Carl Lindner III is a man of faith. “I think it was God’s perfect timing,” he says, discussing the inaugural season of FC Cincinnati. The soccer franchise’s majority owner and one of Cincinnati’s favorite (and fortunate) sons is sipping coffee at a round wooden table in his 40th floor office in the Great American Insurance Group Tower, with a floor-to-ceiling window overlooking Great American Ball Park, the Ohio River, and the Commonwealth of Kentucky. “When I look back now, I see all the unbelievable things that came together,” says Lindner. “I believe God’s hands are on what’s going on here.”
In the thick of a playoff race as the season winds down, FC Cincinnati has set the United Soccer League’s single-game and single-season attendance records, and hosted upwards of 35,000 fans at Nippert Stadium for a July friendly against the English Premier League’s Crystal Palace. For a city with a shaky history of professional soccer, the team is already an unqualified success, though others involved credit this to another bit of divine intervention. “What has happened is directly attributable to having Carl and the Lindner family as our majority owners,” says Jeff Berding, the team’s president and general manager. “It’s the foundation of everything.”
In person, Lindner is relaxed and soft-spoken. He sits immaculately still. He doesn’t like to talk about himself—the fact that he’s the co-CEO of the Fortune 500 American Financial Group, or that his family name is plastered on hospitals, museums, university buildings, and street signs all over town. He’s plenty familiar with wealth and sports ownership—his father, Carl Lindner Jr., was the controlling partner of the Reds from 1999 to 2005—but prefers to talk more about his dad’s giving heart than his family’s massive checkbook. When asked, he politely declines to go into specifics about his financing of FC Cincinnati, and basically waves off any talk about it from a business perspective. What sold him on the investment was the fact that he likes the sport, and more important, that his four kids do too. “Every one of my family members wanted to invest,” he says. “Which was fun.”
It was also what gave the team legitimacy: Lindner’s relationship with the University of Cincinnati helped secure Nippert Stadium as a home venue, and his standing in the community helped attract other minority owners and sponsorships—all of which (along with his own oh-it’s-no-big-deal investment) catapulted the team from fledgling soccer startup to thriving sports enterprise.
“When I heard Carl was going to be the lead owner, that’s when I got interested,” says Scott Farmer, the CEO of Cintas, minority owner of FC Cincinnati, and longtime friend of the Lindners. “The reputation the family has built is one a lot of people respect. They know the family will do things the right way.”
Again, Lindner attributes this lofty legacy he’s so reluctant to talk about back to his faith—count your blessings, help others, realize you can’t take it with you. Which is all well and good, though it neglects some serious business acumen along the way. You don’t become “the greatest philanthropists this city has ever known,” as Berding puts it, by accident. From the beginning, Lindner and Berding have been up-front about their ambitions to one day make the leap to Major League Soccer, and the overwhelming early success has only amplified that chatter. Before long, FC Cincinnati may soon be part of that indelible yet unassuming Lindner family legacy, if it’s not already.
“The way Carl has run this is as a first-class operation, not first-year, let’s-see-if-it-works,” says Farmer. “From the front office to the staff, to Nippert Stadium, to the way he set up contracts with the players—that’s why the fans are showing up.”