Famous soccer guy calls FC Cincinnati crazy for not wanting new stadium

The owners of the USL soccer franchise F.C. Cincinnati — yes, of course there’s a minor-league soccer team called F.C. Cincinnati — are being refreshingly reasonable about their plans for building fan support toward eventually getting a possible MLS slot, noting that the team’s current home, University of Cincinnati’s 35,000-seat Nippert Stadium, is more than big enough to fit an MLS team if it ever comes to that. And Hamilton County isn’t interested in building a new stadium after racking up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt on new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals. So the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Patrick Brennan had to go a bit far afield to find someone to say that Cincinnati needs a new soccer stadium now now now now!

Not having a stadium in the works could be damaging to FC Cincinnati’s cause, said Fox Sports soccer analyst and former U.S. men’s national team veteran Alexi Lalas.

“This is a gold rush, and you’ve got to get there and stake your claim because they’re going to continue to expand, but eventually it will be capped,” Lalas told The Enquirer. “This is not for the faint of heart. There are going to be plenty of casualties along the way. People are going to get hurt, and not everybody is going to get rich. And it’s going to require deep pockets, not just fortitude of body and mind.”…

“In this day and age, ‘major league’ means having your own soccer-specific stadium and having your own facility, and being able to show how it’s going to get done,” Lalas said, “and in the current climate, a lot of times it can’t be done with public funding.”

Okay, Alexi Lalas is a famous former soccer player and current soccer TV analyst, but WTF is he doing in this article defining what “major league” means? He grew up in the Detroit suburbs, went to Rutgers, and never played pro soccer within 500 miles of Cincinnati, so there’s no local connection. The only imaginable explanation here is the reporter thought (or was told by his bosses), “We need someone to espouse the MLS point of view that only new stadiums are acceptable!” or “We need conflict!” or just “Hey, doesn’t somebody in this office have Alexi Lalas’s phone number? He’ll probably comment, he’ll comment on anything! Have you seen him on TV?”

As for the content of his comments, there’s something special about anyone who can call stadium-building both “a gold rush” and a likely money-loser without public subsidies all in the same article*. Though given what happened in the actual gold rush, maybe he was just showing an astute knowledge of history.

[*EDIT: Reading more closely, it doesn’t look like Lalas was explicitly saying that stadiums require public money to make money, just that oftentimes teams will want public money, but elected officials won’t always cough it up. That’s a more reasonable point, but there’s still a “Man up, build a new stadium like all the other kids are doing!” tone here that’s a bit odd for anyone not on the league office payroll.]


17 comments on “Famous soccer guy calls FC Cincinnati crazy for not wanting new stadium

  1. Lalas is essentially a propagandist for MLS at this point. He’s not about to bite the hand that feeds him.

    The working assumption in American soccer today is that any city with a “minor league” team and a decent population base is a candidate for MLS expansion. That honestly wouldn’t have been a bad thing up until last season, when the 19th and 20th teams entered the league (most top-flight leagues around the world have between 18-22 teams).

    But MLS might be in for some serious trouble once it hits 30 or 32 teams, and once it finds that owners in towns like Jacksonville, Buffalo, and Reno aren’t willing to shell out the $200M entry fee… to say nothing of a good 15-20 teams simply making up the numbers in any given year (owing to the lack of pro/rel. yeah, I said it), and the league itself still lagging well behind Liga MX and the EPL in popularity.

    It’ll be interesting to see how long MLS can keep that scheme going. For its part, FIFA seems perfectly content to let the league do whatever it wants (Don Garber himself admitted that he hopes FIFA maintains its hands-off approach).

  2. I tried that an hour ago, but my bank balance is unchanged!

    https://twitter.com/fieldofschemes/status/717391829042376705

  3. Man, remember when Lalas used to be a freewheeling goofball with a crazy beard? Now he’s just The Man. Did he go to business school or something?

  4. That’s not at all the message I come away with from this Lalas quote. What I get out of it is that the current requirements for MLS consideration are a billionaire owner and* one of:

    a) A purpose-built stadium for the soccer team (Sacramento),
    b) A coherent and feasible plan to get a stadium deal done in short order (Minnesota, LAFC), or
    c) An NFL stadium controlled by the billionaire owner (Atlanta).

    If you have a billionaire who talks a lot about wanting an MLS team but doesn’t have a stadium plan (Cincinnati), that’s not going to get the job done. If you think you can get a stadium deal done but you don’t have an owner (St. Louis), that’s not going to get the job done. Lalas’s point, I think, is that if there aren’t any stadium plans, FCC will be stuck in the USL indefinitely. It’s a perfectly reasonable observation, given the way MLS has operated recently with regard to expansion.

    And yeah – Alexi Lalas will talk about anything. The guy never seems to get tired of hearing himself talk.

    * – unless you’re a member of the ruling family of the UAE, then the money alone is fine.

  5. Entry fee in MLS has been between 75 & 100 million. FIFA would be money losing disaster if they weren’t peddling the greatest sports product in the world. So yes Garber is correct.

  6. On Neil’s update: I do not think many, if any, MLS teams are making enough money to clear the additional capital costs of a stadium. There does not seem to be a lot of money to be made along the usual avenues (TV, attendance, etc.). The MLS central promotional entity (SUM) does seem to make a lot of money with US and Mexican national team events and some European club events. I think MLS owners get a cut of that and they get a cut of the entry fees. It must be a weird business model where you get money of the success and expansion of other teams and not much for your own team.

  7. The MLS model seems like a speculative venture at this point: Give us $100m for an expansion fee and spend $100m on a stadium, and maybe in ten years you’ll have a franchise worth $300m and have turned a 50% profit!

    I’m as bullish on soccer as anyone, but that still seems like a pretty dubious Ponzi scheme to me. Which is probably why the main people going for it are billionaire NFL or international soccer owners who can write off any losses as marketing expenses for their main brands.

  8. One of the problems is that these MLS stadiums are drastically overcapitalized for the revenue available. There is no reason an MLS team shouldn’t play in an existing stadium and pay rent other than for purely aesthetic reasons.

    Only the very best/richest of European teams have the kind of premium seating and real estate holdings demanded by MLS clubs, and many of the best/richest have much worse facilities than MLS.

    You are right–the “gold rush” is actually for the guys at the other end of the pyramid who get a share of the expansion fee, not for actually succeeding at the box office. Needless to say, there’s not much gold for the municipalities involved.

  9. Yes. I am sure the owners in the last round of expansion NYC and Orlando are getting screwed with 30000 people per game. Perhaps numbers to invest in stadium don’t make sense but demographics and growth are superior to their competition. There is a huge advantage to controlling a stadium and having scheduling freedom. In Miami if Beckham had built next to Marlins park , the Marlins would have had final word on many issues related to his privately funded stadium. You can’t be successful if a competing business controls when you can play.

  10. NYCFC doesn’t have any new-stadium bills to pay (at least not yet — there’s still talk of a stadium up in Inwood), so that’s not an issue for them. For Orlando, I still don’t see how it’s worth the cost of a new stadium for them vs. playing at the Citrus Bowl, but if they think it’s worth it to get their foot in the MLS door, I’m not complaining.

  11. Steven,

    You agree with everyone. Some MLS teams are very popular. In the case of many of these teams, it probably makes better sense to charge a upper-mid level price for tickets, and then pay a portion of that in rent to a stadium.

    Or, if the team wants to own its own stadium–build it a lower-priced location with access to mass transit, compact design, not a lot of frills. MLS teams would be crippled if, for example, DC United paid for its current stadium design.

    In your model, “control” means “gifted from the city.” If that is going to be the case, build a reasonably priced stadium suitable for the audience, not Yankee Stadium with standing seats. It isn’t that soccer isn’t popular, the question is that MLS’s “profits” appear more like a pyramid scheme.

  12. Attendance at MLS is definitely on the rise and I think interest in general is slowly increasing. However, there is a lot less revenue per attendee than most any other sports (and other major soccer leagues). There are more expensive tickets available but MLS teams still give away a lot of tickets (one soccer consultant estimated that 20-25% of MLS tickets are freebies two years ago). It would be seemingly prudent not to project lots more paying fans at higher prices quite yet.

  13. I know I used to go to several Red Bulls games a year when my kid played AYSO and got steeply discounted tickets (~$7 per). Now that he’s on a travel team and we have to pay face value, we haven’t been to a game in a year and a half. (Though part of that is we blew most of our sports ticket budget on the Mets last year. Only part, though.)

  14. 20 to 25% freebies was the case when league was trying to stay above 16k mark per game. But I believe tickets to youth players are still discounted and good business. At end of day your not big league in this country without your own venue.

  15. Steven,

    That’s patently absurd. By your estimation, either the Knicks or Rangers would not be “big league” since they don’t have their own venue.

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