wane.”
Nathan Beighle, who along with his brother, Matthew, run the fan blog Bailey Banter, believes the move up to MLS would be positive.
“I think you have to be for it,” he said. “With more attendance and possibly more revenue for the city, there’s no bad side to it.”
Matthew is even more effusive in his belief that Cincinnati should be a MLS city.
“MLS needs -- and we have -- attendance, fans and money,” he said. “I think we are a lock right now. We proved we can hang with MLS teams by beating the Crew. We’ve been smashing attendance records right and left, like with the Crew game, we drew the most fans ever for a fourth-round Open Cup game.
“Our statement has already been made -- MLS is where we belong. Cincinnati has one of the best sports histories of any city, and now soccer is a part of that.”
That’s not to say a possible MLS move is without drawbacks. Current ticket prices for a FC Cincinnati match run from $10-$30 for a single game. The Crew, by comparison, have tickets starting at $27, and running to $70 per seat. Season tickets for FC Cincinnati run as high as $295, while the Crew offer a similar package for 10 games, at $320 for similar seats, although that package covers just over half of the team’s home games.
“I can see why a season ticket holder could be against moving to MLS,” Nathan Beighle said. “Those tickets will go up, and if we’re a bad MLS team, hype might go down.”
Kat Finn, a season ticket holder, agrees.
“I chose to be a season ticket holder this year simply because I could afford it and it would give me a chance to learn the game,” Finn said. “As much as it would be great for FCC to become an MLS team, I don’t believe the fans will have the means to support the team as much as they do right now.”
And if the move doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world, Rankin said.
“I talked with Orlando supporters who said, ‘Don’t rush your way out of USL,’” Rankin said, referring to Orlando City FC, who moved up to MLS two years ago. “I like the rivalries we have with Louisville, Pittsburgh, and even Richmond. Where we are isn’t a bad place to be.”
FC Cincinnati fans will get another dose of MLS action Wednesday night when the team host Chicago Fire at Nippert Stadium in the round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup.