CINCINNATI -- Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber has seen all the metrics behind FC Cincinnati's record-breaking inaugural season, but now the club has a chance to show him why the city makes it such a success.
Garber is set to visit Cincinnati on Tuesday to learn more about the potential MLS expansion market.
FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said the overall goal for the visit is simple: The club hopes the scheduled meetings and tour of the city, as well as a visit to Nippert Stadium, give Garber a better understanding of Cincinnati as a budding soccer market.
"In the broadest terms, we look forward to showing off what is going on in this city, why we were able to attract incredible support and are busy adding to it in Year 2," Berding said. "Cincinnati has a business community that far surpasses our size. We have more Fortune 500 companies per capita than any city in the U.S., by far, and we look forward to showing off our business community.
"It's a chance to meet top business leaders and appreciate how engaged they are in making this a great city, a community where some of the best and brightest want to come work for their companies. We look forward to showing why it works. We're a city on the rise, and there are lot of factors that go into that, and we look forward to sharing with him first hand so he can see a lot of the progress himself."
Garber is expected to arrive at Lunken Airport around 9 a.m. Tuesday -- likely to a warm welcome from the FC Cincinnati supporters groups and other fans -- and will begin his visit in a meeting with FC Cincinnati's ownership group at Great American Tower.
He will then be taken to the University of Cincinnati for a walking tour of Nippert Stadium, where he will also speak with UC athletics director Mike Bohn, followed by a business luncheon downtown.
Next on the agenda is a driving tour of the urban core of Cincinnati around 1:30 p.m., including stops at Fountain Square, Moerlein Lager House, Smale Park, Cintrifuse, Rhinehaus and Washington Park.
Garber will then participate in a town hall-style event with the general public 4-5:30 p.m. at Woodward Theater before a private business dinner that evening. Doors to the theater will open at 3 p.m., with supporters admitted on a first-come, first-served basis, but the event also will be streamed live at participating pubs MOTR, Mr. Pitiful's and Rhinehaus, as well as on FC Cincinnati's YouTube channel.
"We look forward to fans and the business community to also hear from him, where he can talk about the rise of soccer in our country and, specifically, in the MLS," Berding said. "Given the town hall meeting and dinner at the end of the night, it's an opportunity for him to comment after touring the city and having a chance to experience a little bit of the Queen City. We are certainly looking forward to it and a chance for our supporters to show the electricity and enthusiasm of the fan base that is excited about the rise of soccer in this city."
Berding said this is just another step in the process for consideration in the MLS expansion plans, as the league hopes to grow from 20 to 28 teams by the mid- to late-2020s.
MLS already has four of eight planned expansion markets in the works, including the addition of Atlanta United FC and Minnesota United FC in 2017, Los Angeles FC in 2018 and Miami expected to follow, pending a finalized stadium plan.
FC Cincinnati worked its way into the conversation with its multiple USL attendance records and on-field success, which included a playoff appearance as the Eastern Conference's third-place team. Its average attendance of roughly 17,296 fans was better than five MLS franchises and ranked 16th among all levels in the U.S. and Canada -- and that doesn't even include the 30,187 fans that attended the club's first-round playoff game or the crowd of 35,061 that attended a friendly against English Premier League side Crystal Palace.
"As we were setting our repeated attendance records and becoming a little bit of a national story in the process, we had many people not from Cincinnati asking the question, 'What is going on in Cincinnati?'" Berding said. "I think there is an appreciation to the extent that soccer has generated so much support here in the heartland of the country in a lower division, a brand new club, and the demographic nature suggests there must be something special going on in this city. But there is a difference between seeing the numbers and actually seeing and feeling the driving forces behind this dynamic soccer franchise."
Berding and majority owner Carl Lindner III visited MLS headquarters in New York this summer, but Berding said that trip was simply laying the foundation for future discussions and getting acquainted with MLS leadership.
There is no checklist of things Garber needs to see to make any decisions regarding expansion, Berding noted, but the tour of Nippert Stadium and the surrounding area likely is of special interest to Garber.
Dan Courtemanche, MLS executive vice president of communications, has said previously that MLS' expansion goals include securing "a comprehensive stadium plan where the ownership controls the venue."
Orlando City SC president and founder Phil Rawlins told WCPO.com in September that location is probably the biggest factor for MLS, because the target audience (millennials) wants to be in an urban setting with bars and restaurants to hit before and after games. Berding shares that belief, which is why the tour focuses on the urban core of Cincinnati.
While FC Cincinnati doesn't have complete control over its venue as a tenant of UC football, Berding said he doesn't feel the club has to sell Garber on Nippert.
"With how great things went with Nippert this year, it's a proven venue," Berding said. "It's in the urban core, easily accessible by highway, (Interstates) 71 and 75, so we think Nippert's location is an important factor.
"There is going to be an expansion process. They haven't released it yet, so we look forward to the specifics that will be announced to guide the process. We drew better than five MLS clubs, so it's a proven venue in a proven market, and we have an effective process. We don't feel we need to sell it, but it's a chance for the commissioner to eyeball it and a chance to speak to Mike Bohn to learn more about the partnership with UC. All we're doing is laying more of a foundation with the visit."
Courtemanche confirmed that the MLS expansion committee met the second week of November and will discuss the expansion criteria and timeline at its Board of Directors meeting Dec. 15.
Perhaps Garber's visit to Cincinnati will factor into that process.