MLS Expansion: St. Louis vs. Cincinnati

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As St. Louis awaits a possible Plan B to become a Major League Soccer city, Cincinnati is squarely aimed at Plan A. There are a dozen cities hoping to become an MLS city, but no two are quite so similar to one another as the Queen City and the Gateway to the West. Of course, they are also the two with which I am most familiar.

Prospective ownership groups in each city have followed a similar road. Saint Louis FC was founded in 2014, FC Cincinnati, 2015. Both play in the USL. However, Saint Louis plays in a 5,500-seat suburban industrial park stadium. Cincinnati plays at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, a top-tier 35,000-seat college football stadium, about two miles from downtown.

While enjoying similar on-field success, Cincinnati has set the USL attendance record several times, most recently against Orlando City B at 24,376. An exhibition game against Crystal Palace drew 35,061. Larger crowds have witnessed soccer at Busch Stadium and the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, though those matches didn’t involve Saint Louis FC. Whether due to circumstances or planning, Cincinnati has clearly established a following not enjoyed by Saint Louis. One must assume that this matters when asking for public money.

St. Louis is on to Plan B because a vote to support an MLS expansion bid by a group led by Saint Louis FC CEO Jim Kavanaugh, fell a few percentage points short (47/53 or 3,300 votes) of committing $60M toward a stadium. Only St. Louis City voters were asked to vote on a contribution of public money. The prospective ownership group spent $1.18M on that effort.

Just getting the measure on the ballot saw plenty of drama and politics. The proposal eventually fought its way through the city’s 28-member legislative body, of which, only one represents the stadium site. Though not exactly a competing measure, voters weighed in on a transit and public safety tax as well. Its passage was required for the MLS funding to pass.

In Cincinnati, the expansion effort is being led by Carl Lindner III, CEO of FC Cincinnati. Where the St. Louis effort required bringing in a big outside investor to do the heavy financial lifting, the Cincinnati effort is locally led. For those in St. Louis, the Lindner family is to Cincinnati what a blended DeWitt and Taylor family would be to St. Louis.

And while the soccer fans in St. Louis know and appreciate the Kavanaugh name, and Dave Peacock, is well, someone everyone’s gotten to know through the NFL stadium effort, Mr. Lindner needs no introduction in Cincinnati. This gives the effort a different premise.

In St. Louis, the stadium was sold as an economic development tool. It promised 450 construction jobs and 428 permanent jobs. Perhaps St. Louis City voters had grown cynical after four professional sports stadiums didn’t revitalize the city, or their neighorhood. And it hasn’t just been stadiums, big project after big project has promised to alter the trajectory of the city. They haven’t.

In St. Louis, the stadium site was decided out of the public view, as such things are done. The proposal was all wrapped up and decided upon before given to voters as an all-or-nothing proposition, as such things are done. As the NFL stadium effort was done.

In Cincinnati, there’s no expectation that the process will be fully democratic, but there’s a relatively huge engaged fan base that expects to be involved. In fact, season ticket holders will be presented with an “innovative” stadium design by Dan Mies at a June 12 event.

Mies previously designed a pro soccer stadium for the Las Vegas effort. Architectural design may be subjective, but Mies’s Vegas design is better than the HOK effort in St. Louis (top image). While they may be getting the design/site process a little backward, three potential stadium locations are being publicly debated, if not publicly decided. The process has a different feel.

Dan Mies Las Vegas MLS stadium design:

But what matters, what is clear, is that the MLS wants what’s best for the MLS. While the league may very well want to be in St. Louis, whether or not that happens is up to a prospective ownership group. An expansion franchise depends on a stadium deal, with or without public money.

Again, the parallels here between St. Louis and Cincinnati are significant. Both ownership groups have touted $250M in private investment and a $200M stadium. However, the St. Louis group stumbled on the MLS expansion fee, publicly penciling in $200M, then not adjusting the public ask when the fee was confirmed at $150M. The public vote in St. Louis was rushed, as such things are done.

The contortions may only be beginning in Cincinnati, and a public ask in some form is coming. A new pledge from the prospective ownership group of no new tax increase has been made, leaving the source of public funds unanswered. The best guess is that the group is targeting a current tax that funds the NFL Bengal’s Paul Brown Stadium. There could be other options.

Both cities have had painful NFL stadium deals, with Cincinnati (Hamilton County) owning perhaps the worst deal ever made. That said, there is still an NFL team in Cincinnati. And that is likely because Cincinnati is in Hamilton County. (Sidenote: while St. Louis City owns Scottrade, home of the NHL Blues, US Bank Arena in Cincinnati is privately owned, and is currently in a stalemate as political leadership has clearly stated no public funds will be used in its needed renovation)

St. Louis City and Cincinnati share similar histories and today exhibit similar attributes of size, population, and demographics, but there’s one defining political difference. Cincinnati is the seat of Hamilton County. St. Louis City is its own County and Clayton is the seat of St. Louis County.

Hamilton County has lost near 13% of its peak 1970 population over the past 40 years. Over the same period, a combined St. Louis City and County lost 16%. These are very similar places, save the political fragmentation.

Ultimately, regional political fragmentation pitted St. Louis County against St. Louis City. The work required to adequately address multiple political constituencies wasn’t completed. Shortcuts were taken. It’s quite easy to imagine that is the April vote in St. Louis had been put to St. Louis City and County voters, the outcome would have been different.

It’s not clear if Hamilton County voters will be asked to sign off on public money, or if the mayor and city council (which consists of nine members, each elected at-large, that is, they each represent the entire city and not a ward or district) could approve funding. Of course, the Cincinnati effort may still stall, but on the ground here, it doesn’t feel that way.


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  • HiroRoshi

    Is embarrassing enough that STL only has 2 professional teams now. Even KC has MLS with NFL, MLB and even NASCAR.

  • Mark Nugent

    This Deadspin piece “Is MLS a Ponzi Scheme?” is a fascinating read, but I would be interested to hear counter-arguments. It argues that MLS makes no economic sense and can’t survive in its current form and team owners know it, and are now relying on $150 million franchise fees from expansion teams to bail them out. Perhaps STL’s inaction on financing a soccer stadium will be a blessing in disguise.

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  • Dahmen Piotraschke

    Soccer is the next big sport and is on the uprise..We can see this on major networks and the noticeably more airtime of games all over. The Confederate games in Russia was a huge draw for the networks. St. Louis is a soccer town, and every young kid , including my 2 nieces, have been playing since they could walk. Later getting a full ride to Drury College. The US women’s team has been super successful, and should bolster up the men’s team for the upcoming World Cup!! A $250 Million stadium can be built with private money..we have already spoken, and know these rich investors can handle it on their own..The Edward Jones Dome and the greedy billionaire has cut all ties and trust .

  • STL Forever

    MLS in STL would be great in a perfect world, but the ROI is difficult to prove. Public safety and economic growth are greater priorities for STL than a stadium financed partially via hard-working tax-payers in a cash-strapped region. Sorry, but that is reality. The ownership group should have proposed more robust financing, so the failure is on them, not the residents.

    • Nick

      True that we are a cash-strapped region, and that there are greater priorities than a soccer team. The problem is ROI on initiatives directed towards, say, lowering crime, improving schools, (i.e. trying to fix our REAL problems) are also incredibly difficult to justify. Just paying for more cops typically doesn’t do much to lower crime. Just throwing more money at schools typically doesn’t do much to improve education outcomes. With infrastructure spending it is much easier to accomplish the end goal dollar for dollar. For example, if I have 15 MIL to spend on public financing, and I can choose between building a bridge or doing something to help crime, at the end of the day I can build a bridge with that money, and consider my goal accomplished, but I probably can’t make much of a dent in crime reduction, simply because crime is a much more complex beast of a problem. Emotions aside of helping millionaire investors, at least with a new stadium you get several hundred temporary construction jobs, several dozen permanent jobs, and a soccer team that the city can rally around. That is why I voted yes on Prop 2, and am sad to see it failed.

      • STL Forever

        ROI on more police could be debated, but this city MUST do something to solve crime. If New York City could clean up its act, then St. Louis can, too. Again, I want MLS, but I am more concerned about public safety and economic growth. I am tired of millionaires getting welfare handouts from taxpayers, whether it’s sports, corporations or residential developers.

        • STLrainbow

          Part of the reason I voted no is we have just about maxed out on reasonable taxes… not much room to maneuver in that regard either in terms of finding new tax sources or raising existing taxes; when it is done it should be in service of directly addressing the many challenges confronting the city.

        • Nick

          The problem is crime is a function of many things…racism, economic conditions of the population, swings in the overall economy in general, etc. That’s why crime rates tend to mimic each other across cities (i.e. if Chicago is having a rough year, expect St. Louis to have a rough year).
          Cities that have had extreme drops in crime is mostly due to factors out of control of policy makers. So to see we need to “solve crime”…that’s nearly impossible to do.

          New York City’s climb out of the gutter is mostly a function of gentrification in the late 90s/early 2000s. St. Louis is experiencing a little bit of gentrification in some corners, but the highest growth in the region is still occurring in the exurbs like St. Charles. More importantly, the regional economy is somewhat stagnated. Until that changes, I wouldn’t expect major shifts in crime rates.

  • Matt

    Local government structures are layered on top of each other in Ohio. That makes it harder to play the ‘divide and conquer’ game. Municipal, fire, park, water, sewer, school boundaries don’t have to correspond to each other at all in Ohio. In some places they do and in some they don’t. You can live in the same school district with your neighbor but in a different municipality, for example. Or vice versa.

  • David

    Well, as long as it “feels different.”

    The ownership group met with the St. Louis FC fan base several times. No they didn’t get to pick the location, but it is silly to think the fan base will in Cinci either. That will be up to 3 different local governments covering the possible sites, one of which, you fail to mention, is in another state and not Hamilton County. It is arguably the best site for its closeness to downtown and riverfront location.

    Cinci’s current team is barely two years old and gives very cheap ticket options on a large college campus where they play in a much larger facility. Cinci has football and baseball, but does not have hockey to compete with. Yes, they have managed a huge turn out for lower tier soccer, but it is still an apples to pears comparison at least.

    We shall see what happens. It appears that everyone is looking around for a magical soccer stadium success story so they can say to the St. Louis millionaires, “see it worked for them, give us that.”

    Given the fight in San Diego right now, I don’t see it happening. Whoever gets the franchises will make some sort of decision on community investment in the project. There are no free lunches.

    • NM

      Btw, Cincy does have a hockey team. The cyclones. Even the minor league cyclones have a nice turnout to every game.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Right. The whole premise from me is, it’s a very similar situation that has a few differences, so let’s see if the outcome is any different.

    • SkylineIsGross

      I currently work in Cinci and my employer routinely sends out company-wide emails offering 100 free tickets for FC Cinci games. When those tickets run out, they magically have 100 more. This happens at many other large employers in Cinci. The “grassroots” support is corporate astroturf that will evaporate once tickets cost more than $10 (see awful Reds attendance and empty sections at Bengal playoff games.) Anyone who has avoided the koolaid can see that FC Cinci is a handout to the Lindner family at the expense of the rust belt’s poorest large city.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Yes – there’s been quite a bit written about inflated “paid” attendance numbers in MLS, probably USL (minor league baseball, and other sports too). Still, FC Cincinnati has outdrawn Saint Louis FC in the same league by a huge amount. That probably matters when it comes to public perception and support for MLS.

        • STLrainbow

          Definitely would have helped out the vote if Saint Louis FC were like Cincy being in the city proper and turning out big, passionate crowds (and I believe already active building city youth soccer). With little visibility and no track record to speak of in the city for STL FC it was a much harder task to gain voter support.

          • David

            They hosted a pre-season game in the city this year at SLU and turnout was okay, but considerably less than for even SLU men’s games. I would love for them to play at SLU, but that probably isn’t realistic for the university and Fenton appears to have a decent draw for attendance.

            When they were talking about building MLS in the city, they were talking about BUILDING in the city. There isn’t some magic fanbase that shows up once you are downtown. You have to create something people want to attend and a culture they want to be a part of.

            The reality here which everyone is ignoring is that there are no easy stadium in the St. Louis City, or even County limits to take over and grow like Tampa Bay or use to build a huge base Cinci.

            MLS in St. Louis was an investment and trying to build a permanent cultural event in the city. If people thought about it as such maybe they would have had a better thought process on the cost to get in on the sport at this level for a modest tax return over 30 years.

            Instead, there was and is a lot of hand wringing. The “why isn’t there a plan b” people are seeming to have a lot more trouble accepting MLS is never coming to St. Louis. Ironically a lot of these people were also the loudest vote no people.


            “If every sports team in Chicago were to suddenly disappear, the impact on the Chicago economy would be a fraction of 1 percent,” Leeds says. “A baseball team has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.”

            Economists say the biggest reason sports teams don’t have much impact is that they don’t tend to spur new spending. Most people have a limited entertainment budget, so the dollars they are spending when they go to a game is money they would have spent elsewhere, maybe even at a restaurant or small businesses where more money would have stayed in the community. Plus, Matheson says, rather than draw people to a neighborhood, games can actually repel them.

            “Sporting events can cause significant crowds and congestion that can cause people to stop going to other events in the area,” he says.

            “Economic activity in Inglewood actually increased when the Lakers left town,” says Matheson.