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CINCINNATI – In March, the steel bones of a $ 250 million major league football stadium began to float over Cincinnati’s West End, an unmistakable symbol of the growth of professional sport across the country.
The stadium, which is home to the Cincinnati FC football club, is one of seven under construction in the league’s construction boom – $ 2.85 billion worth of projects that will extend through 2022 when the league expanding from 26 to 30 teams. Public dollars spent on new stadiums and arenas for Major League Baseball and other professional sports leagues in the 1990s and early 2000s. All new football stadiums are privately funded, with modest public support for upgrading the infrastructure.
“There’s a lot to unpack about this trend,” said Adie Tomer, a staff member on the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, which works on stadium development. “It’s a different political economy than a few decades ago. Cities are ready to say, “We’re not going to build this stadium for you.”
And there is a limited supply of teams and a growing demand for their owners, Tomer said. “We create wealthy people faster than sports teams.”
That was certainly the case in Cincinnati. The club was founded in 2015 as a minor league team primarily owned by Carl H. Lindner III, co-managing director of the American Financial Group and a member of one of the richest and most philanthropic families in town. The team drew more than 17,000 fans to its games, which were played at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. Major League Soccer offered the team a franchise that was contingent on paying a $ 150 million fee and building a new stadium.
Lindner and his colleagues took the opportunity and FC Cincinnati played their first season in the Major League in 2019. With $ 35 million from the city for infrastructure and local support, the team’s executives were confident they were on a smooth path to ending their 26,000-seat, 550,000-square-foot stadium for the 2021 season.
But on March 12, the coronavirus pandemic ended the league game after two games. Nearly 5,000 people have been infected and nearly 200 have died in Hamilton County, home of the stadium.
The virus also led to changes in the design and operation of the new stadium. All inputs are checked electronically, for example. The bathrooms will have touchless faucets and attendants to wipe down stall doors and sinks. The team is ready to reduce seats and take social distancing measures in case they are needed over the next year.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Jeff Berding, the team’s president and minority owner. “With a state-of-the-art stadium, people expect venues like this to do everything possible to meet public health needs.”
The pandemic has disrupted stadium construction plans for Cincinnati FC and six other franchises, but the scale is unpredictable. What is clear is that the coronavirus crisis has been the biggest obstacle to the development of Major League Soccer since 2002, when the league dropped two franchises and was on the verge of collapse.
MLS was founded in 1993 and played its first season in 1996 with 10 teams playing mostly in front of small crowds who looked even smaller in college and professional football stadiums.
The league’s profile was significantly sharpened in 1999 with the opening of the 20,000-seat Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, home of Columbus Crew SC and the first MLS stadium designed specifically for soccer.
Over the next 20 years, 19 more were built at a total cost of $ 4.2 billion, according to MLS, averaging $ 221 million each. More than half was built with significant public support. And in response to young fans’ tastes in terms of food, entertainment and technology, each new stadium has become increasingly sophisticated in terms of design, equipment and cost.
Columbus Crew SC, for example, is slated to open a 20,000-seat stadium worth $ 300 million in the city’s Arena District, a sports-oriented residential and entertainment district with a National Hockey League arena and a minor league ballpark, next year. The team raised private funds for the new stadium and will convert the Mapfre Stadium into a training complex.
Inter Miami CF, owned by David Beckham, is privately funding an 18,000-seat stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, which will be used as a training center after a larger and more complex stadium will be built in Miami, perhaps as early as 2022. The 25,000-seat stadium Seating will be at the heart of a $ 1 billion worth of sports-focused hotel, residential and entertainment development. The 131 acre project is on land that the team will lease from Miami. The negotiations on lease payments are nearing completion.
In September, the owners of Austin FC, the Texas capital’s first major league professional team, reached an agreement with the city to build a 20,500-seat stadium, valued at $ 260 million on 24 acres of land that it has long had stands empty. The stadium is due to open next spring and is being built with private funds, but belongs to the city. The team generates all gaming revenue, pays the city $ 550,000 annually in lease payments, and will contribute $ 16.1 million to support youth soccer and community programs. The team is also building a $ 45 million training center five miles away.
Austin’s construction agreement is in line with the imaginative agreements cities are making to build MLS stadiums, particularly to cut public costs.
In the early 1990s, a typical stadium business of the time used $ 258 million in public funds to build a domed stadium in downtown St. Louis to attract a National Football League squad. This year, the owners of the St. Louis MLS team are using up to $ 400 million in private funds to build a 22,500-seater soccer stadium downtown, due to open just blocks west of Gateway Arch in 2022 .
The city’s contribution to the project was a 25-year property tax reduction. The team was also able to levy a 1% tax on stadium revenues as reimbursement for building new infrastructure.
“We are excited about this project,” said Linda Martinez, assistant mayor for development in St. Louis. “Major League Soccer makes so much sense with all of the other happenings in our downtown area.”
Cincinnati officials and residents alike are equally excited about their soccer stadium. Mayor John Cranley said the city’s MLB and NFL stadiums had been funded with $ 1.2 billion in taxpayers’ money.
In 2018, he helped provide $ 35 million in assistance for roads, water, sewer, and other infrastructure around the stadium. Hamilton County also approved $ 17.3 million to build a parking deck with 833 spaces in the stadium.
“It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my job,” said Cranley.
The Cincinnati FC stadium features a sloping roof, covered grandstands and state-of-the-art outdoor LED lighting, largely designed by Jonathan Mallie of Populous architects, a prominent member of the team that designed the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Berding, the club’s president, led the team’s response to concerns about gentrification, economic opportunity, displaced homeowners and businesses, traffic and other issues in the West End, where more than 6,000 people live, 80% of whom are in rental apartments.
The new stadium fits perfectly on 15.5 acres of land that was mostly inhabited by Stargel Stadium, a high school soccer stadium for the Cincinnati Public Schools. Cincinnati FC agreed to replace the old facility with a $ 10 million stadium that opened across the street last year.
The team’s owners are planning further construction work, including three projects adjacent to the stadium that will encompass 575,000 square feet for residential, office, retail and entertainment.
“Cincinnati FC has definitely done the job through its community service, bringing in $ 100,000 a year in youth football programs and grants,” said Alexis Kidd-Zaffer, executive director of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, a nonprofit and development group. “Transformations like stadiums, highways, and developments in the name of progress often come at the expense of underserved black communities in our country.”