CINCINNATI — Hell is real.
At least in soccer, I mean. The “Hell Is Real Derby” is about to claim a significant spot on the Cincinnati sports scene. For the first time ever – go back to 1788 if you want – Cincinnati will have a true sports rivalry with Columbus.
Major League Soccer brings this gift to the I-71 corridor, and in a moment we’ll get to explaining that hellish rivalry nickname. But the essential facts to start with are that 1) FC Cincinnati debuts in MLS next month; 2) the Columbus Crew is a charter MLS member (since 1996), and 3) the teams will play twice a year at the least (don’t forget possible playoff games) for the foreseeable future.
MLS is a hot league. Though not yet the equal of the NFL, MLB or NBA in popularity, its metrics point skyward. It will offer its share of chances for the “SportsCenter”-type attention our middling-size metropolises crave.
This “derby” – that’s soccer lingo for a rivalry -- is already real, not something hastily cooked by team marketing departments. In a sense, it’s already three years old, dating from 2016, when FC Cincinnati first mined explosive fan interest at the minor-league level.
Many FCC fans were also long-distance Crew fans, seeking the nearest MLS fix, but some of their affection veered toward jealousy and/or envy as they came to feel their own team merited MLS status as much as the Crew.
Fans of the Crew, meanwhile, could not ignore FCC. It was outdrawing their major-league club. They had to concede that Cincinnati was becoming a factor in Ohio pro soccer.
“Hell is Real” has its roots in an evangelizing billboard of the same words in Mt. Sterling, Ohio, 40 miles out of Columbus along I-71 and 60 miles from Cincinnati. Fans chose the slogan, christening the Cincy-Columbus soccer dynamic with a name in 2017, when soccer’s odd ways led to the two teams actually playing one another.
FCC qualified to face the Crew in the U.S. Open Cup, a competition (strange to conventional American sports) that throws teams from various levels into one huge, summer-long tournament. Cincinnati defeated the Crew, 1-nil, before more than 30,000 at Nippert Stadium, and it was a total hoot for the local MLS-jealous fan base. Even skeptical Reds/Bengals diehards were impressed by glowing coverage on ESPN that included specific praise for the Cincinnati atmosphere.
And though this “Hell Is Real” ultimately has little to do with religious hellfire, it’s very much about the blazing hot fun of sports and city bragging rights.
“The name took off on social media,” says FCC president Jeff Berding. “It’s an organic product of the fans.”
Berding gamely posits that “Hell Is Real” was the intellectual product of “our” fans. But that claim, like Cincinnati and New Orleans football fans arguing whether “Who Dey” or “Who Dat” came first, may be forever in dispute. The Columbus Dispatch has accorded the founding inspiration to Crew fans, whose claim is related not only to the 2017 game, but to the fact that Crew fans were the ones on I-71 at that time, driving past the billboard toward Nippert.
“The idea,” Crew fan Timothy Galiffo said, “is that we are coming to Cincinnati and we’re bringing hell with us. They are the new kids on the block, and we are old guard in Ohio soccer.”
Regardless of its provenance, “Hell Is Real” is a fantastic derby name. It conjures the spice of a killer hot sauce.
“These soccer people … they’re kind of fanatic,” says Bob Hunter, Dispatch sports columnist for 24 years until his retirement in 2017. “They make noise and get noticed. We know they do in Cincinnati, too, and the very nature of the fandom should stoke this thing.”
Ironically, no less than 12-18 months ago, it seemed Columbus would lose the Crew to Austin, Texas. Attendance had grown poor in an inadequate stadium in a dullsville location, and non-local owner Anthony Precourt was itching to blow town. But to make a very long story very short, the Crew is not only staying, it has a commitment for a new downtown stadium. Cleveland Browns owner Jim Haslam bought out Precourt, giving the Crew at least regional ownership at the top, and local owners are on board at a lower level.
“The fans in Columbus saved the team,” says FCC’s Berding. “They wouldn’t give up, even when it looked doomed. They were consistently noisy in league settings. And they got the attention of state officials (who made legal noise in opposition to the move). Who knows what would have happened if the legal process had played out fully, but the key is that the state’s intervention delayed the move long enough for Columbus to have time to work things out.”
The final deal included Precourt gaining ownership of a new Austin franchise, set to debut in 2021.
Forever in sports, until now, Cincinnati and Columbus have been ships passing in the night. Columbus of course has no sister clubs to the Cincinnati prize gems that are the Bengals and Reds. The only truly significant college clashes between Cincy and Columbus were almost 60 years ago and scheduled by happenstance, as UC beat Ohio State two straight years (1961-62) in the NCAA basketball final. Overall, Columbus has dominated collegiate consciousness through Ohio State football, and meetings between OSU and our local schools, in football or basketball, fall fathoms short of the number needed for a city-conscious rivalry.
Columbus has the National Hockey League, and we don’t, but we don’t terribly much care. We used to feel that same way about the Crew, but now we are ape over MLS.
Can Cincy reinvigorate jabs at Columbus for being “Cowtown?” Do people in Columbus have some jokingly derisive name for Cincinnati?
“I don’t think there’s a name,” says Hunter, “but people here feel like Cincinnati is almost not part of the state. They say It’s ‘down there in the corner’ and kind of part of Kentucky. Obviously there are sports fans in Columbus with a connection to Cincinnati, because they’re fans of the Reds and Bengals. But I think most of them still see Cincinnati as a little strange.”
So let this first real rivalry commence, and put the countdown clock at 173, the still rather large number of days before “Hell Is Real” fever hits full boil. Though the MLS regular season begins in less than two weeks (including FCC’s debut game, March 2 at Seattle), there will be no Cincinnati-Columbus meeting until Saturday, Aug. 10, in the state capital. Just over two weeks later, on Sunday, Aug. 25, FCC will host the Crew.
Can’t wait that long?
OK, there’s a preseason FCC-Crew game this very Saturday. But it’s in Charleston, S.C., where a handful of pro teams are staging warm-weather training camps. It’s not on radio or TV, and the import of the result will be played down by the coaches.
But if “Hell Is Real” fans can somehow make a big deal out of that one, this derby may be even fierier than we thought.