Over the past 100 years, many soccer stadiums have been built but only a few have become true cathedrals of the game: Anfield, Camp Nou, San Siro, La Bombanera, and Westphalenstadion to name a few. Their walls are draped with history and lore. Their cabinets are full of trophies. They are household names the world over, except perhaps in America, and their names are synonymous with the teams that play in them. Trying to live up to the legend of those great venues is not appropriate for Nippert Stadium and FC Cincinnati at this point in their young relationship. But Nippert Stadium will be the club’s home and the canvas against which its inaugural season is painted. In a town that knows a thing or two about cathedrals, can Nippert become a true home for soccer in Cincinnati?
In last week’s Cincinnati Soccer Talk podcast, FC Cincinnati’s VP of Operations Dan McNally, discussed Nippert Stadium and the steps the organization is taking to ensure it has a true soccer feel. When you walk into Nippert for a FC Cincinnati match, Dan McNally doesn’t want it to feel like an American football stadium or a University of Cincinnati event. He is focused on providing an atmosphere “tailored toward a professional soccer environment,” in a venue that feels like the home of one team, FC Cincinnati.
So how will he and FC Cincinnati accomplish that?
First, no American football lines or football field markings of any kind. There was some communication around this last August, but a lot of people are still asking. The bedraggled American soccer fan has spent many years suffering matches played on repurposed American football fields, looking at both sets of lines, and wishing for a swift end to that painful existence. USL actually now requires that all of its matches are played on fields marked specifically for soccer.
FC Cincinnati has funded a project, currently in progress, to replace the Nippert playing surface with an all green FIFA certified field turf. Lines will be painted on this surface for soccer, then removed before UC’s football games, and repainted with football lines. In this week’s Cincinnati Soccer Talk Podcast, FC Cincinnati GM Jeff Berding also revealed that there will be a subsequent project after the 2016 UC football season that will expand the width of the field to the FIFA regulation size of 75 yards. The expanded field will provide the width necessary to promote the attractive and attacking brand of soccer the club hopes to promote.
Second, the theme of the stadium will be undoubtedly FC Cincinnati specific on game day. It will include team signage and banners around the stadium, at the ticket box office, around the field wall, and on the scoreboard. It will also include large branded seating tarps that will cover some of the unused seats, specifically in the East Second Deck. There are some permanent signs around the ground that cannot be removed however.
Third, the club is looking to leverage the lively Clifton neighborhood which boasts a battery of bars, restaurants and other entertainment to create a “festive atmosphere” on game day. Leading the charge in this festive environment will be the club’s burgeoning supporters groups. Several active supporters groups, such as Die Innenstadt, the Pride, and the Den have formed following the announcement of the club. The club is working with supporters groups to create special environments in and around the stadium where they can congregate. The north side of the stadium will feature an area nicknamed “the Bailey” that will be the area designated for these most passionate fans.
Finally, the success of professional soccer in America has always been linked with integrating its vibrant youth soccer community into the equation. The plan is no different at FC Cincinnati. They will specifically cater to their younger fans by creating a youth zone on Sheakley Lawn, to “attract youth players to hang out” in a fun environment geared toward their age.
Supporting this plan is an upgraded Nippert facility that is likely the most sophisticated stadium in all of USL. Nippert’s recent $80 million expansion and renovation includes a variety of facility upgrades. There are improvements to basic amenities like restrooms, concession stands, and reconfigurations to help people get around the stadium more easily. It also includes higher-end upgrades including premium seating, an expanded club level, patio seats and a new press box. More details on the renovation at UC’s website here. If you visit, I encourage you to watch the video, the music is excellently dramatic and will make you want to do something important.
Dan McNally stresses the importance of the relationship that has been built between FC Cincinnati and the University of Cincinnati Athletic Department and their operations staff. Both sides have been meeting weekly for the past 6 months to coordinate everything from large projects like the field resurfacing down to small details like team’s practice schedule.
FC Cincinnati’s ability to attract and retain the area’s most ardent soccer supporters (and their dollars) will certainly be linked to the strategy laid out here. The US audience is more educated than it has ever been about what professional soccer is supposed to look and feel like. MLS is over 20 years old. Supporters groups have formed across the U.S. to watch international teams and organize regular trips abroad to see their games. American TV coverage of European, Mexican and South American soccer often provides more variety of coverage and access to games than is available in those countries.
The challenge for FC Cincinnati will be to start with and stay true to its soccer educated die-hard base while providing an environment and hooks to get less committed fans in the door. Mr. McNally shared his thoughts on this challenge and FC Cincinnati’s approach to creating a compelling environment at Nippert for the new team.
“You can never manufacture atmosphere at a soccer game. It comes from the supporters and the connection they feel with the city and the club. It doesn’t happen overnight. Our goal is to prove to our supporters that we care passionately about our club, the city and the game of soccer. We feel that the soccer fans in Cincinnati can bring their passion and over time this will create a great atmosphere.”
Cincinnatians love their city and have a long history of ferociously supporting their sports teams. One hopes that the situation for FC Cincinnati will be the same. Regardless of the outcome, there is no doubt that Nippert Stadium will be the centerpiece of that experience.
FC Cincinnati’s first game at Nippert Stadium will be on April 9th against the Charlotte Independence. Tickets are available on FC Cincinnati’s website or by calling 513-977-KICK.
OK, everyone sing together now (to the tune of the Righteous Brothers, you’ve lost that loving feeling)