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Why didn’t MLS make stadium exception in Queen City?

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City Hall is buzzing that putting the soccer stadium in Oakley isn’t a done deal. Wording in the Cincinnati ordinance passed Wednesday, providing financial support for stadium infrastructure, gives the team some wiggle room.
Mark Wert/The Enquirer

Armed with $51 million in taxpayer money for new stadium infrastructure, FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding is set to make the club’s “pick-us” pitch to Major League Soccer on Wednesday in New York.

Detroit business leaders also will be there in hopes their city is picked of their city being picked for one of two expansion bids MLS will award later this month. Motor City officials didn’t need to secure a dime in public money for a new stadium.

Their downtown NFL stadium was good enough for MLS to name Detroit one of four finalists along with Cincinnati, Nashville and Sacramento.

But none of Cincinnati’s urban core-based stadiums were good enough. Not Paul Brown Stadium, according to MLS. Not Nippert Stadium, according to Berding.

We get Paul Brown Stadium not working, considering it’s too big and the complexity of the Bengals deal. But we’re left to wonder whether Berding did absolutely everything he could to exhaust Nippert as an option before pursuing public money for a new stadium.

Because one thing is clear: MLS doesn’t have a hard set of stadium rules, and the league has shown it’s willing to make exceptions. MLS prefers soccer-specific stadiums located in the urban core, but there are enough exceptions for FC Cincinnati to make a strong case to stay at Nippert.

In addition to having two viable stadiums, Cincinnati is home to the worst public stadium deal in American sports history. MLS needed to cut us some slack for that.

MLS might have made an exception for Detroit because it’s a major TV market. The league also might have included Motown simply as a courtesy to billionaire owners Dan Gilbert, Tom Gores and the Ford family. MLS wants their money, but it’s possible the league will take a pass on Detroit this time and request the owners create a stadium plan for the next round of expansion.

There are plenty of other exceptions. MLS was fine with its Atlanta expansion team sharing a new stadium with the NFL franchise. Arthur Blank owns Atlanta’s soccer and football teams. MLS is fine with the Seattle Sounders playing in the NFL stadium. Seattle’s teams also have the same owner. Further, the league seems cool with its Chicago, Dallas and Philadelphia teams playing in “home” stadiums way out in the suburbs.

Again, all bigger TV markets than Cincinnati. But exceptions, nonetheless.

Market size is important, but it’s tough seeing it being a deal breaker. The league’s attendance is trending upward, but TV ratings lagged this year. Hence, the stadium grab. Mexico’s top pro soccer league has higher TV ratings in the United States than MLS. In the era of cord-cutting, we’ve probably seen sports TV contracts already top out.

Cincinnati’s strong attendance figures help to make up for its smaller market size. FC Cincinnati averaged 21,199 fans per game at Nippert this year. If FC Cincinnati were in MLS, the club would’ve ranked eighth in attendance. Last season, FC Cincinnati’s first ever, the club averaged 18,808 fans. That would’ve been good enough for 15th in MLS. Nippert’s also hosted the U.S. women’s national team and club’s from top international leagues.

Heck, teams in Detroit and Nashville haven’t kicked a ball yet. 

So why no exception here? MLS had a chance to forge a unique partnership with the University of Cincinnati on 40,000-seat Nippert Stadium, which fits MLS’s alleged urban-core “requirement” and is plenty big enough but not too big. We couldn’t find a situation where an American university has allowed a pro sports franchise to use its on-campus stadium as a long-term home. 

The relationship has been strong between the university and soccer club, and Politics Extra believes UC would have been willing to make a deal. The club could’ve leased the stadium. Yes, Nippert’s concourses are narrow. It needs more restrooms and concession stands. It needs more locker rooms. It would need natural grass to accommodate soccer full-time.

But maybe FC Cincinnati owner Carl H. Lindner III could’ve spent, say, $50 million to make those upgrades at Nippert. Maybe it would’ve taken $75 million or $100 million. It still would’ve saved everyone money. As it is, FC Cincinnati is planning to spend $200 million of its own money and up to $75 million in taxpayer dollars on a new soccer-specific stadium in Oakley or West End or who knows where.

MLS likes to control all stadium-related revenues. But everything’s negotiable. The Lindners are major donors to the university. Think UC would’ve been willing to make a deal that satisfied the Lindners and MLS?

In the end, maybe Nippert wouldn’t have worked out. But it sure would’ve been nice if FC Cincinnati’s process had been more transparent and less frenetic, potentially giving Nippert a fair shake.

What a waste. And such a shame.

Politics Extra is a column looking inside Greater Cincinnati and Ohio politics. Follow Enquirer political columnist Jason Williams on Twitter @jwilliamscincy and send email to jwilliams@enquirer.com.

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