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Covington & Newport in Mix as FC Cincinnati Explores Options for Stadium

When Jeff Berding was figuring out a way to pay for his education at Miami University in Oxford, Oh., his mother connected him with her boss, William (Bill) P. Butler of Corporex, and he spent his summers working on the developer's properties in Northern Kentucky.

On Thursday night, Berding was back at a Butler property - the top of RiverCenter to speak as part of The Metropolitan Club's "Courage to Fail" series. Berding, who made a name for himself locally as a Cincinnati city councilman and an executive with the Bengals, is now the president and general manager of FC Cincinnati, the wildly popular United Soccer League squad that spent its inaugural season breaking attendance records and an impressive 3rd-place finish.

But Berding emphasized throughout his presentation that he is a competitor and that politics and sports - his two industries - share that spirit. He and his team at FC Cincinnati - which includes majority owner and CEO Carl Lindner III - have calculated the exact number of goals the team would need to score in order to finish in first place this season.

It's 62, by the way. So, in tinkering with the new roster, Berding & Co. have put together a group of scorers. The team, both on the field and in the front office, is in it to win it.

That same team has also worked out a more elaborate plan to have FC Cincinnati competing for championships at the highest level of the sport in the U.S.: Major League Soccer.

FC Cincinnati submitted its application to MLS this week, and part of that process is to show that there is a soccer stadium plan. It has been reported that MLS wants its teams to have its own stadiums, preferably in an urban area of the market. Nippert Stadium at the University of Cincinnati, which FC Cincinnati shares with the Bearcats football program, may continue to work. Berding & Co. have invested more than $2 million in renovations and improvements to capitalize on the windfall associated with the enthusiasm around the soccer team. 

But the team may need to construct its own place. 

"(Nippert) is proven," he told the 50 or so people gathered at the Met Club for the speaking event which included a half hour of questions. "We want to play at Nippert for as long as we can and we have said we want to bring professional soccer to Cincinnati and the highest level is the MLS. The MLS has not not said we have to build our own stadium. They have said, we have to show our ability to put together a plan."

MLS officials will visit Nippert and check out the improvements being made. And if more improvements are needed, FC Cincinnati would make that investment, Berding said. "It is easier to put $50 million in improvements than build your own stadium."

The race to be included in MLS's expansion leaves little room for error and FC Cincinnati officials think they have the right resume to be included: high attendance (even higher than some MLS teams, including Columbus), merchandise sales that more than doubled projections (and will result in a larger store opening in downtown Cincinnati to push more of it), and improving TV ratings (home games air on WSTR).

The business side of the game is focused on soccer's soaring popularity nationally, and more people watch it on TV than Major League Baseball. That rise is fueled by the country's millennial population, Berding said, the same generation helping to drive the urban renaissance like the one in Cincinnati.

As MLS looks to add four more teams, Cincinnati finds itself competing with the likes of Charlotte, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, Sacramento, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay. Some of those markets don't even have teams at all yet, and Cincinnati, Berding said, is well-positioned to beat them all. The first two expansion teams are expected to be announced later this year. 

But if MLS asks that Cincinnati have a new stadium for its home games, the team's ownership would be committed to doing that, Berding said. There would be benefits, such as more than doubling the number of club seats. Currently, there are 1,100 and they are sold out. A new stadium could have 2,500, he said. The team would also be committed to maintaining its family friendly atmosphere (something Berding created after his years of fielding angry phone calls from Bengals fans who experienced rude behavior at games). FC Cincinnati offers affordable tickets, and while prices are increasing, even without the jump to MLS, the team is committed to remaining approachable for fans of all kinds.

As MLS officials evaluate Nippert's long-term viability as part of the big leagues, FC Cincinnati has evaluated other sites in the area. That brainstorming has included sites in Covington and Newport, Berding said. Any new stadium would be in the metro's urban core, and that includes the Northern Kentucky riverfront, he said.

It just so happens that Berding's old boss, Bill Butler, and Corporex own the Ovation site in Newport, which is a large swath of riverfront land long awaiting a development. Additionally, Covington was rocked by the announced departure of its IRS center, which could also open up development on another large piece of near-riverfront property. "Are we aware of those sites? Yes we are," Berding said, when asked by The River City News at Thursday's event. He declined to get into specifics of the site evaluation process but said sites are explored in the team's application to MLS. 

"Our commitment, because soccer is urban, we have said we were going to build a stadium in the urban core and last I checked, this side of the river has an urban core," Berding said. "So, whether it's Clifton or maybe a little bit north of Clifton and it comes down to what I would call the riverfront, Northern Kentucky, absolutely. 

"We haven't identified the sites that we think could work, or that could be interesting, and that's about where we are."

In the world of sports, particularly in the world of the business of sports, soccer is a growth segment and Cincinnati, in one year, has proven itself to be an attractive market for expansion. The game may also serve as a bridge-builder for the country in a politically divisive era, Berding said. Sports has a way of bringing people together, he said. "Sports is powerful in that way," he said. "Soccer is the world's sport and millennials see themselves as citizens of the world. The internet allows them to connect. You can FaceTime someone on the other side of the world, free, and they want that engagement. They want that worldview, and soccer is the one sport where you really can share that passion across the oceans."

Cincinnati is also ready to showcase itself around the world. Berding somewhat characterized the city as an overachiever, with long-running major league sports franchises and Fortune 500 companies that other cities its size simply would not have. "We're a Major League town," he said repeatedly, citing a generic motivation for the push to MLS. A more specific motivation for the push, however, is that the highest level of professional soccer is poised to work in Cincinnati. 

"There is this rising city, this rising Greater Cincinnati, and it's really doing pretty well right now," Berding said. "In Greater Cincinnati, on both sides of the river, over $2 billion have been invested in the urban core. No other city in America can claim that in the last fifteen years. This rising city is being built by urban millennial growth that feeds soccer and when we became the focus of that civic pride and that millennial urban growth, all of a sudden that wave just grew enormously large, so we were riding that wave and in some degree we were helping to build the wave, and it just got real big, real fast."

But if a new stadium is built on the Cincinnati side or the Kentucky side, or if FC Cincinnati lives forever in a completely made-over Nippert Stadium, one thing is for certain: this club is headed for the highest level of the game. "We'll see if we can make (Nippert) work. If (MLS says) they can't make it work, we have an ownership group that is pretty committed and we're gonna solve that, because we are committed to bringing professional soccer at the highest level to Cincinnati," Berding said. "We are a major league city. MLS is major league and we're pretty determined that we're gonna win this competition and we're gonna have an MLS team in Cincinnati."

FC Cincinnati "became the phenomenon of the year," he said, because of the enormous amount of civic pride here.

"No one has ever seen what happened here in one year," Berding said. "I think there is a lot of community pride in that goes into making sure all things Cincinnati are successful. That is part of the culture and fabric of us as a city. We are a flyover city. They may see us that way. But we don't see us that way."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher

Photo: Jeff Berding speaks at The Metropolitan Club on Thursday (RCN)