Fans’ safety must take precedence: Jeff Berding



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The under construction West End Stadium sits in Cincinnati, Ohio in United States. The future soccer-specific stadium will serve as the home ground of FC Cincinnati, a Major League Soccer (MLS) team.

FC Cincinnati’s future home West End Stadium is expected to be one of the most ambitious soccer-specific stadiums in not only North America, but the world. Renowned design practice Populous designed an innovative and forward-thinking stadium that will also be one of the largest soccer-specific facilities in Major League Soccer. The $250 million, privately funded stadium will have a 26,000 capacity, with the closest seats within 15 feet of the field.

The COVID-19 outbreak is a human tragedy which has created a global health crisis that has had a deep impact not only on the world economy but also on the sports venue sector. The fatal respiratory disease which has taken the lives of more than 3 lakh people worldwide, has also led to the cancellation of major sporting events.
 

Video: Coliseum Global Sports Venue Alliance (YouTube)

 
FC Cincinnati is a professional soccer team that plays in Major League Soccer, having entered the league as its 24th team in 2019. The club’s wide and diverse ownership group is led by controlling owner Carl H. Lindner III, as well as managing owners Meg Whitman, Scott Farmer, and George Joseph. Originally founded in 2015 by Lindner III and present President Jeff Berding, FC Cincinnati played in the second-division United Soccer League (USL) from 2016 to 2018 before moving to MLS. The team currently plays its home games at the historic Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, while its $250 million, privately funded, 26,000-seat soccer-specific stadium is constructed in the West End neighborhood of Cincinnati. The stadium par excellence is expected to open in Spring 2021.

The MLS – top professional soccer league of United States and Canada – was suspended on March 12 this year due to the pandemic, and will remain suspended till June 8, 2020.

Though the league remains suspended, the West End Stadium construction is going on full speed ahead. Jeff Berding, President, FC Cincinnati, in an exclusive chat with ‘Coliseum’ talks about the huge challenge which the pandemic has thrown up and how the owners of the stadium has done everything possible to keep construction work of West End Stadium running.

West End Stadium May 2020Image: Populous

Prior to his August 2015 founding of FC Cincinnati, Jeff Berding served for more than 19 years as an executive with the Cincinnati Bengals – an American professional football franchise based in Cincinnati – where he led Sales and Public Affairs efforts for the city’s NFL franchise. Berding recently won ‘Ernest & Young’s 2019 Entrepreneur of the Year Award’ for the US Central Region.

Jeff Berding, President, FC Cincinnati, US, is a member of ‘Coliseum’s’ Strategic Committee.

While talking to ‘Coliseum’, Jeff revealed that the Governor of Ohio Mike DeWine did a “tremendous” job in shutting things down as US became the coronavirus hotspot “and we have been very fortunate in this regard”. However, the Governor recognized that the construction works can continue and the safety quotient of the workers can take top priority if they work in close coordination with the unions in terms of work conditions. This has allowed the stadium construction work of West End Stadium to continue.

Jeff remarked, “We are on track and will open in the spring of 2021. But, obviously, the 2020 season, like most of the sports world, is very uncertain as COVID-19 has thrown up a lot of challenges.”

He admitted that they are facing a lot of challenges though in the stadium construction process as there are no ticket sales and hence the lack of incoming cash. However, Jeff said that the “tremendous” owners of FC Cincinnati – led by Carl Lindner and family, Meg Whitman and her family, and Scott Farmer – have been “extremely supportive” of the project. The top official revealed that their focus is on the long term investment and what it will bring into Cincinnati in the world of sport.

He also revealed that FC Cincinnati has not furloughed any full-time staff though they have taken pay reductions “starting with me and down through the higher level of the organization” but continues to pay their 88 staff. The club is spending its capital dollars and is working in tandem with “our Government partners” on some of the infrastructure funding they have received.

Jeff also made it clear that they have not applied for any Federal help as he feels “help is most appropriate for really small businesses”. However, he admitted that COVID-19 has indeed thrown up a huge challenge given the fact that “we have no revenue in Major League Soccer here in US”. Talking about the revenue part, he said that about 90 to 95 percent of revenue is gate related – whether it is through ticket sales or parking concessions or, of course, sponsorship direct to the match. And, the club is losing almost all the revenue.

The FC Cincinnati President also informed that the club has not had a home match since September 2019 “because we started with two matches on the road before the shutdown. It is enormously difficult. But, thanks to our owners, we continue to work from home and prepare for eventually when 2020 begins back.”

The bigger focus for the club is, of course, 2021 in their new West End Stadium for which FC Cincinnati started selling seats very recently.

Jeff stated that they are “closely” watching the scenario in Germany where Bundesliga has resumed on May 16 in the midst of a COVID-19 world. Talking about what the future will look like when spectators are finally allowed to go back into stadiums, he said that they are preparing for three phases – “one is for the 2020 season when it resumes, the next is 2021 which can still be different and then, of course, 2022 and beyond where some of the things we learnt during this period must be a part of the long term.”

In the short term, he envisions “playing with no fans once we come back initially into the summer and Fall”. He hoped that as they move into the Fall, they will start bringing back small groups of fans and partial season ticket holders. However, Jeff asserted that there will be “no full stadiums in 2020”. He reminisced that FC Cincinnati had 20,000 full season ticket holders, and a third highest attendance of 27,000 in 2019.

Talking about the FC Cincinnati Stadium which is set to go on stream in 2021, Jeff revealed that they are preparing to operate the stadium differently – “things like concessions, restaurants, ingress, and egress, all of those things are being incorporated into our plans for the new stadium”.

He visualized that in the future stadiums will be “touchless – touchless in the restaurants, touchless maybe at concessions”. It will be a scenario where people will be placing their orders over phone and will again be apprised over phone when to come and collect their eatables so that there is no queue at the concession stand. He said that such features they are planning to incorporate into their new stadium too.

Recently, FC Cincinnati unveiled their four unique premium club spaces at Populous-designed West End Stadium, kicking off the second sales phase for the avant-garde facility scheduled to open in Spring 2021.

The First Financial Club, the Cincinnatus Club, the Pitch View Club and the Tunnel Club were launched, which represent 4,500 seats at West End Stadium split on both sides of the facility. The four clubs each feature a progressive slate of amenities with membership, as well as uniquely designed spaces that each represents a different theme central to Cincinnati.

Stadiums which are under construction should immediately implement the ‘touchless’ feature so as to prepare for the future in a COVID-19 world or even in a post-viral world. Jeff feels that the ‘touchless’ feature should be a “part of the commitment we must make to our fans to ensure we do everything we can in support of public health and provide the safest environment possible to allow them to come and enjoy soccer matches here in Cincinnati.”

With a new soccer stadium coming up every year in the US, FC Cincinnati is pulling out all stops to ensure that they deliver a unique and the best soccer stadium in the world. Jeff informed that their West End Stadium will be the second in the US to boast a roof that completely covers all seats in the stadium. With 26,000 seats, it will be the largest soccer-specific stadium in the United States. The stadium will boast 4,500 club seats, 56 private suites, “which certainly give us an opportunity at prices comparable to National Football League, to have the resources to invest in players that can bring championships to Cincinnati”.

The West End Stadium will also enjoy an exterior with LED lights that run the entire length to the stadium, the east side of the stadium as Jeff asserts, “the stadium is going to be one of a kind. We have our new website – westendstadium.com. You can do virtual tours of the stadium, see renderings, we do think it is quite unique and we are very excited to show it off”.

Fans can learn more about the premium club offerings at westendstadium.com, which includes an immersive, interactive web platform (westendstadium.com) that offers the very first (virtual) look inside West End Stadium and its premium spaces.

 

Premium options within the venue

The First Financial Club is located to the east side of stadium and boasts 2,117 seats.

Expanse: 16,957 square feet

Price Range: $1,000 to $1,250

Price Range Per Game: $59 to $74

 

Amenities

It is the most accessible premium club area, especially for first-time premium members with one of the most unique club designs in sports. All seats along the east sideline, with only 24 rows of seats.

  • Cushioned, chair-back seats with cupholders;
  • Every seat is covered by the 360-degree roof canopy;
  • Curated a la carte food and beverage offerings, including made-to-order pizza and a wide selection of draught beers;
  • Three large bars and two separate dining concepts;
  • Wallet-friendly;
  • Restrooms devoted exclusively to First Financial Club patrons;
  • Private entrance from the east side of the stadium; and
  • Will be available for private events on non-event days.

 

Cincinnatus Club

Location: West side of stadium

Number of Seats: 1,134

Expanse: 10,904 square feet

Price Range: $1,700 to $1,900 per season membership

Price Range Per Game: $100 to $112

 

Amenities

It is the second-largest club space in West End Stadium and has been designed to promote socializing before and after the game, as well as during halftime. All seats are located along the west sideline in the lower level, with only 20 rows of seats.

  • Cushioned, chair-back seats with cupholders;
  • Every seat is covered by the 360-degree roof canopy;
  • Showcases historical roots of Cincinnati;
  • Elevated a la carte food and beverage offerings;
  • Two bars and three dining concepts;
  • Dedicated restrooms for Cincinnatus Club patrons; and
  • Will be available for private events on non-event days.

 

Pitch View Club

Location: West side of stadium, concourse level

Number of Seats: 790

Expanse: 8,746 square feet

Price: $3,200 per season membership

Price Range Per Game: $188 (includes parking and all food and beverages)

 

Amenities

It is the only premium club in West End Stadium with sightlines to the field from inside the club space. It is equipped with an exclusive outdoor veranda at the top of the midfield seating area to gather and socialize before, during or after the game. All seats are located centrally along the west sideline in three sections of 20 rows.

  • Plush, luxurious, extra-wide chair-back seats with cupholders;
  • Membership includes all-inclusive food and beverage offerings;
  • On-site parking included in season membership;
  • Every seat is covered by the 360-degree roof canopy;
  • Membership also includes access to the Cincinnatus Club, which is located directly below the Pitch View Club via an internal staircase;
  • Dedicated restrooms for Pitch View Club patrons; and
  • Will be available for private events on non-event days.

 

Tunnel Club

Location: West side, field level

Number of Seats: 390

Size: 4,590 square feet

Price Range: $7,500 to $10,000 per season membership

Price Range Per Game: $442 to $589 (includes parking and all food and beverages)

 

Amenities

It is the most upscale and exclusive club area in West End Stadium. Similar to courtside seats in the NBA, Tunnel Club seating is on the field alongside the team benches. Players and referees assemble in the Tunnel Club before each game to start the official procession to the field.

  • Luxurious, extra-wide padded seats with cupholders;
  • All-inclusive hospitality offerings, including a chef-driven menu and
    top-shelf alcohols;
  • Every seat is covered by the 360-degree roof canopy;
  • Direct viewing area to the FC Cincinnati post-match press conference from the club;
  • Dedicated restrooms for Tunnel Club patrons;
  • On-site parking included in-season membership; and
  • Will be available for private events on non-event days.

Touching on the topic of fan engagement, Jeff said that the club players were doing their best to keep fans engaged when there is not much news about the team and the games. Accepting that it is an exacting task to keep fans engaged during the coronavirus crisis, he heaped lavish praise on the club’s communication staff as well as the players – “Our players have taken to social media, and one of the content that we are producing – every Wednesdays we have a workout with all the players, fans watch and maybe learn so that they can do it on their own at home. We definitely have tremendous fan support.”

He informed that the players are reading books to kids, fans can sign on a regular time each week to hear the players narrate TV encounters to them, of course, telecasting all matches, classic matches like Open Cup Round, first MLS win, things of that nature on the broadcast side.

Jeff also informed that the club is doing whatever possible for the community – “We are pretty involved in the community and our players and staff after putting on masks and gloves is delivering food to some of the schools with kids no longer getting their meals in schools. We are also reaching out to senior citizens to try to improve the quality of life throughout Cincinnati.”

FC Cincinnati is staying engaged. Obviously, not in brilliant matchday experiences, but during these difficult times when coronavirus has created chaos in the whole world, they continue to support the community.

Jeff said that they are looking to 2021 as they continue to work from home for eight weeks now. With everybody optimistic about the future, “for us it is very tangible that our future involves this stadium as we said construction has kept us on track for Spring and in 2021 we are excited to show off some of the hard work that’s been done. Our owners are making an investment – 250 million dollars in the stadium, so, it’s great that our fans get to see the future home of FC Cincinnati and begin to sign up for their seats.”

He summed up on a positive note, “We are working from home and 2020 is very uncertain time. But, I am much optimistic for 2021 and beyond and we will be the nicest stadium in all of US and Canada.”

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