My Soapbox: Jeff Berding, FC Cincinnati

Jeff Berding believes that, slowly but surely, we’re witnessing a changing of the guard in the U.S. sports landscape. As more and more American kids grow up playing soccer, fan and corporate support for professional leagues has finally arrived.
“Baseball was my father’s generation’s game, and football is my generation’s,” says Berding, 49, the former Bengals executive who is President of FC Cincinnati, which launches its debut season next month. “Soccer is the sport of choice for my kids’ generation.”
Just as Cincinnati is home to iconic franchises in professional baseball and football, Berding is betting that the region is poised to become a national force in pro soccer. FC Cincinnati is joining the United Soccer League (USL), a minor league, but every aspect of building the organization — from financing to hiring a big name head coach to its stadium deal to a litany of local corporate sponsors — has been done with an eye on becoming a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise down the road.
The MLS currently has 20 teams, with four more joining the league in the next couple of seasons. Commissioner Don Garber has stated that the league would like to grow to 28 teams “in the near future” and has mentioned Detroit, Sacramento, San Diego, San Antonio and St. Louis as candidates for that round of expansion.
Berding thinks the MLS will eventually grow to 32 teams, putting it on equal footing with North America’s four other pro sports leagues: National Football League (32 teams), Major League Baseball (30), National Basketball Association (30) and National Hockey League (30 with two expansions teams soon). He wants FC Cincinnati to be in the conversation for those later expansion plans.
Garber was quoted in a recent story as saying there were three keys for cities looking to attract attention from the MLS: fan support, local ownership and a stadium. Berding is confident that FC Cincinnati is already in great shape with two of those factors.
Carl Lindner III serves as CEO, and ownership includes high-profile businessmen Scott Farmer of Cintas, Steve Hightower of Hightowers Petroleum, George Joseph of Joseph Auto Group and Jack Wyant of Blue Chip Venture Company as well as Lindner’s son Christopher Lindner, soccer development expert Mike Mossel and Berding himself, a Bengals executive for almost 20 years and a Cincinnati City Councilman for five years.
Carl Lindner III 
The Lindner name is well-known nationally, both for Carl Lindner Jr.’s political and business connections and for his long-time Reds ownership role. MLS certainly would want to work with the Lindner family.
On the stadium front, FC Cincinnati will utilize recently renovated Nippert Stadium as its home pitch. Berding is excited about the opportunity to debut in a major college atmosphere that’s practically major league ready with new corporate suites, club seating, concessions and restrooms.
Berding says the relationship with the University of Cincinnati is going very well, explaining that even before FC Cincinnati begins play UC is doing everything possible to accommodate its new partner — from installing a brand new turf field without permanent Bearcats logos to turning over its game-day lockerrooms to expanding the playing surface by removing the first two rows of stadium seating during the next offseason.
And so the missing piece for FC Cincinnati’s upward trajectory is home attendance, which Berding knows is now his #1 mission.
“We’re new to the national soccer scene and haven’t played a single game yet,” he says. “We know the (MLS) requirement is to indicate fan support.”
Berding says the organization’s target is to average 10,000 fans per home game, a challenging figure he thinks is attainable given that Greater Cincinnati is home to more than 56,000 youth soccer players and that Nippert Stadium is accessible to thousands of soccer-mad UC students.
FC Cincinnati will host 17 home games from April 9 through Sept. 17, with 15 USL matches, one U.S. Open Cup match and an international friendly over the summer featuring what Berding hopes will be significant European clubs. Season ticket and corporate suite packages are on sale now, and individual game tickets range from $5 for college students to $25 for midfield lower-bowl seats.
Berding recently spoke with Soapbox about FC Cincinnati’s commitment to the city’s urban core and his focus on Orlando City as a model for building the franchise — Orlando debuted in the USL in 2011, played in a college football stadium, won the league its first year, moved up to MLS for the 2015 season and opens its new downtown soccer-only stadium this coming season.
He smiled when remembering a conversation he had with Bengals President Mike Brown about his decision to launch FC Cincinnati. Brown reminded him that when the Bengals were an NFL expansion team in the 1960s they played their first few seasons at Nippert Stadium.
“So I’m hoping history will repeat itself,” Berding says.
Several of your USL rivals have their home fields in suburban locations, yet you’ll be playing at UC in the urban core. Why?
In order to be a professional sports team, you need a professional-quality stadium. The University of Cincinnati just invested over $90 million into Nippert Stadium, which now provides all the amenities a team needs for its players and fans.
Soccer is a popular sport among college students and millennials, so playing on a campus with over 40,000 students that’s centrally located to other area college campuses was very attractive.
The area from The Banks through downtown and Over-the-Rhine to Uptown is on the rise, and we wanted to be part of that energy and growth.
What about Nippert Stadium attracted you to seek it out as your home field?
It has good size, with 40,000 seats, to allow us to grow as we build FC Cincinnati. Nippert has the suites, club seats, sponsorship opportunities and more to bring in necessary revenue to support our player payroll and franchise.
We’ve developed a great partnership with UC Athletic Director Mike Bohn and President Santa Ono and consider ourselves fortunate to have this opportunity.
You, Carl Lindner III and others in your ownership group have children who play soccer, so you’ve seen first-hand its appeal for today’s youth. How will FC Cincinnati take advantage of that generation shift in sports interest/participation?
Yes, our owners have children who have played soccer at a high level. I played goalkeeper for 10 years growing up on the West Side and have coached my three children and traveled with them to regional and national tournaments.
We’ve seen the tremendous growth that has soccer now the third most watched sport among 18-49-year-olds in the U.S., behind only the NFL and college football. The Cincinnati region has more than 56,000 youth players, and FC Cincinnati is working to partner with all the teams and clubs in a “give back” program where we donate 20 percent of any ticket revenue received through promotions originating from the youth organizations. This support will help those clubs get more resources for scholarships and better coaches and facilities.
Soccer is a global sport, more than any other popular professional sport, with maybe basketball in second place. How does Cincinnati’s international connections via P&G, Sister Cities and other channels help you market the team locally?
We joined the Chamber of Commerce on day one. We meet with the director of the Sister Cities program and the World Affairs Council, and I’ve served on the board of the Regional Economic Development Initiative. All have welcomed us as another jewel in Cincinnati’s crown.
We can be a tool to help sell Cincinnati to visitors, employees from abroad and international companies that have a cultural love of soccer.
You cite Orlando City’s success quickly moving from the USL to MSL as your model for FC Cincinnati. What lessons have you learned from Orlando that you’re implementing immediately from the get-go?
They were a successful team from the start, winning the USL championship in their first year. Fans more easily support winning teams, so they led the league at the time in attendance, which demonstrated strong community support for soccer.
We believe we have a winning program and are counting on fans to come out and show their support as we build the franchise for Cincinnati. We have low ticket prices so all families and young people can afford to attend.
What is your understanding about FC Cincinnati’s prospects for quickly (or eventually) becoming an MLS expansion team?
The USL is an aspirational league, a very strong league. We wanted to bring pro soccer at the highest level to Cincinnati, and the USL gives us that option.
We’d love the opportunity to some day be invited into the MLS as the top league. We need to have strong attendance at our games, and if we get to 10,000 per game that will send a strong message. The MLS Commissioner has stated that the MLS wants to continue to expand, and we believe Cincinnati is a great market and that we have every opportunity to be successful.
We have work to do to put Cincinnati in that conversation about potential expansion cities, and we aim to achieve that outcome this year.
Who will be your main USL rivals in this first season?
We will have good regional rivalries with Louisville City, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Of course the “MLS 2” squads from New York City and Orlando will also be attractive rivals.
We have a great relationship with the owner and staff in Louisville, as they’ve helped us a great deal. It’ll be fun when our teams meet on the field. (Fans of both teams voted recently in an online contest to name the rivalry, which will be known as the River Cities Cup.)
How has your Bengals experience prepared you for this venture?
Wow, in every way the Bengals prepared me for this opportunity. I loved my 19-plus years there and everyone I worked with each and every day. They were and have been incredibly supportive of me since this opportunity to partner with Carl Lindner III presented itself.
The Brown family is incredibly generous to its employees. While I had my primary sales responsibilities as a senior executive, I was allowed to observe and learn about player personnel, coaching, coach and player management, marketing, merchandise and more. There isn’t much I’ve done so far as President of FC Cincinnati without referring mentally to my experiences with the Bengals.
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John Fox is an experienced freelance writer and editor who served as managing editor of Soapbox from December 2014 to August 2016.