Can FC Cincinnati maintain without MLS?

It’s clear FCC has tapped a hunger here for pro soccer, one that goes beyond the action on the field. But how long can that last in the USL?

click to enlarge FC Cincinnati is consistently outdrawing current MLS clubs. - Photo: Hailey Bollinger
Photo: Hailey Bollinger
FC Cincinnati is consistently outdrawing current MLS clubs.

In American sports today, there is nothing else going on like FC Cincinnati.

Nowhere else but the Queen City is a minor league team stealing so much thunder in a market with major league competition. 

Very few of you, at this point, need to be told that FC Cincinnati is our local pro soccer team. And even if you haven’t seen them at Nippert Stadium, it’s likely you’re aware that they are regularly drawing crowds of 20,000 or even 30,000. This in a “second division” backwater known as the United Soccer League. 

Jeff Berding, FCC’s president and general manager, affirms it’s “100 percent right” that nothing similar is occurring any other major market. The former 17-year executive with the Bengals does so with evident — and entirely justifiable — satisfaction.

But precisely because it is so unusual, the accomplishment can seem perilously fragile.

In other major league cities, minor league clubs occupy niche markets at best. The big league teams swamp the little guys, just as the Reds and Bengals still do with the hockey Cincinnati Cyclones or the baseball Florence Freedom. And in other big league towns, just look how United Soccer League teams get ignored. A recent list showed Phoenix averaging a modest 6,356 in attendance, Tampa at 5,629, Saint Louis at 4,645 and Pittsburgh at an almost anonymous 2,697.

The traditional divide between major and minor league teams in the same city is not hard to explain. Fans identify with the major league clubs because they regularly bring national attention. Fans take great excitement and pride in that, especially so in mid-level locales like Cincinnati — which is the smallest market in the country with an entry in both of the biggest leagues, the National Football League and Major League Baseball.

Admit it: However much you tried to roll your eyes at Chad (occasionally Ocho Cinco) Johnson, you loved how he put those Bengals stripes on a Sports Illustrated cover and had millions monitoring his bi-weekly antics on the riverfront. (My personal favorite was when he dangled a dollar bill at officials huddling over a close call, only to later be issued a 20-grand NFL fine for the mock bribe.)

And if you’re old enough, you’ll never forget the crack of the bat heard through all the baseball world when Eric Davis launched the Reds’ 1990 World Series sweep with that Game 1, first-inning homer against the mighty and monstrously favored Oakland A’s.

Minor league teams bring virtually nothing in this realm. Granted, FCC (who else?) has cracked the barrier a bit this year with its success in the U.S. Open Cup, an odd but interesting tournament that includes clubs from all pro soccer leagues. FCC has posted wins at Nippert over the Major League Soccer clubs from Columbus and Chicago, and on Aug. 15, they’ll host the MLS New York Red Bulls in the tournament semifinals. Nippert will be a madhouse, and there will be national coverage on ESPN. 

The Columbus and Chicago games were also on ESPN, and after FCC’s particularly tense conquest of Chicago, the electricity inside Nippert was duly praised on the SportsCenter broadcast that immediately followed. It was a primo moment for FCC and its fans, and Aug. 15 could be even better.  

But alas, such notice will be rare at best — and fleeting — as long as FC Cincinnati remains in the USL, with its Rochesters and Harrisburgs and Bethlehems. Rochester is the only non-MLS club to win the U.S. Open Cup since MLS began play in 1996 — the 1999 Rhinos beat four MLS teams to take the title — but it didn’t change the Rhinos’ status as a club on no one’s radar outside Rochester, N.Y. And if you happened to watch any of FCC’s locally televised road game at Rochester earlier this season, you saw that the Rhinos aren’t on many radars even inside Rochester. It was a typical minor league scene in all its non-glory, with mostly empty seats in a funny-looking little stadium.

Why Cincinnati is suddenly so different from other major league towns, I don’t know. But it’s clear FCC has tapped a hunger here for pro soccer, one that goes beyond the action on the field. It’s a full buy-in to a “Euro-style” soccer experience, with organized clubs of fans who meet before and after games, march to the stadium and bang drums and sing chants. It’s largely a younger-adult crowd, and FCC has deftly fed that demographic with innovations like “The Bailey,” the section that encourages particularly spirited partisans in Nippert’s north end zone. You won’t find anything as lively, or infectious, at Great American Ball Park or Paul Brown Stadium.

But how long can this last in the USL? With no national stroking of Cincinnati’s sports ego, will the novelty of this wear off?

The obvious way to a secure future is for FCC to join fast-rising MLS as an expansion club. Berding and the owning Lindner family are trying like crazy, and it could seem an absolute no-brainer, as FCC currently draws comparably with, or ahead of, the majority of MLS clubs (including our friends up north in Columbus, who placed last in a recent MLS attendance listing at under 15,000 per game).

But MLS is hot now and holding all the cards. Sports Illustrated says the league’s expansion requirements of 10 years ago look “impossibly quaint” in comparison with today. Twelve cities are vying for four expansion spots, and FCC faces a daunting challenge from the MLS stance that all new teams must have their own stadiums. There is clearly fierce resistance in Cincinnati toward public help, even for new darlings like these guys. And, paradoxically, it might hurt the local lust for a new stadium that Nippert’s urban, university-campus location is so perfect as a soccer venue, in everyone’s eyes except those of MLS revenue hawks. 

Addressing my concern, Berding offers:

“This has never been specifically about MLS. We’re working to give ourselves the best opportunity for expansion, but this has always been about being Cincinnati’s soccer franchise, regardless of league. It’s about building it, growing it and connecting in ever more ways to the community.”

The report card thus far is all A-plusses, so I’m not here to say they can’t sustain it. I agree with observers who say FCC has bonded heart-to-heart with its fan base in a remarkable way. And I’ve watched some soccer in my life — the USL’s players pass the eye test as skilled and mature performers. They give you an absolutely good show, at a price that can be as low as a movie. And to all you sports curmudgeons who gripe about low scoring, please know you’re a disappearing species, as soccer’s non-stop action and consistent two-hour game times score points against the in-game delay problems that football and baseball are continuously wrestling with. 

But still I’m nagged and uncertain about FCC’s future. I can’t help but be. This isn’t happening anywhere else. Can it keep happening here, if the MLS doesn’t come?

CONTACT JACK BRENNAN: [email protected]

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