Cleveland Jocks? How Cleveland is Becoming a Sports Destination

It has been an interesting year for soccer in the state of Ohio.

Major League Soccer awarded Cincinnati its 26th franchise at the end of May 2018. FC Cincinnati completed a solid three-year run in the United Soccer League with a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference and followed that with a memorable MLS home opener, defeating the defending Western Conference champion Portland Timbers 3-0.

Cincinnati’s fanbase has been inspiring from inception. Photo courtesy of  Bradley Tripp .

Cincinnati’s fanbase has been inspiring from inception. Photo courtesy of Bradley Tripp.

That result came after a march on University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium that seemingly extended beyond the horizon.

Also, after what seemed like a lifetime of drama, the Columbus Crew were saved from extinction in December by an ownership group led by Cleveland Browns owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam.

FC Columbus joined the National Premier Soccer League as an expansion club in 2018, finishing third in the Great Lakes Conference behind AFC Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids FC with a 6-4-2 record.

And Cleveland had another strong year in its soccer renaissance. Cleveland SC also debuted in the NPSL, finishing second behind Erie Commodores FC in the Eastern Conference in the Midwest Region at 7-2-3. It then knocked off the Commodores in the playoffs en route to a region semifinal appearance.

Cleveland often gets lost in the mix for soccer in Ohio, at least in terms of national recognition, because it is without an MLS team.

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However, the city continues to build itself as a midwestern sports championship destination with national and even international appeal.

That second point will be hammered home next month as the “Sixth City” hosts a CONCACAF Gold Cup match for the second consecutive tournament.

“Cleveland is very easy to get to; it is centrally located. And soccer is always on our radar,” said Mike Mulhall, VP of Business Development with the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. “We have some facilities that have opened up that can focus on soccer 52 weeks a year. Everyone feels good about things in Cleveland right now. There is a very positive vibe going on.”

The city gained notice when nearly 28,000 flocked to FirstEnergy Stadium, home of the Browns, to see the United States defeat Nicaragua, 3-0, in the 2017 Gold Cup’s group stage. Joe Corona, Kelyn Rowe and Matt Miazga scored as the US won the game and topped Group B en route to its sixth title.

“We have had US Men’s and Women’s friendlies, the Gold Cup twice now, and more,” said Jason Lansdale, who works with Cleveland SC and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission through his company, Offside Marketing. “For that Nicaragua game, all but about 1,000 who were there were US fans. It was great.”

FirstEnergy Stadium is one of 17 venues in the United States, Jamaica and Costa Rica to host 2019 Gold Cup games. The US plays its middle group stage game there against Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday, June 22nd at 8 p.m.

The game is the second in a double-header, following Guyana vs. Panama at 5:30 p.m. That is similar to 2017, when USA-Nicaragua followed Panama and Martinique.

“It is one of those things where, once you have done it once, and you do it well, word spreads around,” Mulhall said. “Last time, we were very successful. We had ticket buyers from 44 states. We understand both the regional and national drawing power of the sport for an event like this.”

As Mulhall mentioned, Cleveland has been on a bit of a roll, hosting sporting events such as NCAA Division I and Division II wrestling championships and the 2019 NCAA National Collegiate Fencing Championships, as well as the 2016 Republican National Convention.

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The Cleveland Indians are hosting the 90th Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Progressive Field in July and the city was awarded the 75th NBA All-Star Game, to be played at Quicken Loans Arena, home of the Cleveland Cavaliers, in 2022.

“You have to have the right venue, and it has to be available. We are able to book a lot of large NCAA events,” Mulhall said. “Places like Quicken Loans Arena (Cavs, American Hockey League, concerts) are a puzzle that you have to put together. You focus on sports you know the community will support. For instance, we might not have a huge field hockey presence, but for us, wrestling is huge around here.”

Community is one theme Mulhall harped on again and again.

“Our secret sauce, if you will, is that our community understands to rally around big events. It is easy to rally around an All-Star game, but everyone understands why all of the events matter, and they have come to understand the importance of a global economy,” Mulhall said. “We are the right size. We are big enough, yet if your event is in Cleveland, it is the center of attention. NCAA wrestling took over downtown when it was here.”

The secret ingredient to that secret sauce Mulhall mentioned is the hospitality and friendliness exhibited by the city when these events are in town.

“This is the gateway to the Midwest and it is a main hub. People enjoy going downtown to see a match and we put on a good show. We are a very friendly place,” Cleveland SC owner Sam Seibert said. “People like to hang out in Cleveland. When they do, they usually come back. It is a great time to be a Cleveland sports fan in general, and the city itself has been placed on this higher stage, and it is performing well.”

Cleveland SC playing in front of a smoky fanbase. Photo courtesy of Jason Harf (J Harf Media)

Cleveland SC playing in front of a smoky fanbase. Photo courtesy of Jason Harf (J Harf Media)

Mulhall, who joined the GCSC a little over seven and a half years ago, said that his organization has a 60-mile radius and succeeds because it does not try to be something that it is not.

“We don’t submit bids that make Cleveland look like Las Vegas,” Mulhall said. “Downtown is very easy to get around, hotels are in close proximity to each other and people love that they don’t have to move too much around. With the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the strong overall arts and cultural mix in Northeast Ohio and the great food that we have become known for, we offer items that are big deals for some people.”

CONCACAF took the Gold Cup on a trophy tour ahead of this summer’s competition, including a stop in Cleveland in mid-April that included U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter. The city is eagerly awaiting this sequel.

The GCSC is hosting Flat Out Kickin’ It between 5-11 p.m. on Friday night, June 21st. The event, taking place in the Flats East Bank entertainment district, is a “community event celebrating soccer and international culture with live music, entertainment, a video board showing soccer matches, food, drinks and games,” according to its Facebook Event page. Two Gold Cup games – Salvador vs. Jamaica at 6 p.m. and Honduras vs. Curacao at 8 – will be shown.

“We want this to be a successful event for the city and our partners, and we are willing to do extra around it,” said Mulhall, as the GCSC says the event will “provide an estimated $4 million in economic impact to Northeast Ohio.”

- Brian Burden