Second-year USL club FC Cincinnati has shattered all attendance records for minor-league soccer -- it is averaging 20,466 fans in 2017 -- and drew three crowds of greater than 30,000 for its home Open Cup games.
But that support won't be enough if it can't come up with a stadium solution. For now, that drops Cincinnati back in the pack with all bidders except Sacramento seeking clarity on the stadium front.
Unprecedented interest. Tuesday's semifinal against the New York Red Bulls drew a sellout crowd of 33,250 fans at Nippert Stadium, the second largest crowd in the history of the Open Cup.
The game was streamed nationally, but a local broadcast on Sinclair Broadcast Group's WSTR-TV (Channel 64) achieved a peak rating of 7.4 at the end of regulation in a match the Red Bulls won, 3-2, in overtime.
Nippert challenges. The problem for FC Cincinnati, which is bidding for an MLS expansion team, is that it is a tenant at Nippert Stadium, owned by the University of Cincinnati and home to the Bearcats' football team.
As recently as late June, FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding told WCPO that "the ability to turn Nippert into a soccer-specific stadium is implausible due to some insurmountable challenges."
FC Cincinnati is examining three sites -- located in the West End and Oakley sections of Cincinnati and in Newport, Kentucky -- at which it might build a soccer-specific stadium where it would control such basic things as filed dimensions and field markings and playing dates but most important, all revenue streams.
Anti-soccer stadium activists. Many are calling for MLS and FC Cincinnati to reconsider their stance and make Nippert Stadium the club's permanent home. Its location
in Cincinnati's urban core fits the model MLS has found successful in other markets.
But the big reason is that anti-tax groups are pushing for Hamilton County not to negotiate with FC Cincinnati on public funding to help defray the costs of building a new soccer stadium.
Opponents include Todd Portune, the powerful Hamilton County Commission president, and the "No More Stadium Taxes" lobbying group.
Part of the problem is historical. The NFL Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium was heavily subsidized with public money, making it one of the worst public financing deals ever for the construction of a sports facility. Hamilton County is also still paying off Great American Ball Park, home of the baseball Reds.
“While MLS has full control over their admission standards, they have no control over Hamilton County tax dollars," Matt Wahlert, a No More Stadium Taxes board member and North College Hill councilman, told WCPO. "Hamilton County has much bigger needs than subsidizing a new soccer stadium for billionaires, especially when we already have at least one fantastic soccer stadium.”
Solution? Compromising on a soccer stadium is not something that MLS would do lightly for its own interest and that of its current and future owners, who depend on growing their own revenue streams if they are to afford spending more on players, let alone build sustainable business models.
But absent FC Cincinnati majority owner Carl Lindner III footing the entire bill for a soccer stadium, some sort of accommodation with the University of Cincinnati might have to be made if Cincinnati is to move forward.
After all, it wouldn't be without precedence for an MLS expansion team to operate as a tenant. Only one MLS team doesn't play in or plan to move into a stadium in which it has some sort of ownership interest, but that happens be the Seattle Sounders, who have led MLS in attendance in each of their first eight seasons in the league.