Cincinnati, Home Of Terrible Stadium Deals, Is Being Extorted For A New MLS Stadium
Just over 30,000 people filled Nippert Stadium last week to watch FC Cincinnati upset the Columbus Crew 1-0. It was a huge victory for the nascent USL squad as they eye an expansion bid to join Columbus in MLS. But a move to America’s top tier comes at a cost: A new stadium.
FC Cincinnati has been, by any measure, a huge success. In 2016 it averaged 18,519 in attendance, drew 30,187 for a playoff game against the Charleston Battery, and packed Nippert Stadium with 35,061 fans for a friendly against the Premier League’s Crystal Palace. All in the first year of existence. But now, as FC Cincinnati goes through the MLS expansion bid process—they were one of 12 cities to submit bids earlier this year—Nippert, which the team spent $2 million reconfiguring for soccer over the winter, will likely lose its newfound soccer charm and return to simply hosting the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, as it has since 1915. FC Cincinnati is on the hunt for a new stadium, anywhere someone is willing to help pay for it.
To understand FC Cincinnati’s current situation you need to go back a couple decades. In 1996, Jeff Berding, now the president and GM of FC Cincinnati, led a campaign for a half-percent sales tax increase to pay for two new stadiums: Great American Ballpark for the Reds and Paul Brown Stadium for the Bengals. Now, it’s largely considered the worst stadium deal in American history. In 2010, Paul Brown Stadium costs took up 16.4 percent of Hamilton County’s general budget. In 2015, the county, per lease terms, had to fork over $7.5 million for a $10 million scoreboard upgrade.
So Cincinnati and Hamilton County residents and politicians are probably the last people willing to subsidize another stadium.
“We are currently owner of two sports stadiums, which I’ve never felt that should be a core function of our county government,” County Commissioner Chris Monzel told Deadspin. “Owning sports stadiums is not a core county function. For me it’s very problematic to go off and say we’re gonna own a third one. I got two. I don’t need a third one.”
Jeff Cappell, a member of the somewhat controversial Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the newly formed (and aptly named) No More Stadium Taxes, has been vehemently against stadium welfare for years, dating back to his college days in Columbus, when the Blue Jackets were courting the city for a publicly funded arena.
“People in this county are fed up with paying more money for stadiums,” he said. “I have a hard time seeing anything like that happening on this side of the river.”
On this side of the river. That’s the catch. The Ohio River separates Cincinnati and northern Kentucky. It’s not like, say, going from the suburbs to downtown Detroit or even from Manhattan to Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. There are easily accessible bridges for pedestrians. It is, strictly geographically speaking, not that big of a difference. Two of the proposed stadium sites are in Cincinnati. And one is across the river, in Newport, Ky.
“If you had moderate endurance, you could swim across the river from one stadium to the other,” Cappell said, laughing. “You could zipline from the Newport stadium, if it’s built, to any one of our three stadiums on the riverfront.”
When the team unveiled stadium renderings at the Woodward Theater last week, the crowd booed when team officials first mentioned the potential Newport site. And Berding who, as the architect of the 1990s stadia deal and a former Cincinnati City Councilman, has a deep and intimate understanding of local politics, development, and financing, fully understands that Kentucky can probably offer what Cincinnati can’t.
“There is an existing TIF [tax increment financing] on the development site in Newport and the magnitude of that TIF gives us an available financing plan to develop a public-private partnership in Newport without further legislative steps,” he told Deadspin. “What is needed is already in place in Kentucky. Literally all we have to do is tell the developer we have the memorandum of understanding with is Let’s proceed with making this happen in Newport.”
Berding is bright. A fifth-generation Cincinnatian who has worked both in politics and the front office, he knows what to do to get a deal done to best benefit a franchise. (Berding went to work in the Bengals front office after their stadium deal was passed.) And with the justifiable distaste for taxpayer funded stadiums in Cincinnati proper, that best deal is probably in Kentucky, even if Berding wouldn’t quite admit it.
Nippert has quickly become a fan favorite. Right in the heart of the Bearcats’ campus, it’s electric on game days. And while the club’s rapid rise to potential MLS status is exciting to some fans, others don’t quite understand the immediate desire to move up to MLS so quickly.
“Everyone loves where they play at now,” Chris Mucha, a 37-year-old resident and father of three, told me. “It’s exciting. They have a lot of walk-ups. Overall a great experience. I guess I always knew the day would come when this would happen. But I’ve always wondered why there is a rush for the validation to become an MLS team.”
The answer is, as always, money. An MLS team is simply more valuable to its owners than a USL franchise. And even though MLS won’t flat out say it—they did not reply to my requests for comment—the league won’t give a city an expansion bid without a shiny new soccer-specific stadium, even if the current situation is a fan favorite with good attendance. Ownership has committed to what they’re calling a $250 million “legacy investment.” The MLS expansion cost is $150 million. The stadium is estimated at $200 million. That’s a $100 million gap.
And now we’re to the all-too-familiar point in this recurring story where we talk about the benevolent owner—Carl Lindner III, whose family is worth an estimated $2 billion—who loves the region so much and is so thrilled about the prospect of what a new development could do for the city that he simply cannot afford to pay for the entire thing with his own money. This is not lost on local residents.
Dan Berger, a 31-year-old chef who lives and works in downtown Cincinnati, is cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a Cincinnati stadium, because it could potentially directly benefit the hospitality industry. But he’s in the minority among his friends.
“I have friends who are upset,” he said. “Because if you look at the assets of the people behind FCC you’ve got a lot of money there.”
I’m sorry that we have to continue asking this same question week after week, but there’s yet to be a good answer: Why should taxpayers foot the bill for a stadium that will only increase the value of a privately held franchise? Berding and his ilk will talk about revitalization and economic impact, but it is universally accepted by academics and economists that stadia do not generate economic growth or increase tax revenue in a way that offers a municipality an even moderate return on its investment. It is literally giving free money to billionaires with zero return on investment, and oftentimes at a loss.
“Any time you’re talking about massive investment of public resources, it ought to be treated in the same way that a venture capitalist would treat it,” former Ohio congressman Dennis Kucinich told me in 2014. “There’s no business in the world—no bank, no venture capital fund—that would give money to an entity without asking for anything in return.”
It’s nice to hear elected officials like Monzel come out against stadium welfare, because it is going to take every last local council member in the country to reverse the ubiquity of publicly funded stadiums and stop issuing tax-free bonds for billionaires in order to deprive them of the leverage of using one municipality against another. But what could happen in Cincinnati, whose mayor did not reply to multiple requests for comment, is essentially what happened with the Raiders: Oakland wouldn’t pay for a stadium and Las Vegas did. Cincinnati is fed up. Kentucky isn’t. Which is why it is almost a foregone conclusion that FC Cincinnati will end up in northern Kentucky.
“If for some reason we can’t acquire property or if it doesn’t work from a financing perspective or from the political perspective there isn’t the goodwill, we would look to do that with no regrets,” Berding said, when asked if the team would happily set up shop in Newport. “Because we will have done everything we can to bring a stadium to the Ohio side of the river. But at the end of the day we have a $250 million investment of private money so there’s no hard feelings.”