Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati
With record crowds in the stands, and a strong side on the field, FC Cincinnati’s inaugural season has been a resounding success just over two months into the regular season.
Last week, club President Jeff Berding sat down with USLSoccer.com for an in-depth Q&A, covering such topics as the club’s immediate success on the field and in the stands, what the keys to the club’s success have been and how expectations have changed since the club’s launch.
Q: Just over two months into the season, how pleased are you with where the club stands?
Jeff Berding: We’re excited for how things have gone so far. We’re a third of the way in, so we still have a lot of work to do, and we’re looking forward to it. The team has been competitive, and we’re pleased with that, but we have two-thirds of the season still to go, so the team, the players, we’re still new, they’ve played 10 games together in the league, so we still have a lot of growing to do, a lot of improving to do, getting stronger, taking care of our bodies, but if you’d told me back in February or March that 10 games in, five home matches, you’ll be averaging 17,000 fans, you’ll be selling enormous amounts of merchandise, and your team will be 6-2-2, I’d take that. We’re doing better than we maybe expected.
Q: Nippert Stadium has seen new highs in terms of the USL. How much has that exceeded the expectations you had going in?
JB: We had a lot of respect for the quality of the league. I do presentations all over town introducing FC Cincinnati, and tell people what the requirements were to make this work, and one of the requirements was a high-quality league. I always say, if you’re going to introduce professional soccer, it had better be great soccer. I think the teams we’ve played have been outstanding, every match has gone right down to the wire, so we’re thrilled, and I think our fans our thrilled with the level of play and the quality of the competition.
Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati
Q: The team is playing at a high level. What does it say about the job John Harkes has done to pull things together as well has he has to get the team to 6-2-2 to start the season?
JB: We knew when we hired John, we were getting someone with an unrivaled network around the U.S. soccer community, in terms of contacts from a scouting point of view from around the world. We had high confidence under his leadership we’d be able to assemble a quality roster. Obviously, he’d been a head coach, but not at the professional level. He’d been an assistant at the professional level, so certainly this was a great opportunity for John, but I will tell you that given his extraordinary background as a player that he would relate well to the players, and he would mold a cohesive team together that would have them functioning well.
I think he certainly has done that. I think we have a great locker room. I think our guys are quality guys. They play very unselfish soccer. I think we play attractive soccer in terms of possession and build-up and creating chances, which obviously fans are excited to watch. That’s evidenced by our attendance, and also when we’re on the road I think our numbers for people watching the league’s YouTube broadcasts have also been strong.
Q: FC Cincinnati hosted the first USL Experience in April. What was it like to be part of that, launching that program and seeing the young players get the chance to be part of the event, but also get the chance to see the club’s second home game, which at the time was a regular-season record?
JB: It was an honor to have that confidence entrusted in us by the USL to host that in our first month as a franchise. I got to spend a little bit of time with the players, both on the boys’ and girls’ side, and they were just really neat kids with tremendous skills and a passion for the sport. To be able to bring them to Cincinnati, we’re very proud of Cincinnati, we love our city, so to be able to show off our city a little bit was a unique opportunity that we were pleased to do. I think the kids had a good time doing some of the events around town, seeing the city a little bit, and then being able to take them to a great venue at Nippert Stadium to watch a good match against Louisville with a record crowd at the time. It was a tremendous honor. We obviously enjoyed it, and would look for the opportunity to do it again someday.
Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati
Q: Have the club’s expectations changed as to what would be a successful first season changed after these first couple of months?
JB: Well, there’s two aspects of that question; your expectations on the business side and your expectations on the soccer side. From a business standpoint, sure, they’ve grown a little bit. At the beginning of the year, we weren’t anticipating after five matches drawing 17,000 fans a game, so can we keep that going? That’s the challenge. At the end of the year, can we be averaging somewhere between 15-to-17,000 fans a match? That’s what we’re working to do. Our goal has been to draw 10,000, and that’s still the baseline goal, but we’re up over 6,000 season tickets now, and we’ve had some games last week when we had no advertising, no special promotions, and we drew over 16,000, so we think the bar has been raised on the business side, for sure.
On the soccer side, we wanted to be competitive in year one. We feel like we have an opportunity to make the playoffs, and once you make the playoffs – I learned this in the NFL – it’s a whole new season. I think that’s unchanged. A third of the way in, we’re top four, so I think we’ll have an opportunity if we keep it up – and that’s the expectation – to maybe where we can host a playoff game, but I don’t think you make any predictions beyond making the playoffs. You can’t talk of anything more than making the playoffs, because then once you make the playoffs, then you can calibrate a week at a time, maybe we have a chance to make some noise, as they say.
Q: What does it mean to you personally to see the way this club has been embraced by Cincinnati sports fans, not just soccer fans, but sports fans?
JB: I think it’s a validation of our belief in the city as a strong soccer community. People have asked, ‘how do you think you’re making this happen, with the crowds?’ and I think the foundation is what we always expected. For four decades, this has been a strong youth soccer community, and so I think we’ve built smart partnerships with all of the youth clubs, and I think they’re rallying to support us to make this work. I think that’s the baseline.
I think we’ve had good connections with the millennial population. Cincinnati is a top-five market right now for millennials looking to work in Cincinnati. We have the highest per capita ratio of Fortune 500 companies than any other city in the United States – more than L.A., more than Chicago, more than New York – so we have tremendous companies that are hiring millennials from all over the country and all over the world, so we’ve made great connections with them and become a cool thing because it’s their sport. They have a passion for soccer.
Photo courtesy FC Cincinnati
Then there’s a civic element that resonates with me the most, because there’s a lot of people who are coming to our matches who aren’t soccer fans, but they’re Cincinnati fans, and they want Cincinnati to be successful as a city, long-term. They want their kids to have opportunities if they go away to college or they go locally to stay and work in Cincinnati, there’s some belief that soccer is an important part of that future. It’s not the most important part, but it’s an important part, because millennials and kids love soccer, so if we can have a successful professional soccer team, and put Cincinnati on the map as a successful soccer town, then that’s one more calling card for us as a city. In our ownership group, we’ve believed that from the start and I think for us it’s encouraging that we have people who aren’t soccer fans, but are Cincinnati fans, and they’re coming to our matches to help us be successful.
The icing on the cake has been we’ve become a hot thing to do, the sort of cool thing. So there are a lot of people who are like, ‘hey, it’s Saturday night.’ Maybe it’s a girls’ night out, maybe it’s a group of couples getting together thinking, ‘let’s go to the soccer match and then go to dinner together.’ Creating an ‘it’ thing on the social scene so quickly as far as something cool to do in a city as big as Cincinnati has been just tremendous, and I think some of the decisions we’ve made from a management standpoint have helped play into that. I hear repeatedly that people think our social media has been strong. I have three teenage kids. I have them monitor our social media because if they think it’s cool, then their friends think it’s cool, and that helps drive it, right? I think D.J. [Switzer] has done a great job with social media.
We made the decision to put all of our games on over-the-air TV. That was an economic risk to us, because we’re financing the whole thing, but we felt it was important to grow our brand. We had to be on TV. When people think in Cincinnati sports, it’s a big-league town, the Reds games are on TV, the Bengals games are on TV, [University of Cincinnati] football and basketball on TV, Xavier basketball is on TV, as we presented our brand, we needed to be at that level. If our games weren’t on TV, in my mind, we were more of a minor sport, and I didn’t want to be a minor sport. I wanted to be a major sport, so we made the decision, Carl Lindner III and I, to put the games on TV in a high-quality, HD production. I know that’s helped, because I hear people saying they’re watching the games, and it’s inspiring them to buy tickets to the games. Our games are drawing a 13 share in that timeslot, which is the second-highest viewed program locally when our games are being played. In our first year, that’s tremendous, and I think it shows the interest in what we’re doing.