FC Cincinnati vs. City Council

 FC Cincinnati vs. City Council

Major League Soccer was almost defeated by minor league politicsPeter Bronson If Cincinnati could somehow win $250 million in the Powerball Lottery, half of City Council would probably vote to tear up the ticket.

It has already happened.

The biggest mega-millions jackpot in town is the new soccer team, FC Cincinnati.

After its debut in 2016, the team won 23 straight games in the minor league USL and smashed expected attendance of 10,000 with a turnout of 14,000 at its first match. After that, attendance averaged 17,000. More than 25,700 seats were filled for the biggest match last year. This year’s top match drew 32,000 and was broadcast in 170 countries.

FC Cincinnati also broke records to score its most important goal: a Major League Soccer franchise. Most teams need two or three years; FC Cincinnati did it in 277 days.

The wins have tapered off after joining the big league. “It takes a bit of adjustment to transition from a minor league team to MLS,” says President Jeff Berding, “but compared to other expansion teams we are way ahead.”

Fans apparently agree: Season ticket sales for the 2020 season rose 25 percent.

Local enthusiasm is visible in the blue-and-orange team colors seen all over town on team jerseys, bumper-stickers, hats, socks, coffee cups and banners. Cincinnati ranks second among MLS markets for online merchandise sales.

Berding says he saw the future of soccer in his children’s sports.

“I saw that my kids liked soccer the way I liked Major League Baseball and the Big Red Machine when I was growing up. But they had to root for [England’s] Manchester United. That wasn’t right. They didn’t have a hometown team. Soccer is played by more people than all other sports combined. I could see that we had to get ahead of it in Cincinnati or we would not be included.”

He had an option to own a minor league team and took that to the Bengals and then the Reds, but both declined. That’s when Carl H. Lindner III, chairman of American Financial Group, called him and said, “Let’s talk.”

Now FC Cincinnati is building a $250 million stadium in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, the West End, without the hundreds of millions in taxpayer subsidies given to the Reds and Bengals.

An economic impact study by Ohio State University said the stadium will bring economic benefits that include:

– $62 million from team spending and visitor spending.

– $560-597 million of economic benefits from three years of construction.

– $200-215 million in wages and salaries.

– 2,200-2,600 jobs.

In addition, FC Cincinnati will pay state and local taxes and build a new Stargel Stadium for Taft High School to the tune of $10 million.

The FC Cincinnati parade seemed unstoppable—until it arrived at City Hall, where Major League Soccer was nearly defeated by minor-league politics. There were shakedowns and posturing, cheap shots and faked injuries that should have drawn more yellow flags than a Bengals playoff meltdown.

Community leaders, Cincinnati Public Schools, council members, small businesses, residents of low-income housing and even the Cincinnati Ballet lined up to demand a piece of the action ($1 million for “sound mitigation” at the ballet’s practice building).

The team sweetened the pot with a Community Benefits Agreement for the West End valued at $50 million in youth programs, hiring, training, housing and other community improvements.

When low-income renters held up the deal by demanding to be relocated, “We accepted responsibility to move the tenants,” says Berding. “Nobody is going to be homeless. Some were paying $25 a month in rent, and we offered $2,500 and moving expenses. I don’t begrudge the poor individuals who used it to get a little bit of help in life that they needed. Good for them. We helped some people.”

But four council members still would not vote for the stadium: Tamaya Dennard, Wendell Young, Greg Landsman and Chris Seelbach.

“I went door to door in the West End,” Berding says. “People there are supportive and hopeful. But there were professional agitators and community arsonists who don’t let facts get in their way. They were just in it to draw attention to themselves. I was surprised they had as much influence as they did at City Hall. More than anything, that was the disappointment.

“The politicians used us. They used us for political gain.”

The local media were another problem. Berding says stories often quoted an expert who compared the FCC stadium to the Reds and Bengals deal—without pointing out a critical difference: The soccer stadium is privately funded, except for $32 million in infrastructure. The Reds and Bengals got a half-cent sales tax subsidy to raise $600 million.

“I have enough history in civics and politics and development, so I knew we would face challenges,” says Berding, who served on city council and worked for the Bengals until he took the FC Cincinnati job. “But with our investment and the track record of our owners for doing good things, I hoped that would ameliorate it.”

Not quite. One vocal opponent ranted about “corporate gangsters who come in and take over a community.” Councilman Seelbach echoed that with, “I just don’t think taxpayers should subsidize making wealthy people wealthier, especially when we have other priorities.”

“That was disappointing, to have good people described as having bad motives,” Berding says.

A team press release says FC Cincinnati owner Lindner “has a life-long passion for Cincinnati: building businesses, employing thousands, raising families here and contributing to many philanthropic efforts to support our community.”

That’s modest. Nobody, including Procter & Gamble, has done more for Cincinnati than the Lindner family. The late Carl H. Lindner Jr. started with ice-cream stores, supermarkets and banks, then brought multinational corporation headquarters to Cincinnati. The public and private philanthropy by Lindner and his sons is everywhere: schools, hospitals, arts, sports, amusement parks, mental health, universities, churches, museums, recreation centers and countless quiet donations. The Queen City Tower headquarters of American Financial Group is just the skyline-visible part of the Lindners’ contributions.

Berding says it’s foolish for council members to attack “the biggest private investment in our community in decades.”

“I don’t think they were helpful. There’s a danger to not taking the long-term view. They don’t have sufficient experience to understand what it means to run a business.”

Mayor John Cranley agrees. It worries him that Cincinnati was just one vote away from blocking the stadium.

“Sadly, it’s all true. It squeaked by 5-4, but with a lot of torture on the way,” he says. “If we didn’t have strong leadership from Jeff, it wouldn’t have passed. To see this and the [$550 million] Children’s Hospital expansion pass 5-4 is frightening. And, God forbid, after the next election it could get worse.”

If Publisher’s Clearing House showed up at City Hall with a $1 million check, about half of council members would probably yell, “Get off my lawn.”

And that scares off other investment in the city. “We need jobs and tax base to grow our population,” Cranley says. He’s not counting on winning the lottery.