By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 28, 2016) US Soccer Players – On Sunday, first-year USL franchise FC Cincinnati will host its first playoff game at Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. According to president and general manager Jeff Berding, the team has sold 20,000 tickets as of Thursday morning. As many as 30,000 could be on hand to witness coach Jeff Harkes and his players take on the Charleston Battery. Win or lose, it’s an excellent capper to a remarkable season for the Ohio team.
Amidst high, but reasonable, expectations, FC Cincinnati exploded onto the American soccer scene. They drew an average crowd of 17,000-plus and vaulting the city into the Major League Soccer expansion discussion. Don Garber and the league have taken notice. The commissioner will visit Cincinnati to assess its candidacy in late November.
Berding, the club’s owners, and the soccer fans of Cincinnati deserve ample praise for the momentum they’ve created. MLS would be remiss if it didn’t take a long hard look at what is happening there. We all know the incredible demand the league is experiencing for expansion franchises. Even so, MLS has yet to crest a hill that would allow them to overlook a market performing on that level. Cincinnati is not among the top television markets in the country. It ranks 34th. That should be secondary to its value as a soccer town.
Of course, it is just a single season. It’s impossible to know if Cincinnati’s fascination with professional soccer is a fad. If any of it is a function of the promise of MLS, then there will be a regression of the support if/when the realization sets in that the league is looking elsewhere. If we’re to believe Garber’s recent statement that MLS intends to stop at 28 teams, competition for spots will be intense. The list of current candidates is long. FC Cincinnati’s massive attendance numbers might not mean as much in the face of a challenge from a bigger city willing to help fund a state-of-the-art soccer venue in a downtown location.
Uncertainty on that level usually slows down investment, especially when it comes to American soccer. The Linder family, FC Cincinnati’s local owners don’t know if they money they’re spending will pay off. There’s no guarantee of an MLS expansion spot. It wouldn’t be surprising to see an ownership operate on a budget while waiting for a decision. They can reap the rewards now of those big crowds.
Instead, however, the money behind the rebirth of pro soccer in Cincinnati is doubling down. They know that there isn’t an expansion guarantee. Speaking about the club’s immediate future beyond the 2016 season on Thursday, Berding outlined plans for a dedicated training facility and partnerships with local youth clubs that could blossom into a US Soccer Development Academy program. Those are hardly the typical actions of brand new clubs, much less third division teams. If the Lindners are serious about following through on those plans, FC Cincinnati will mean more than their incredible attendance numbers. They’ll become a new kind of lower division soccer club in a country where that label traditionally refers to barebones operations.
Though it may distress some in the American soccer community, the FC Cincinnati model is the way forward beyond the restrictive members only club of Major League Soccer. That is to say, deep-pocketed, local ownership in md-level American cities building a club. That takes a clear interest in helping soccer grow in their region. It means laying down the roots to ensure the club will be more than a fly-by-night entertainment product.
It’s the “deep-pocketed” part here that’s crucial. Starting a team, building a training facility, and launching any sort of academy program is incredibly expensive. It’s almost sure to guarantee significant losses for many years. The economics don’t work, even if you’re averaging crowds of 17,000 as FC Cincinnati did this year. The costs for training grounds and academy coaches can add up to millions in outlay. Training grounds and academies are also what establish a soccer franchise’s connection to a community and provide a sense of permanence.
Maybe FC Cincinnati won’t actually follow through on those plans. Maybe the key figures around the team are confident that MLS will indeed come calling soon. If either of those things prove true, then it limits the risks of investing so much now in the apparatus. The money spent won’t carry nearly as much risk. Those investments will still be important. What they won’t show is a club building without the promise of MLS. That concept has almost no precedent.
What if FC Cincinnati is serious? If they intend to go on no matter what happens with their expansion bid, what’s happening in southwestern Ohio will be remarkable for more reasons than the number of people going to games.
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