Middletown, Mason businessmen invest in pro Cincinnati soccer league

Several years ago, Stephen Hightower, president and chief executive officer of Hightowers Petroleum Co. of Middletown, tried to attract a professional soccer team to the city, he said.

But city leaders wanted the franchise to use Smith Park, while Hightower said he and other investors pushed for an East End stadium because of its visibility and interstate access.

That business venture never materialized, he said.

“We took a swing,” Hightower said.

Now he hopes his second attempt results in a home run, or better yet, a goal.

Hightower has partnered with Carl Linder III and family of American Financial Group; George Joseph of Joseph Automotive Group; Jack Wyant of Blue Chip Venture Co.; and Scott Farmer of Mason’s Cintas Corp. to form the ownership of a new professional soccer franchise in Cincinnati, according to an announcement made Monday. The franchise, named FC Cincinnati, will be the 26th team in the United Soccer League and will play its games at the renovated Nippert Stadium next spring, Hightower said.

“One of the benefits of getting in early, with an emerging sports industry in America, is that the risk(s) are high but the rewards can be enormous,” Hightower said in a written statement. “It may be years before we realize the success of a Major League Soccer team, but I put my money on the best possible team to make it happen.”

He believes the soccer team will be “good for the community” and provides a “sound investment for the long term.” Hightower called himself a minority owner, and he didn’t want to disclose the financial details of the agreement.

Over the years, he has noticed a shift from youth playing football and baseball to soccer.

“It’s what kids play today,” said Hightower, who has three grandchildren in soccer.

FC Cincinnati’s executive team will consist of Jeff Berding as president and general manager alongside Gary De Jesus, who has been hired as executive vice president of operations and marketing, according to the release. John Harkes has been hired as head coach. As a player, Harkes is a two-time World Cup participant and MLS Cup winner; in addition, he is the first American to play in the English Premier League, according to the soccer club.

Harkes and team management are building their 2016 team and roster.