Populous has taken over from Meis Architects on the project for the Cincinnati MLS club. (Courtesy FC Cincinnati)

Populous charged with adding to 50 units planned for stadium

FC Cincinnati and its new architect, Populous, are searching for additional space to build more suites beyond the 50 units already designed for its $250 million stadium development, said Jeff Berding, the team’s president and general manager.

Populous recently replaced Meis Architects to help deliver the final blueprints for FC Cincinnati, which joined Major League Soccer this year as an expansion team. The club is scheduled to play two seasons at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium before moving to its new venue in the city’s West End neighborhood.

As it stands now, the 50 suites and 4,500 club seats at the new stadium, which will seat 26,500, would be the most in MLS apart from teams playing in NFL facilities, Berding said.

“We would like to have a lot more (suites) and we would sell them too,” Berding said. “We have not gone to market yet, but we have a waiting list. We’re at least taking a look to see what it would take. We may or may not get there.”

Adding suites would not affect project costs because it would involve reconfiguring previously existing space, Berding said.

MLS’s soccer-specific stadiums average about 30 suites and 2,000 club seats. Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles and Audi Field in Washington, D.C., opened last year with 32 and 31 suites, respectively. Allianz Field, the new home of Minnesota United FC, opens Saturday with 19 suites tied to long-term deals.

In Cincinnati, among the league’s smallest markets, the appetite for premium far exceeds those numbers. Berding knows the community well after working 20 years for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, where he was director of sales and public affairs.

In addition, Vince Cicero, FC Cincinnati’s senior vice president of partnerships and broadcasting, worked for the Bengals for 13 years. Jeff Smith, the MLS team’s vice president of sales and ticketing, came from the University of Cincinnati, where he was an assistant athletic director for 13 years.

“Between the three of us, on the premium side, there’s no one that’s going to bring anything to the table that we don’t know,” Berding said.

Carl Lindner III, co-CEO and co-president of financial services holding company American Financial Group, and Scott Farmer, CEO of business services company Cintas Corp., are co-owners of FC Cincinnati. Both companies are based in Cincinnati, and Lindner is also part of the ownership of Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds.

FC Cincinnati did hire a consultant to confirm their in-house research. Two Circles, a British sports marketing agency whose clients include Wimbledon, the British Open and North America’s bid to host soccer’s 2026 FIFA World Cup, conducted focus groups in Cincinnati and the results gave the team even greater confidence that it could sell 50 suites, Berding said.

“There’s a soft way where people indicate their interest in suites, and all of that has been incoming calls,” he said.

“Two Circles did validation on pricing last summer, but we’re taking another look at our prices because the demand is so high,” Berding said. “The Bengals had over 120 suites at one time and they were all sold out. The Reds have lots of suites and we’re aware of the pricing there. We’re going to price consistent with the market.”

Populous comes on board as the stadium’s deep foundations are going in the ground. It’s unusual for a team to switch architects this late in development, but MLS officials assured FC Cincinnati that they weren’t the first team to do it and won’t be the last, Berding said.

Meis Architects, owned by veteran sports designer Dan Meis, had been involved with the project since 2017, at the time FC Cincinnati was forming its expansion bid. Berding’s relationship with Meis dates to 2000, the year the Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium opened. Meis was part of NBBJ’s team designing that facility.

Meis told VenuesNow that his exit from the MLS project was tied to issues his group had with owner’s representative The Machete Group. Meis said that he was paid for his work and that FC Cincinnati kept his design intact.

“We had significant concerns about the management of the project and the direction of both the design and budget,” Meis said. “We agreed to disagree and we were terminated. I wish FC Cincinnati well.”

Berding praised Meis Architects for its stadium design.

“We knew Dan had the ability to create a groundbreaking design like he did with Paul Brown Stadium and felt that he’s contributed to develop a community asset in our West End stadium that’s going to be a fixture in our city for years to come,” Berding said.

“As we moved from concept design from Meis and approached the need for construction drawings, it was the appropriate time to add the horsepower Populous offers to ensure we could meet the required timeline,” he said. “There was a team of architects available and we felt they were best suited to keep us on time and on budget.”

Overall, Populous has designed nine MLS stadiums, including Allianz Field, Audi Field, Orlando City Stadium and Children’s Mercy Park, four venues that have opened over the past eight years.

Jonathan Mallie is Populous’ principal-in-charge in Cincinnati.