FC Cincinnati, the second-year United Soccer League team, has a secret weapon it hopes will help it elevate to the country’s top professional rung, Major League Soccer: Dayton.
FC Cincinnati has set attendance records for the USL and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, in which it already upset two MLS teams, the Columbus Crew and Chicago Fire. An esteemed arena architect also has created plans for an eye-catching stadium.
But its weakest asset in the quest to join MLS is Cincinnati’s market size, team General Manager Jeff Berding recently told team season-ticket holders.
Major League Soccer, which has 22 teams and is considering adding others from among 12 suitors now under consideration, wants cities that can help grow the league’s base of fans.
“This is the one where we struggle a little bit, and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Berding said. “When you look at the TV markets, here’s Cincinnati, about the 36th Nielsen market in the United States …. The 11 other cities in MLS expansion are all bigger media markets.
“We try to make the point: Combine (us) with Dayton — because between West Chester and Springboro there’s not a whole lot left — and that makes us the 21st market. Hey, if Cleveland can claim Akron/Canton, we can claim Dayton, right?”
There is some precedent in sports for such a credit: The National Football League gives the Bengals a credit for Dayton as a secondary television market.
Nielsen ranks Cincinnati the 36th largest television market, with 863,800 TV homes and 0.75 percent of the country’s population. Dayton is 64th, with 466,040 and 0.4 percent of the nation.
Combined, they would be 1.32 million television homes, ranking 21st, behind Sacramento-Stockton-Modesto, Calif., and ahead of St. Louis. Cleveland-Akron-Canton is 19th, with nearly 1.5 million TV homes.
‘A lot of loyalty to Cincinnati’
Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees with crediting Dayton as part of Cincinnati’s market. A merger of Cincinnati’s metropolitan area with Dayton’s “adds almost another 50 percent of what that Cincinnati market is,” he said.
The Cincinnati and Dayton areas have been growing toward each other in recent years, with Butler and Warren counties — particularly West Chester and Liberty townships — at the epicenter.
According to Journal-News research of U.S. Census data, Butler County has seen its population rocket from 426 people per square mile in 1960 to 808 last year. In Warren County, people per square mile ballooned from from 163 in 1960 to 565 last year.
That compares to 1,986 per square mile in Hamilton County and 1,150.6 in Montgomery County last year.
A decision on a merged metropolitan area would be made by the federal government. Major League Soccer would decide whether to credit Dayton’s television market to FC Cincinnati.
Parker said he thinks MLS should credit Dayton’s TV market to FC Cincinnati.
“I talk to the Reds quite often, and they say that beyond Cincinnati, their next market is Dayton. And that’s even with a minor-league baseball team (Reds’ affiliate Dayton Dragons),” Parker said.
“We don’t have significant professional sports up here in the Dayton area, so people do follow Cincinnati, there’s a lot of loyalty to Cincinnati,” he said.
Joe Hinson, president and CEO of the West Chester-Liberty Chamber Alliance, said he hasn’t heard anything from the federal government about a merged metropolitan area.
“I’ve heard a lot of interest here locally, and regionally,” he said.
In terms of metropolitan areas by population, a combined Cincinnati-Dayton cluster “is actually 18th largest market” by total population, as opposed to TV market size, Hinson said, “right behind San Diego.”
Dramatic growth brings momentum
Parker called the growth along the I-75 corridor between Dayton and Cincinnati “dramatic.” And, he added, “I think there’s a lot of momentum. I think you’re going to see not only commercial activity along the I-75 corridor, but the residential market looking at that next layer past the commercial side of both sides of I-75.”
“I can’t tell you how many examples that I know personally of a two-adult home, adults that live, work and play in our area, that one drives to Cincinnati to work, and one drives to the Dayton area, and they live somewhere between Centerville and Mason,” Parker said.
Parker said a “super, mega MSA (metropolitan statistical area)” would “take us in a whole new realm of marketplace.”
The biggest advantage of such a metroplex would be jobs, Parker said. A larger metropolitan area “could possibly be an attractor to more business, and business growth, because there’s more population to draw from, from a workplace standpoint, and that actually creates more of a synergy, and more of a driver for people that might want to come to the Midwest.”
On the other hand, in a merged metropolitan area, the formerly separate areas could have trouble working together to share resources, infrastructure and attention, Parker noted.
Build a brand up I-75 corridor
FC Cincinnati “has an opportunity to build their brand up the I-75 corridor,” Hinson said. “I think it helps all of us. If you look at the West Chester/Liberty area, I think we have more children — over 6,000 — that play soccer every year, more than anywhere in southwestern Ohio, in any particular area.”
“I think it bodes well for our area, and FC Cincinnati, looking at this area as a key component in helping build its brand for Major League Soccer” he said. And having a popular professional soccer team in the area helps attract and keep young people and families in the region, he added.
“You look at the future residents of our area, they’re looking for location, accessibility, amenities,” Hinson said.
Parker said he believes Daytonians would follow a Cincinnati-based MLS team, just as they do the Cincinnati Reds and Bengals.
There is momentum toward a merged metropolitan area.
“As we look at the growth of the area here, we really didn’t see any activity between Cincinnati and Dayton until Union Centre Boulevard opened up 20 years ago,” Hinson said. “Once that opened, it opened up 3,000 acres of commercial development, and it really opened up the key area of growth between I-275 and I-675.”
That area of easy-to-develop greenspace between those two highways has opened up Liberty Township and other areas along what he calls “the growth corridor.”
“This metropolitan area, geographically, it’s very tied together, so you’re right to pull in a much larger audience,” said Hamilton Economic Development Director Jody Gunderson, who is helping developers of the proposed Spooky Nook at Champion Mill mega indoor facility, where FC Cincinnati may train. “I don’t see it as being a small market at all.”
Cincy, Dayton already merged in ‘real world’
Butler County Economic Development Director David Fehr said: “In my mind, really the area’s already are kind-of acting like that. We have a lot of our employers in Butler County choose this location because they can draw employees from the Dayton area and the Cincinnati area to work here in Butler County.”
“Even if it’s not designated as such,” Fehr continued, “I think in the real world, it’s kind of acting that way already.”
A high-level soccer team can help the region’s growth.
“This is a major-league sports town,” Berding said during his stadium-unveiling presentation. “Having the Reds and the Bengals, it’s part of what puts us on the map. It helps us out-kick our coverage, right? Punch above our weight class. There’s a lot of fine communities, fine cities in this region. You think of Dayton, and you think of Toledo, and Lexington and Louisville. But the fact that this is a big-league sports town gives us prominence, nationally and internationally, beyond our relatively smaller size.”
FC Cincinnati is competing against 11 other cities to join the league. But Berding says the club is mainly competing against teams in the eastern part of the country – Charlotte, Detroit, Nashville, Raleigh and Tampa.
In MLS, Berding said Cincinnati would join “innovation-economy cities” like Portland, Seattle, San Jose, Orlando and Atlanta in the MLS, whose games are broadcast in 170 countries.
BY THE NUMBERS
$150 million: The price for expansion teams to join Major League Soccer
12: Number of cities seeking to join the league
21: Cincinnati-Dayton TV market’s ranking nationally, if combined