Austin Berry was born in Cincinnati and now, after pro soccer stops in Chicago, Philadelphia and South Korea, the 28-year-old defender captains FC Cincinnati. But he doesn’t play where he was raised.
“It’s all completely different than it was when I was growing up. The downtown is so much nicer. When I was a kid, you’d go to Bengals or Reds games, get back in your car and leave immediately,” Berry said. “Now, you’re walking around downtown. There’s been a big influx of entertainment, bars, restaurants. A lot of younger people are seeing this and coming back. It was cool for me to be away for a little bit and now, it’s like seeing different city.”
Cincinnati is a city of tradition. Among the first founded after the American Revolution (it was named for a veterans’ society), it’s home to the country’s oldest professional baseball team, its first municipal fire department and its second oldest zoo. Cincinnati’s architecture is historic and influential. The Carew Tower inspired the Empire State Building and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood just north of downtown calls itself “one of the largest, most intact urban historic districts in the United States.” And as the city is renewed, that heritage remains. Its annual Oktoberfest is the biggest in the country.
Cincinnati had always considered itself a major league city. But its days as a 19th-century boomtown were long gone. Population within the city limits fell continuously during the second half of the 1900s, and Cincinnati faced many of the same challenges encountered by its Rust Belt brethren.
But the rebirth Berry mentioned is real. Two years ago, Cincinnati’s economy was growing faster than that of any other Midwestern city. Although it’s only 98th in overall job growth according to Forbes, “a lot of younger people” really are returning. Last year, Forbes called it the nation’s top “up-and-coming city for recent college grads” and the 15th “best city for young professionals.”
FC Cincinnati is a symbol of that renewal. The USL club already feels like it has been around for decades, although it played its first game just 10 months ago. Record-setting crowds at an historic stadium have that affect.
“Cincinnati has always been a sports town, an historic sports town. Everyone still loves the Reds. You love your team and you love to hate your team. We like to rag on the ‘Bungles.’ But the city has really been yearning for something a little new–something that’s different,” Berry said.
“I grew up on the Big Red Machine and the Bengals teams of the ‘80s that went to two Super Bowls,” said Jeff Berding, who was a city councilman and Bengals executive for nearly 20 years before becoming FCC’s president and general manager. “We are a major league city and soccer is the world’s sport. It’s the growing sport in our country, and it goes hand-in-hand with a city on the rise. We’ve had over $1 billion in investment in the urban core …. Our timing was important because we knew that there was this wave, and we could ride the wave and then fuel its growth.”
Overall, the metro area is ranked 28th overall in population and 36th as a media market. But Berding points out that if you combine Cincinnati with Dayton, which is some 50 miles to the north, it would rank 21st.
“We’re certainly not New York City and we’re not Chicago. But I think as Portland and Kansas City have shown, you can be a next-tier media market and earn enormous support,” Berding said. “I think it’s a little easier in a middle-sized market to really capture the attention of the populace and become something that’s really important.”
By June, there already was a tribute beer: "Blood Orange IPA". And then thisfall, the men of 1-year-old FC Cincinnati were grand marshals at Oktoberfest Zinzinnati. It was as if one storied tradition met another.
“When they introduced us over the loudspeaker, the roar and the applause from the crowd—everyone knows who we are, and they’re so excited about it,” Berry said.
The man who intends to take FCC to MLS is a member of another Cincinnati institution: the Lindner family. The Lindners control insurance and investment company American Financial Group, which owns Great American Insurance. Their offices are in the Great American Tower, the 665-foot skyscraper that is Cincinnati’s tallest. AFG took in more than $6.1 billion in revenue in 2015.
Forbes ranked the family as the 129th wealthiest in the USA with an estimated net worth of around $2 billion.
Carl Lindner III is FCC’s majority owner. His late father, Carl Lindner Jr., owned part of the Reds in the early part of the 2000s, and his grandfather, Carl Lindner Sr., got the family up and running in the 1940s with a dairy business just outside Cincinnati that evolved into a chain of stores.
There are eight additional minority partners listed on FCC’s website, including Berding and Cintas CEO Scott Farmer. Regarding the possibility of adding additional investors to support the MLS bid, Berding told SI.com that there are “others clamoring to join, and I think at the end of the day there will be some other leading Cincinnati executives and their families joining us.”
Those commitments didn’t need to be nailed down by Jan. 31, the day MLS expansion applications were due. Lindner has more than enough to make things happen.
The University of Cincinnati’s venerable Nippert Stadium does the job for now. But MLS requires a stadium designed with soccer in mind, so it isn't a permanent solution. Berding said FCC has zeroed in on two potential stadium sites, both of which are in the city’s urban core that stretches connects the river, downtown, Over-the-Rhine and UC.
He wouldn’t provide details regarding the financing but said MEIS architects and principal Tim Lambert have been working on the stadium design. Lambert was involved in designing Red Bull Arena, StubHub Center, Toyota Park and Rio Tinto Stadium in MLS. He’s also working on AS Roma’s new arena.
“We’re going to submit a plan that meets [MLS] requirements. Our application is going to show a soccer-specific stadium that work on two different sites in our urban core with a funding model where the numbers add up,” Berding said. “We’re going to continue to fine-tune the funding model, and that’s going to be a bit of ongoing work. But at the end of the day, we have a plan that can get it done.”
Berding, a youth goalkeeper who also was involved as a coach and administrator in local youth soccer, helped run the mid-1990s campaign that resulted in voter approval for the 0.5% sales tax increase that funded construction of new riverfront stadiums for the Bengals and Reds.
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Berry was the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year with the Chicago Fire. He was traded to the Philadelphia Union in 2014, got hurt and never felt like he fit in the club’s long-term plans. Then an odd but appealing opportunity arose—FC Anyang in South Korea. Berry took a chance, moved to the city outside Seoul and quickly became an automatic starter. The experience was challenging but compelling, and he could’ve stayed in 2016 or pursued options elsewhere. But home beckoned, and he could tell FCC was taking itself seriously.
The club hired legendary U.S. midfielder and National Soccer Hall of Famer John Harkes as head coach and inked several players with MLS experience. Harkes had been waiting for the chance to manage a team, and he had a roster full of men who’d tasted MLS and “had a lot to prove,” Berry said.
The club made an instant impact. More than 14,600 fans showed for the USL regular season home opener last May, and nearly 20,500 came the following week. FCC finished third in the 14-team Eastern Conference and was upset in the first round of the playoffs by Charleston before a jaw-dropping 31,187 fans at Nippert. Berding said FCC already has more than 9,500 season tickets sold for 2017.
“I enjoyed my time in Korea,” Berry said. “It would’ve been cool to stay a little longer, but I made the decision and I haven’t looked back. You can’t take away from this experience and playing at home.”
There seems to be room for a third big-league team in Cincinnati. A long wait for titles helps provide it. The Reds have won one World Series (1990) in the past 40 years and ranked 25th in MLB attendance last season at 23,383 per game. The Bengals have those two Super Bowl losses in the 1980s, lots of recent playoff frustration and crowds that rank 29th in the 32-team NFL. On ice, the Cyclones play in the third-tier ECHL and are an affiliate of the Nashville Predators.
Cincinnati had brief flirtations with soccer in the past, but nothing really stuck. There's been a parade of low-level teams, from the ASL’s Comets and PDL’s Kings to the A-League’s Riverhawks. But that, combined with a vibrant youth scene, never was enough to put the city on the national soccer map. The U.S. men’s national team has never played there and the women have made only three appearances, most recently in November 2008. Just 5,877 showed up to Paul Brown Stadium to see a scoreless draw with South Korea.
FC Cincinnati is a phenomenon, and the prospect of having another raucous, colorful crowd it can point to as evidence of soccer’s American growth will appeal to MLS. The numbers at Nippert speak for themselves.
Lindner is wealthy and serious. Berding said the aim from the start was to play at the highest level possible, but ownership hasn’t exactly been pinching pennies until then. For example, FCC bought time on local stations, including the city’s CBS affiliate, so it could broadcast all home games in HD—because major league teams are on HD TV.
There’s money coming in from the rest of the city as well. A year ago, well before it played its first game, FCC had 17 corporate sponsors signed up. Toyota is its USL jersey sponsor. And as of 2015 the Cincinnati area was home to 10 Fortune 500 companies, an impressive number for its size. Among them are Procter & Gamble, Macy’s and AFG.
As a media market (excluding Dayton), Cincinnati ranks last among the 12 cities competing for one of the four available MLS openings. Regardless of the crowds, that could be an issue for a league concerned about its TV ratings. In metro population, however, at least it's larger than Indianapolis, Nashville and Raleigh.
There also may be some at MLS who aren’t convinced that last year’s crowds are sustainable. FCC’s season ticket numbers suggest they are, but the city hasn’t proven itself over the long term.
Finally, there’s the issue of Columbus. The Crew’s Mapfre Stadium sits just 110 miles from Nippert. That’s not a long way between two major league teams in two mid-tier markets. The Crew have seen attendance rise in recent years, from a miserable 12,185 per game in 2010 to 17,125 last season.
Perhaps Cincinnati, its fan base and corporate support would feel too close for comfort in Columbus. Or perhaps FCC’s entry would spark one of American soccer’s best rivalries. If MLS is unsure, that could work against FCC. There are other expansion options in the Midwest.
For now, both clubs and the commissioner are saying all the right things. In a statement provided to SI.com on Thursday, Crew owner Anthony Precourt said, "These 12 expansion applications come from all over the United States, and it is exciting to see several markets close to Columbus in the applicant pool, including Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis and St. Louis. Our Crew SC supporters have a chance to see some healthy new regional rivalries develop within MLS in the coming years."
“They've just got to keep doing what they’re doing because they’re doing it really well. We all need to be sure that all the elements that you need to be successful exist in the market,” commissioner Don Garber told The Cincinnati Enquirer. “Certainly, it seems as if it does in the short term, but we want to be sure, as I think ownership does as well, that that will make sense over the mid and long term."
Regarding Columbus, Garber said, “We’re trying to capture that soccer thing, which are neighborhood rivalries … Our rivalry games that we have are our highest-rated games on television and I don’t think—we’re not thinking about putting a second team in Columbus. We’re thinking about putting it in down the interstate so that you can get a bunch of people in buses and cars trying to prove that they’re better than their neighbor. Should we decide to come here it will be creative and of great benefit to [the Crew]. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”