08: FC Cincinnati Co-CEO Jeff Berding on Winning on and off the Field
Fresh off his team’s banner season, FC Cincinnati Co-CEO and 2022 Vistage Member Excellence Award winner Jeff Berding shares how he turned his audacious dream of bringing a professional soccer club to his hometown into a reality. Plus, Jeff discusses how he used a grassroots approach to create a culture of raving fans and brought different stakeholders together to build a world-class soccer stadium.
Discover how Jeff:
- Develops a winning culture
- Approaches decision making
- Rallies his team around a rising Cincinnati
Jeff Berding: I always say if I’m the smartest person in the room, I’m in the wrong room, and I give that advice to other folks. So I want to surround myself when I’m making a decision with people that know a lot more than I do about that particular area. And my job is to listen and pull together different voices from different parts of our organization and ultimately try to come out with a plan.
Sam Reese: Welcome to another episode of A Life of Climb podcast. I’m speaking with Jeff Berding, co-CEO of FC Cincinnati. Hello, Jeff.
Jeff Berding: Sam, great to be with you. Thanks for the opportunity.
Sam: What an amazing year you’ve had and what an amazing experience this has been for you and the whole city of Cincinnati. I just want to start off, tell us a little bit about what it’s like running the day-to-day of a professional soccer club.
Jeff Berding: Well, it’s evolved. When I founded the team with my partner Carl Lindner, there was six people and we all did a little bit of everything and we’ve grown now to an enterprise of over 150 people. We now have people working in mixed-use developments, a lot of people working in the community, in addition to what would be your more traditional soccer of selling tickets, sponsorships and coaching the team up and playing matches.
Sam: And I was reading your background and learning about you. You’re almost like a real-life Ted Lasso. I mean, you had 20-plus years with the Cincinnati Bengals. How did that prepare you for this? Because it just seems like it’s such a niche sports business like yours.
Jeff Berding: Well, first of all, it wasn’t a career that I set out for. I was in more in politics and international affairs, Soviet studies in college. So I want to stress, I didn’t set out to be this Ted Lasso character. When that came out, Carl Lindner, my partner, called me and said, “Jeff, have you seen this show on Apple TV, Ted Lasso?” And I had not seen it, so I watched a little bit and yeah, I get the parallel. The American football guy who moves into soccer and learns along the way, learns a lot along the way. I was blessed to be at the Bengals, the Cincinnati Bengals let me be involved in a lot of things, both directed my role in sales and public affairs and communications, but also had a very close relationship with Marvin Lewis and what he did in the community and was allowed to ask a lot of questions of how he did some things on the sporting side just to learn.
And then I had earlier in my career been on Cincinnati City Council while I was an executive at the Bengals and when I left the city council role, I was offered the opportunity to be on my kids’ youth soccer board, the club’s board of directors. I have two of my three kids, my son and my younger daughter were really good soccer players, and they like soccer the way I liked the big red machine in baseball as a kid growing up here in Cincinnati. But they were rooting for Manchester United, a team on the other side of the ocean, and I wanted them to have a hometown team. And I was probably a little audacious to think that I could bring Cincinnati’s third major league team to Cincinnati. So when I wrote the business plan, I drew upon things I learned at the Bengals. I believe we’re always learning, sometimes we’re learning what we’re loving and wanting to emulate in our own lives and sometimes you’re learning from things that you would do differently.
Sam: When you use the term “we want to be the embodiment of a rising Cincinnati,” what do you mean by that?
Jeff Berding: I’m a big believer that cities, like companies, like our companies and like each of us as individuals, we’re either growing or we’re dying because we’re either getting better in making, again, our cities or our businesses more innovative, higher levels of growth, a more attractive place for people to work or we’re getting passed by those cities or those companies or those individuals who are doing those things and we’re not. So when people from around the country think about Cincinnati, we want them to think that, “Hey, they got this new soccer team and man, they’re filling the stadium 25,000. Their stadium just got the best stadium, soccer stadium, in the world. They just got an award and look at all that energy and look at all that excitement. Man, Cincinnati has something going on.”
And maybe someone who’s a decision maker about where they grow their company or where they relocate or their put their North American headquarters or talented people who are thinking where to go to college or they’re graduating and they have a job offer from P&G or Kroger or startup or anywhere in between, we want them to feel like, “Man, there’s something going on in Cincinnati.” That’s what we mean by be the manifestation of a rising Cincinnati.
Key leadership tenets
Sam: I always talk about in Vistage, and you probably heard in your group, that really CEOs are in the business of making decisions and when I think about all the decisions you have to make in a day, what are some of your key leadership tenets that sort of guide you and your approach to decision making?
Jeff Berding: One of them, I always say if I’m the smartest person in the room, I’m in the wrong room. So I want to surround myself when I’m making a decision with people that know a lot more than I do about that particular area and my job is to listen and pull together different voices from different parts of our organization and ultimately try to come out with a plan.
Grassroots approach to creating raving fans
Sam: One of the things we were talking about internally is it just has to be a thrill for you every time you see somebody wearing an FC Cincinnati shirt knowing you guys just created that from nothing, but what goes into making fans as excited as they’ve become?
Jeff Berding: When we launched FC Cincinnati, I wrote the marketing plan based on Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point.” The whole point was we were going to create a social phenomenon in this city that was going to tip and so we built the sort of the influencer/inner influencer groups out and one of them was the super soccer fans that were going to the bars on Saturday and Sunday mornings to watch the Bundesliga or the English Premier League and they were the group supporting the U.S. men’s team and U.S. women’s team. And Carl Lindner and I went to the bars here in town and bought beers for the fans and invited them to help us create a soccer culture, our supporter culture, we told them we were starting a team and we knew that they were going to be the secret sauce and we knew that there would be water cooler talk about, “You have to go to this FC Cincinnati game.” “I’m not a soccer fan.” “Well, you don’t have to be a soccer fan. They got these supporters and they beat drums and put off smoke and it’s unbelievable. You’d never see anything like it.”
And the whole thing is that it grew organically. When we started in the USL, the league average attendance was about 3,400 and our average our first year was 17,000+ The second year? [21,000]. The third year? [26,000]. And the thing was we had the fewest ticket sales reps of any team in the league. Other teams had more people selling tickets to average 3,400, and the reason is because the ticket sold themselves because it became a cultural phenomenon where people felt like … we used a tagline, “rise together,” that the city was rising, that the club was the embodiment and we were doing it together and everyone knew that we were building to be a major league team and that the fans were a part of that and they felt like they were a part of that and they were helping to give us the opportunity to win expansion into Major League soccer.
Sam: Thanks, Jeff. It’s great listening to some of your ideas and definitely your enthusiasm. We’ll take a break and we’ll be back in a few more minutes to hear more from Jeff.
Building an award-winning stadium
Sam: This building the stadium, that is like a once-in-a-lifetime experience only a few executives get to ever actually be a part of, and I just wonder when… I know you can’t take us all the way inside that process because there are so many moving parts, but I wondered if there were some specific things you could tell us that you learned about building consensus and bringing groups together for this bigger goal?
Jeff Berding: It’s an interesting balance between winning people over and never saying no. So initially when we went to MLS expansion, we had a stadium plan a little bit north in a city neighborhood about six miles from here and the commissioner and the expansion committee called us a couple weeks later and said, “Carl and Jeff, we love Cincinnati, we love your plan, but there’s a catch. We want you to build the soccer stadium on that downtown site.” And we said, “Well, we don’t own any of the land and politically this will be enormously challenging, and there’s organizations involved that are going to oppose us.” And the commissioner said, “I believe in you guys and we’ll give you four months to pull it off.” And that’s the condition on getting into MLS.
So I started by literally going door to door in the neighborhood, it’s a historic African American neighborhood, change has not been good, they put the highway through the neighborhood, it’s seen enormous disinvestment in population loss and they did not trust this idea of putting a stadium in their neighborhood. And so I went door to door, I want them to hear it from me. So city council, you go door to door. And so I went door to door and I had a neighborhood minister with me who believed in the plan and I had a youth football coach who believed in the plan and they went door to door with me. And there was this piece where lots of people along the way said that we would never pull it off and at some level, just through sheer force of personality, you just lead your group to overcome every obstacle. And that’s what we did.
Developing a winning culture
Sam: I know you were a recipient of one of our awards, the Impact Award, 2022 Impact Award, and it was just interesting your confidence even back then a few months ago and then for you guys to make what was almost an historic playoff run here, how did you know this year you’re going to get to this next level?
Jeff Berding: Every day you walk in the Bengals and there’s a picture of Paul Brown, the founder, back in as he was a younger coach and there’s a saying, “Winning makes believers of us all,” and so to answer your question, I believed in our coach Pat Noonan, I knew we had a winner. He’d been in the league 18 years and had made the playoffs 17 out of 18 years, whether as a player or a coach. Pretty close to the same record with Chris Albright, the GM. We had had coaches from other teams last year tell me, and tell Carl Lindner and me, “You have talent, you’re not without talent. It’s just that you have individuals instead of a team.” And so I knew that Pat and Chris were inheriting good players, some real good players, they just needed to develop a winning culture. Yeah, we needed to add a few new players and I knew we had the resources and we would add a few new players, but at the end of the day, if the head coach generated belief and the players felt belief from the head coach and they knew his track record as someone who had won this league everywhere he’d been, it would all start coming together because it really does start with that belief.
Another way to say it is the inverse is also true. Losing makes doubters of us all. We had some players who had only been a part of losing, a lot of them had to go and you have guaranteed contracts and things, so it’s not exactly easy. Sometimes players get too accustomed to losing, they’re not willing to maybe put forth the effort because they’re not experienced with that effort of what it takes. And again, I think most of our players bought into what Pat was saying and the assistant coaches and that you start to get results and they build upon themselves, and then there’s that belief that I spoke to that comes from winning. We had a little bit of success early in the year, and success begets success and it grew throughout the year, then you add a couple pieces. I’d say this, a national TV audience last night saw, “Boy Cincinnati’s really pretty good.” And it just took one year. And not that it was easy by any measure, but that’s a measure of leadership. Strong leadership can produce immediate results.
Sam: For decades, we keep hearing in our country that soccer’s going to catch on and it finally feels like that’s starting to happen. But I mean I remember when many years ago when I was an athlete in college, it was “soccer’s going to be big” and it took so long. What was the catalyst do you think, that got soccer to of finally start turning and what do you see for the future of soccer here in our country?
Jeff Berding: It takes generations and by definition is a long time. If you think about it, baseball is maybe five generations, four generations. The Cincinnati Reds have been around for, I think it’s 150 years. The Cincinnati Bengals over 50 years, three generations and soccer, and Major League Soccer, in this country has been around 27 now. You’re really just talking about one and a half to two. I mean, give soccer some time. I mean we’re still at our infancy and yet look at where we are and look how far we’ve come in 10 years.
And it’s going to continue to grow because the World Cup is going to be here in 2026. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world. Just to give you a sense, I think 150 million or so people watch the Super Bowl. 1.5 billion, watch the World Cup. At the end of the day, the demographics are on our side. Major League Soccer’s average fan is 20 years younger than baseball and about a decade younger than football. We’re in a growth trajectory that we feel good about and Cincinnati’s well positioned to be the best major league, or right up there with the best franchises in Major League Soccer.
On the lasting legacy of improving communities
Sam: Well, there’s no question you have raised that bar for the team. It’s pretty clear spending a few minutes with you that you’re not looking to be second best or third best. What other advice could you give? When you just think about this journey you’ve been through as a leader from being executive with the Bengals to or being in city council now running a professional soccer club, any other advice you would want to give leaders as you just think about some of the tenets that you’ve acquired over the years that might be helpful to some of our other Vistage listeners?
Jeff Berding: We have a tradition of businesses who care about their communities, their neighborhoods, their people. I think we’ve tried to evidence this with our approach to the people who live here in the West End and our general larger take on just helping Cincinnati rise. Certainly, it’s more fulfilling having a brand identity as a company that is a part of making the community better and that really we care about the lives of the folks here in Cincinnati. I think that helps our brand and therefore helps our bottom line. We don’t do it for the bottom line, but at the end of the day, it makes us a stronger organization, a stronger business and it helps our employees who feel like they’re making a difference. We talk about building a legacy. I’d like to say when people worked on our stadium, they drive by and say, “I helped build that place.” And everyone who’s ever worked for FC Cincinnati might turn it on someday with their grandkids and say, “I helped build that club.” When the community is healthy around it, people feel pride.
Sam: Jeff, thanks so much for joining us today on another Life of Climb podcast. It was just a blast spending time with you and congrats on all your success.
Jeff Berding: Thanks so much, Sam. I really enjoyed it and I’ve been blessed to have the support of Vistage here in Cincinnati. I have a great leader, a great group and it’s been enormously helpful. And I’m grateful to you and all the folks that lead Vista nationally for helping to provide that platform for me.
Sam: Thanks for joining us for this edition of A Life of Climb podcast. Friendly reminder to please subscribe or follow the podcast to get all the latest episodes. And please visit vistage.com/podcast for more resources to support you on your leadership journey.