Sunday, September 23, 2012

Will the MLS ever call Cincinnati home?

FC Queen City?

Has a nice ring to it, eh?

With the growing popularity of soccer in the United States, Major League Soccer is expanding on an annual basis. It’s only a matter of time before Cincinnati begins to question: when will it be the Queen City’s turn on the professional pitch?

In reality, an MLS team in Cincinnati is not a farfetched idea.

“I would say it’s unlikely in the near term, but long term, it’s possible,” says Doug McIntyre, soccer staff writer for ESPN The Magazine.

To see how a side might be received in Cincinnati, we can look to its nearest neighbor for comparison. Ohio’s capital is home to one of ten of the MLS’s 1996 founding members, the Columbus Crew. The Crew have one of the largest fan bases in the country, and according to McIntyre, are on the path of profitability.

“I think that’s a natural rival for a team in Cincinnati,” says McIntyre. “MLS has really been trying to foster those rivalries in recent years. It was very strategic to get a team in Philadelphia (Union est. 2010), with a close proximity to D.C. and New York.”

An even larger example of a rivalry is the recent development of the MLS in the Pacific Northwest. Seattle Sounders FC (est. 2009), Portland Timbers (est. 2011), and Vancouver Whitecaps (est. 2011) have become some of most popular teams in the country, with the most passionate fans in Major League Soccer.

“Sometimes, when you have two teams in close proximity, instead of one taking fans from the other, and I’m sure there are Crew fans that live in Cincinnati, it actually helps both teams because now there’s something to talk about: now there’s a rivalry,” says McIntyre.

Why has Cincinnati and Southwest Ohio become such a soccer hotbed in the U.S. landscape? The Cincinnati Enquirer High School Sports Editor Mike Dyer sees the development of the sport’s popularity building from the younger generation and up.

“There’s a huge, huge club influence in Cincinnati, and that has to do with the popularity of the sport, that drives it a lot,” Dyer says.

Even more than the youth level, Dyer feels the roots of the city even play on the city’s hunger for the original “football.”

“There’s some influence, going back to a lot of the German heritage of the Queen City,” Dyer says. “Again, if you’re looking at it from a youth standpoint, this is a really, really big family town. Obviously your kids can play other sports, but what is the sport most of them are going to be exposed to and identified with first?”

In the suburbs, that sport is generally soccer. This may explain why a recent ESPN article by Roger Bennett claims that soccer has passed up the MLB and NBA to become the second most popular sport for Americans ages 12-24.

So Cincinnati has the young fan base and the interest in the game; how does an MLS team happen?

“I think for any city that wants a pro sports team, there’s a few keys you need,” McIntyre says. “First, you need a facility, and then you need an owner with a lot of money. So, if Cincinnati can manage to get an ownership group that wants a team, they can either build the stadium themselves, or enter into a public/private partnership to get a soccer-specific stadium built. Then, yeah, they could possibly get a team.”

Seattle Sounders FC and the New England Revolution are two MLS teams that play in NFL stadiums, but the league is trying to step away from that mold. New, soccer specific stadiums are the preference for pro soccer teams, as they want to be able to control the revenue steams, scheduling, and not play on fields with football lines on them.

In Seattle and New England, though, the owners of the MLS teams are also the owners of the NFL teams, the Seahawks and Patriots. If an MLS team were to come to Cincinnati, the most realistic buyer would likely be Mike Brown, owner of the Cincinnati Bengals. After some disgruntled citizens uneasy about the public money poured into Paul Brown Stadium, it is unlikely a soccer-specific stadium would be publicly funded in the near future. Paul Brown Stadium could potentially then be the home to an MLS franchise, should Mike Brown ever consider the option.

Although not necessarily an immediate venture, the rapid expansion of the league may eventually sweep over the city. Right now, the MLS is looking to upstart another team in New York City, already home to the New York Red Bulls (again, building on the idea of rivalries helping popularity). Minneapolis is in talking about building a new stadium for the Vikings, with an MLS team also in mind. When the league began, there were two teams in Florida (Tampa Munity, 1996-2001; Miami Fusion FC, 1998-2001). Currently, there are no teams in the southeastern U.S., so Miami, Atlanta, and the Raleigh-Durham areas are all likely more attractive candidates for the MLS in the near future.

“Another thing is that the league has room to grow,” says McIntyre. “There’s 19 teams in the league now. While [20’s] the preferred size for soccer leagues around the world, Europe kind of frowns on leagues bigger than 20 teams, that’s sort of the ‘perfect number.’ It’s not huge for the United States, which is obviously a huge market. It’s the richest market in the world. And, every major sports league in the U.S. has 30 teams or more.”

Another step Cincinnati could take in attracting an MLS franchise would be to host an international friendly or World Cup qualifying match, as Columbus did last week at Crew Stadium (U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Jamaica). Cincinnati has never hosted one of these matches, men’s or women’s, so the turnout rate is untested for soccer in the city.

“I think you’ve seen in the past where an area has hosted a friendly match and gotten a huge turnout, and people started saying wow, this is a really ripe market for soccer,” says McIntyre. “One of the steps of Seattle getting a team, in 2006, Real Madrid came to town and actually played D.C. United, and they sold the place out. Obviously, it was probably because they had David Beckham and a bunch of other players at the time in the lineup, but they sold the place out and it really sort of got the wheels in motion for getting an MLS team there. It took three years, but they did it. So, absolutely there’s a history of that happening.”

Even with the sports popularity, the idea is still questionable to some. Trent Storch, a college student who grew up playing soccer in the Tri-State, says although he would support an MLS franchise, it may be a short-lived phase in Cincinnati.

“I’m not sure it would work. I mean, Cincinnati is a good-team fan city,” says Storch. “When considering the Bengals, you can see how they lack support when they’re not doing well. I think that the buzz of a new MLS franchise would create a solid fan base at first, but if they aren’t a solid team it will die off. Not every team can be as successful as the Oklahoma City Thunder when it comes to gaining loyalty from a city.”

Dyer, again having a great perspective on generational trend of sports fans in Cincinnati, also questions a sustained support for a pro soccer team.

“It’s interesting. There’s arguments I hear from different people saying that soccer is really popular at the youth level, but once an individual athlete reaches a plateau, maybe college, then the interest may wane a little bit,” Dyer says. “Then you go back to the ‘mainstream’ sports.”

Dyer and Storch both, though, have recognized the growing popularity of the “beautiful game” and feel there is a niche out there in Cincinnati that would cling to an MLS squad.

Whether an MLS team is in the future for Cincinnati is yet to be seen, but what is evident is that it is not impossible. To reach the feat, the city needs to provide the facility and an ownership offer must step up.

“I think that everyone agrees that soccer has a lot of room to grow,” says McIntyre. “The other major sports in the U.S. have seemed to mature a little bit. I think they’ll still grow, but how much? Soccer has plenty of room to grow. There’s going to be more teams, and there’s going to be more cities that want teams. Eventually, Cincinnati may have a team, just like a lot of places down the list. So yeah, it could happen, if you find a guy that has a lot of money and wants a team, that’s the fastest way to make it happen for sure.”

FC Queen City may be just a dream to some now, but if the right steps are taken, that dream may become a reality for the next generation of Cincinnati.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely enjoyed this blog post, Chase. And I'd love to see Cinci get a franchise!!!