Thursday, June 20, 2002

Soccer fans' new goal: Bring World Cup to city

Poll shows growing interest in sport here

By Dustin Dow and Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Greater Cincinnati's interest in World Cup soccer is growing as the United States prepares for its quarterfinal matchup with Germany on Friday.

        And, according to a recent poll by Survey USA, interest in holding the World Cup here is even higher.

        Twenty-eight percent said they were somewhat to very interested in the international soccer event before it started three weeks ago, compared with 41 percent now. And 55 percent of the 500 respondents said they would like Cincinnati to host a World Cup event.

        The World Cup was last in the United States in 1994 and could return as soon as 2014. Bids will go out in 2008.

        Cincinnati can offer a world-class facility in Paul Brown Stadium, according to a U.S. soccer official, on which $710,000 was spent configuring the stadium for soccer, and a soccer-playing public among the top in the nation.

        “We're always looking for new markets to play in,” U.S. Soccer spokesman Jim Moorhouse said.

        “We have a great track record in the last few years of getting into areas we haven't played in before. All indications are Cincinnati has a Grade-A stadium, with top-of-the-list amenities.”

        A World Cup or soccer exhibition match is not on the Greater Cincinnati Sports Corporation's agenda right now, said director of events Leslie Spencer.

        Instead, the corporation is looking at the 2006 U.S. figure skating championships, the 2005 Major League Baseball All-Star Game and the 2004 Gravity Games.

        The Bengals, who lease and operate Paul Brown Stadium, would be interested in a major soccer competition if it could attract 25,000 to 30,000 ticket buyers, because of the cost of such an event, according to Troy Blackburn, Bengals director of business development.

        Mr. Blackburn said he would need to consult promoters to see if that were likely if the Bengals were to pursue such an event.

        The U.S. team averaged 28,309 in attendance for home games in 2001; 35,336 in 2000.

        It plays five to six exhibitions in a typical year. The national team has played three games at the home of Columbus' Major League Soccer team, Crew Stadium — including a World Cup qualifier — in the past 20 months.

        The last inquiries the Bengals made about bringing soccer to Paul Brown Stadium was about 12-16 months ago, said Mr. Blackburn, in discussions with Major League Soccer about bringing a team to Cincinnati. Major League Soccer is considering expanding in 2004.

        Paul Brown Stadium and the area's interest in soccer make Cincinnati a potential location for expansion, league chief executive officer Mark Abbott said.

        “We have a mix of markets,” Mr. Abbott said. “We're in Columbus (the Crew); it's been a tremendous success for us. I've heard the statistics about Cincinnati (and soccer participation); it's a fairly active community.”

        But small market size and proximity to Columbus are the biggest hindrances for Cincinnati, according to Mr. Abbott.

        A Women's United Soccer Association franchise is less likely to appear in Cincinnati in the near future. The league has no plans to expand for the next five years. Then it will look for cities with stadiums similar in size to that of Crew Stadium, spokesman Dan Courtemanche said.

        The SurveyUSA poll indicates Greater Cincinnatians are far less interested in having professional soccer — only 33 percent consider it somewhat to very important. There are three minor-league teams in the area; the Riverhawks are a men's A-League team and the Ladyhawks and Northern Kentucky TC Stars are women's minor-league teams.

        Still, Jim Martella, executive director of Ohio South Youth Soccer Association, sees one-third as a good percentage — and reflective of the high interest in youth soccer in the area. And 42 percent of the Survey USA respondents said soccer is somewhat to very likely to become as popular as football in the United States.

        Richard Wanamaker, Riverhawks general manager, said their move into their own 2,500-seat stadium at the Hamilton County fairgrounds on Saturday should spur more interest in professional soccer in the area. Plus, Brian McBride, one of the leading scorers on the U.S. team and a member of the Columbus Crew, will be in town Aug. 24 when the Crew scrimmages with the Riverhawks.

        “We're looking to bring in clubs to scrimmage us,” Mr. Wanamaker said. “We had a chance to bring a couple teams in, but haven't taken advantage of it yet because of uncertainty about our (stadium). Our goal is to bring in some of the big-name French and Italian clubs.”


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