A Cautionary Stadium Tale for FC Cincinnati

The Chicago Fire break their lease to move to an NFL stadium next season, even after finishing dead last in MLS attendance.
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With a nil-nil draw against the Chicago Fire last weekend, FC Cincinnati nabbed its second positive result in three games vs. an Eastern Conference foe chasing a playoff spot. The Orange and Blue have just two games remaining: home on Sunday vs. Orlando City and a road visit to D.C. United the following weekend. By gaining four points over its past three games—and showing well in a setback to reigning MLS champion Atlanta United—FCC has at the least snared a modicum of late momentum and good vibrations from an otherwise poor expansion campaign.

 

Chicago was the rare opponent FC Cincinnati could handle in 2019; FCC edged the Fire 2-1 in July, too. Chicago also provides an intriguing window into what happens when stadium deals go south.

Since 2006, the Fire have played their home matches at SeatGeek Stadium in Bridgeview, a suburb 15-20 miles southwest of downtown Chicago. Beginning next season, though, they’ll play at Soldier Field, home of the NFL’s Bears and where the franchise played from 1998 to 2001 and from 2003 through a portion of 2006. The switch is a costly one for the Fire: $65.5 million. After all, you (rightfully) can’t exit a publicly funded stadium with a lease through 2036 without forking over some compensation.

Soldier Field is a fine place to watch a soccer match—I took in the U.S. men’s national team’s Copa América Centenario group stage win over Costa Rica there in 2016—but at a capacity of 61,000-plus, the place is going to look awfully empty with the Fire’s attendance issues. As of this writing, Chicago is dead last in the league in attendance, averaging a tick under 12,000 spectators per game. (FCC is third.)

The stadium deal with Bridgeview proved to be a nightmare for both sides, with community taxpayers taking on millions in debt and the team struggling with low attendance as well as poor on-field results (the Fire have qualified for the postseason just twice over the past nine seasons). For now, FC Cincinnati’s stadium situation bears no resemblance to Chicago’s imbroglio, with the team paying for the vast majority of the West End stadium with its own money. (If I were elected President, one of my first executive acts would be to ban the use of taxpayer dollars to fund pro sports stadiums.)

FCC’s stadium saga, however, is not without negative twists and turns. The city of Cincinnati is on the hook for about $40 million in stadium infrastructure, concerts at nearby Music Hall may or may not be affected by crowd noise, and game day parking likely will be a quagmire. The humanitarian cost could be severe, too, with a recent study finding that four in 10 West End residents could wind up displaced by the stadium. Constructing a 26,500-seat concrete structure in a struggling residential neighborhood with little interest in soccer is hardly high up on the Neighborhood Revitalization Checklist.

Still, FC Cincinnati’s entry into MLS would have never happened without a deal for a new stadium, no matter how successful the franchise was on and off the field in its USL days and no matter how much of a natural fit Nippert Stadium has proven to be for the club and its supporters. The Chicago story is another reminder of how rare it is for stadium deals between municipalities and sports franchises to bear fruit for both sides over the long run.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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