The first of three new stadiums in Major League Soccer throws open its doors on Sunday.
FC Cincinnati will host Inter Miami at TQL Stadium, the team’s new $250 million home. The exterior of the 26,000-seat stadium is covered with LED lights that make for something of a nightly light show. Inside, there are 53 suites, most in MLS, and a massive video scoreboard.
“For 20-plus years we’ve been building the league brick by brick and stadium by stadium. Everyone sort of takes the whole idea to an entirely new level, and that’s what happens here,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said recently. “I’ve been reminded that you can’t go to every stadium and say, ‘This is the best soccer stadium in MLS, the best soccer stadium in the world,’ because after a while it becomes hyperbole, but there’s something very, very, very special here.”
At least at first, only a limited number of fans, about 30% capacity, will be allowed at games because of COVID-19 restrictions.
The new stadium includes The Bailey supporters’ section, a feature at the team’s former home, dubbed “The Bailey 2.0.”
Owner Meg Whitman praised team President Jeff Berding for doing his due diligence.
“I’ve been in business a long time, and it all starts with your consumers, your customers. We went out to customers in Cincinnati who’d been to games when we were a USL team and the first two years of being in Major League Soccer, and we said, ‘In the perfect world, what do you wish as a fan, that the stadium would have?’ And then delivered on it,” she said. “Every business I’ve ever been in charge of, or worked alongside of, when you start with customers, when you start with what your fans need, you win.”
MLS has emphasized soccer-only stadiums for years, with the idea that a team’s identity is often linked to its home, Garber said.
“What are the Yankees without Yankee Stadium? And yet when we built this league, we didn’t have that. We were tenants in other people’s homes. Fans deserve more, players deserve more,” he said.
Two other MLS stadiums are scheduled to open this season. Expansion Austin FC will debut Q2 Stadium on June 19 against San Jose after opening its inaugural season with seven straight road games.
The defending MLS Cup champion Columbus Crew will play their first match at the $314 million New Crew Stadium on July 3.
Could it be the Chicharito Effect?
The game between Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s LA Galaxy and rival LAFC on Saturday drew 695,000 viewers on FOX and FOX Deportes, according to the league. That’s the biggest ever combined viewership for the El Trafico rivalry game.
Chicharito has been on a tear with six goals in four games to lead the league and the Galaxy is off to a 3-1 start. At the same time, the team has seen a 34% increase over last year in national network viewership, according to MLS.
OK, so maybe it’s not just Chicharito. The MLS, citing Nielsen ratings, says league viewership is up 30% over last year. The rivalry match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers on ABC and ESPN Deportes drew 641,000 viewers.
On opening weekend, the match on FOX between LAFC and expansion Austin drew 485,000 viewers, down nearly 36% from the network’s 2020 opener between Nashville and Atlanta, but last year’s game was in prime time. That seems like kind of an anomaly in terms of the overall ratings picture four weeks into the season.
The combined average audience for the season opener between Inter Miami and the Galaxy on ABC and ESPN Deportes was 558,000. It was the largest audience for an MLS match since 2011 for the ESPN networks.
REBRANDING THE CREW
The Columbus Crew has rebranded as Columbus Soccer Club. While “Crew” is still the team’s nickname, it has taken a backseat.
“The current direction of our Club and our city provides a natural time to examine our identity going forward,” Crew President and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko said in a statement. “Our identity and brand evolution includes a shift in our mindset to be consistent contenders on the pitch, but also includes evolving our look both in the community and across competitions.”
The rebrand was not embraced by all the Crew’s fans. The Nordecke supporters’ group issued a statement decrying it and spread the hashtag #WeAreTheCrew on social media.
“The Nordecke is deeply saddened by the decision to rebrand the club, in the process stripping it of its name and heritage. The Crew has been the club’s name and heart since its inception, it has served (as) our rallying cry when we had to save the team from relocation and our unified cheer when we have seen victory,” the group said in a statement released on Twitter. “The Nordecke would also like to make clear that neither the Nordecke or any Crew supporters group was involved at any time with the conception, development, or design of this rebrand.”
The group said it condemns the changes and the lack of transparency in the process and urges the club to reconsider. A petition protesting the rebranding has also been launched.
The rebranding follows Montreal’s offseason decision to drop “Impact” from its name and become Club de Foot Montreal.