The ‘Orange and Blue’ have arrived!
Football Club Cincinnati, commonly known as FC Cincinnati, is an American professional soccer club based in Cincinnati, Ohio (US). The club plays in the Eastern Conference of Major League Soccer (MLS). The team succeeded the lower-division team of the same name and was announced on May 29th, 2018, when MLS awarded an expansion franchise to Cincinnati.
The FC Cincinnati’s chic and elegant new residence – the 26,000-capacity soccer-specific TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio (US) – opened on May 1st, 2021 in a ceremonial ribbon-cutting ceremony and the first game will be played on May 16th. So long, FC Cincinnati was playing at the 40,000-capacity Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati and before being named the TQL Stadium the home venue of the team while under construction was known as the West End Stadium.
Total Quality Logistics (TQL) is the second-largest freight brokerage firm in the United States. TQL provides domestic and international freight transportation and logistics services. It was founded in 1997 by Ken Oaks in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is headquartered in Union Township, Ohio (US).
Major League Soccer is a men’s professional soccer league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation, which represents the sport’s highest level in the United States and Canada. The League comprises 27 teams – 24 in the US and 3 in Canada – and plans to expand to 30 teams by the 2023 season.
Jeff Berding, President, FC Cincinnati, US, gives a riveting talk to the august online audience at the Coliseum Online Week EUROPE Worldwide – held in March 2021 – and in an exclusive to ‘Coliseum’ reveals how the entire journey of building a new home for the ‘Orange and Blue’ – TQL Stadium – was fraught with challenges and in the process, Berding and his team did learn some valuable lessons.
Stated Jeff Berding, “I was one of the founders of FC Cincinnati with Carl H. Lindner III and joined in our ownership group by Meg Whitman and also Scott Farmer. So, we have three enormously successful business leaders all with their good connections to Cincinnati.”
FC Cincinnati – built upon success
Added Berding, “FC Cincinnati when we started it was always to have a plan to get into the first division but, of course, we had our own promotion from the lower division. We started as a third division and then second and then in the first division in three years. We started playing on the campus of the University of Cincinnati – Nippert Stadium. It’s traditionally an American football stadium. When we started, the League attendance in average was 400 in the lower division, our first year attendance was 17,000, second year 21,000 and in our final year the attendance stood at 27,000.
FC Cincinnati – a winning experience
The top sports official informed how the ‘Orange and Blues’ started tasting success, “We also built a tradition of winning seasons every year accompanied by in our third year of winning the championship of the second division in our final season before the MLS promotion.”
Huge fan following
FC Cincinnati – best fan base in MLS
FC Cincinnati attracts a larger crowd just like moths to the flame. In this context Berding remarked, “So, people when they think of Cincinnati, they think of the fan base. Of course, when you are a lower division team outdrawing most MLS teams and first division teams in the United States you certainly have done a good job building the fan base.”
The team also comes second when it comes to most team merchandise sold in the MLS – 2 million dollars a year and also boasts the third highest average attendance in MLS.
Road to success
The road to MLS expansion
Taking pride on the ‘Orange and Blue’ achievements, Berding said, “We had a very quick turn to MLS expansion – the quickest ever. You can see most Cities have two to three years and we had last in one year. So, certainly quite a piece of work to try to get this done so quickly.”
Talking about challenges faced while building the new digs of FC Cincinnati, Berding informed, “The biggest challenge was where to locate the stadium to win the MLS expansion bid.”
Three potential stadium sites:
- One downtown in the river front across the Bengal stadium and Reds baseball stadium actually in Northern Kentucky;
- One North of the City – still in the City proper – Ten miles North of downtown in Oakley, a fast-growing residential and commercial City neighborhood; and
- And then one in sort of the historic downtown Cincinnati – the West End/over-the-Rhine historic area just North of downtown Cincinnati.
The 65,515-capacity Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati is the home venue of the Cincinnati Bengals of the National Football League (NFL).
The 42,319-capacity Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati is home of the Major League Baseball (MLB) team Cincinnati Reds.
Berding informed that they finally decided to settle for Over-The-Rhine – “Over-The-Rhine is where our stadium was ultimately located.”
Over-The-Rhine is a neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio. It is a well-preserved 19th-century buildings pepper historic Over-the-Rhine, a onetime working-class German neighborhood now home to craft breweries, hip gastro pubs and trendy bars. Dating from the 1850s, Findlay Market bustles with indoor specialty grocers and a weekend farmers’ market. The City’s symphony orchestra plays at the grand Cincinnati Music Hall, and Washington Park is popular for its fountains and festivals.
Reality to the challenge
Berding continued, “So, the reality to the challenge for MLS was first “urban core” stadiums that’s where the Renaissance of soccer is taking place in this country and wants the stadium to be connected. So, we agreed that the best location for the stadium was in the West End Over-The-Rhine historic area. It’s considered one of the most intact urban historic districts in the United States. The German population came to settle in Cincinnati and built up this neighborhood and those buildings have all been preserved. But, there is also an underserved population in more modern times and has seen declining population and a lack of investment.”
- MLS prefers new soccer stadiums being built in the “urban core”;
- MLS/FC Cincinnati decided that the West End/Over-The-Rhine historic area was the right location for the new soccer-specific stadium;
- The area is considered one of the most “intact urban historic districts in the United States”; and
- The area is rich in German heritage but crowded with old and vacant buildings along with an underserved population.
Original stadium site
He informed, “The original stadium site has a high school track and a high school football stadium surrounded by a neighborhood in some warehouses in other blighted buildings if you will.”
Berding said that the neighborhood where they decided to build the new arena “is surrounded by lot of low-income housing people very distrustful of the system”.
Berding and his team faced an uphill task in deciding to build the facility in such a neighborhood where there was a trust deficit.
Challenges – property/buildings
He noted, “So, the challenge was regarding building the stadium here. We were bothered by the ballet, historic music hall. The performers were concerned about noise and fans and lighting impacting their performances. We located the high school football field and they asked us 10 million dollars for our partnership with the school district. Other properties were not fully assembled before the announcement leaked out which drove up land costs and, of course, we had to figure out parking and traffic patterns in this very dense urban environment.”
- The site presented immense challenges with zoning, light and sound and traffic patterns – let alone property acquisition;
- The nearby local performing arts organizations such as the Cincinnati Ballet and other companies at the historic music hall had concerns about light and noise which would emanate from the new stadium would interrupt their performances;
- The TQL Stadium has come up on the site of a former high school football field and thus required the club to fork out $10 million to the school district for the cost of relocating and building new stadium across the street; and
- Other properties were not assembled prior to the announcement thus driving up land costs.
Challenges – people
Rued Berding, “We also had people opposing us. The neighborhood that I pointed out earlier (read where people are very distrustful of the system), one of our opponents went door-to-door and gave them eviction notices saying that FC Cincinnati was going to evict them and tried to rally them against us. Some of these folks were just looking to get money from us figuring out that FC Cincinnati is billionaire owners. We should make them pay for this desired improvements, pet projects and made it politically very challenging because we had to get deals with the school board, the City of Cincinnati also the county. So, it was very challenging.”
- Anti-development interest lied to the community;
- Outside neighborhood “anti-poverty” advocacy groups confused the community with false information;
- Attorneys pushing for Community Benefits Agreements nationally;
- People who hate professional sports and don’t want it coming to “their” City; and
- Robinhood Syndrome: Progressive urban policy advocates who want to get “billionaire owner” to pay for their desired neighborhood improvements and pet projects/causes.
Task cut out
Solutions and problem-solving
Berding further informed, “We had to get the cooperation of the City, the County, the school district and the port authority. We spent significant time and money finding new homes for the displaced people and businesses. The people displaced were just three buildings for the parking garage and none for the stadium itself. We also had to relocate three churches – our Foundation launched a plan to invest a million dollars annually in this lower income area to help the people and we did agree as the first ever Community Benefits Agreement where we have over 40 commitments including jobs training, hiring, outreach programs, and reinvestment.”
- Getting the site required the cooperation of the City, County, School District, and Port Authority;
- Spent significant time and money finding new homes for the displaced people and businesses in order to make the project a win-win for all involved; and
- FC Cincinnati Foundation launched to benefit children in the local area through soccer with over $1M to be invested annually.
Pearls of wisdom
Berding stated, “We should have a broad knowledge of the social and community issues at play in specific communities. I had served on Cincinnati City Council as part of finding FC Cincinnati during my nearly 20-year career at the Cincinnati Bengals – the American football team here. So, I had a pretty good knowledge of the area. We hired a team of lawyers, consultants, community liaison and people who deal with the media and architects with specific expertise who can help us navigate these considerable challenges. The other lesson learnt was deal directly with the people and not let leaders be your voice to the community. I literally went door to door with some residence of West End in that neighborhood again to talk to the residents and promise them they would not be evicted by FC Cincinnati. We never let any media charge against us go unanswered. We always were proactively engaging the media. We identified our neighborhood supporters early as we thought this was a great idea to help develop the neighborhood. We listened, we have actually changed the design of the stadium at times dealing with the community concerns and we did try to understand community priorities.”
- Have a broad knowledge of the social and community issues at play in specific communities;
- Assemble team of attorneys, consultants, community liaisons, media professionals, and architects with specific expertise;
- Go directly to people and do not allow self-identified “leaders” be your voice to the community and understand that people who come to meetings are not necessarily the “voice for all”;
- Proactively engage media at every opportunity;
- Identify neighborhood supporters early; and
- Get the community’s input on plans and actually listen to their concerns and suggestions.
FC Cincinnati arrives…
The TQL Stadium is finally opening on May 16th, 2021 though the formal ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on May 1st, 2021.
- Over 250 million dollars privately-financed soccer-specific stadium;
- Six different ingress points including a grand entry plaza;
- One of the largest team stores in the country and in the MLS open year-round;
- 300-degree canopy roof covering every seat in the stadium;
- Inside of the stadium is the natural grass pitch;
- Largest videoboard in a soccer stadium in the United States;
- Futuristic locker rooms;
- It is a 26,000-capacity stadium – the largest soccer-specific stadium in the US;
- Four premium clubs;
- Almost 4,600 club seats;
- Fifty-three luxury suites;
- Three thousand supporters section;
- The stadium spreads across 12 ½ acres of land and the field dimension is 110 yards x 75 yards; and
- The closest seat is 15 feet from the pitch.
TQL Stadium sales update
- The stadium boasts 53 total suites (more than double the MLS average) in varying sizes across two distinct suite levels along the West side of the facility;
- Thirty-five suites currently committed, with eight more suites held for final sale and the remaining suites being sold for both season long commitments as well as single match packages;
- $3.2MM is the suite revenue committed for the 2021 season; and
- 4,570 total club seats (more than double the MLS average) are all sold out representing $8.6MM in new premium revenue for the 2021 season.
Said Berding, “Suites have been hard to sell due to the coronavirus clobber. The club seats are completely sold out. The league average in club seats is about 2,200, 2,300 with more than double sold out that could have 6,000 club seats.”
He added, “Our reserved seating campaign continues to go well – 12,000 non-premium seats for a total of about 16,000 season tickets. Our goal is to make the stadium full house by August 1st – 19,000 in seasons because we do want some single game folks coming.”
Straight from the horse’s mouth
Closing thoughts on stadium process
- Integrating a soccer-specific stadium or any stadium into a historic neighborhood is about more than just designing a building;
- You need to consider the people in the neighborhood and try to minimize the disruptions to their lives as he puts it, “We really need to work with the people. You need to try to minimize the disruption to their lives and win their support because they can be advocates with the different Governmental groups and elected officials.”
- Building real, lasting relationships sets the foundation for success as challenges will continue to pop up, especially once the stadium opens and mixed-use development surrounds the building as Berding noted, “Throughout the stadium building process, we have like really built lasting relationships, we used our Foundation, we used our community relation programing and we also have a mixed-use development coming in once we open the stadium and we have some committees and coalitions to keep dialog ongoing.”
FCC-controlled mixed-use district
He informed, “Once we open the stadium we will have a mixed-use – about a million and a half square feet hotel, office, multifamily residential, some destination retail. The City of Cincinnati is completely doing the roadways, the Central parkway to create a giant real estate address. We will continue to acquire more property through ownership group and parking will continue to be a part of that.”
- Significant food and beverage/entertainment on both the street level and concourse of the stadium fronting Central Parkway;
- Event/hospitality focused hotel, offices, residential, and destination retail to create a 24/7 mixed-use district that will be active throughout the year;
- All parking sites are to be jointly developed with other uses; and
- Development is to include preservation and new infill.
Enthused Berding with his concluding remark, “So, we are all ready to march as we get past COVID-19.”
Jeff Berding and his team have overcome all the roadblocks and have made the new home of the ‘Orange and Blues’ a reality because they well know the fact that the road to success is always under construction.
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