Cincinnati has a rich and proud history when it comes to sports. With the Reds and Bengals being the most recognized teams in the immediate area, it’s hard for others to make a name for themselves. Now, there is a new chapter being written by the most unlikely of organizations — the Cincinnati Saints, the city’s semi-professional soccer team.
Started in 2009 as a way to watch the sport he loves without having to travel to Dayton or Columbus, local businessman and now club President and CEO David Satterwhite has kept the lid shut on the club for the most part, mainly due to the need to build the organization first.
“It’s been a long journey,” Satterwhite says. “When we first started we couldn’t get people to tryouts; we had to beg them to come. Now we have three former [Major League Soccer] players on the roster, so it’s growing quite nicely.”
Even though the Saints are going through their first year as a professional outdoor team, since the beginning they have been playing in the top indoor league — the Professional Arena Soccer League. The entrance into the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) could eventually lead to Major League Soccer (MLS), but that is a long-term goal in the making.
“We would have to get more owners involved for that,” Satterwhite says. “I’m not a rich guy, so I can’t throw money at the club. The city has to accept us and prove we can be a viable choice.”
The Saints will continue to play both indoor and outdoor, showing fans what a longer schedule would be like if they are able to make it to the majors.
Satterwhite hasn’t ruled out the option as the club grows, but the Saints have to stand on firmer ground first. This means having a large enough fan base and attracting investors to help pay the buy-in fee for MLS.
“That’s part of it, though. You can’t sell something when there isn’t anything to sell,” Satterwhite says. “The city has to prove it, saying, ‘Yes we want this.’ Even if I had the $100 million to get into MLS, it still takes a whole city to support something like that.”
As the Saints enter their first year in the NPSL, fans won’t be the only ones experiencing something new.
“It’s going to be a learning experience for everybody, but the current squad of players has a lot of experience already,” says Saints Head Coach Dave Wall.
“Some of them have been Major League Soccer players, played at U.S. pro level — those are going to be very important for us moving forward.”
To go along with playing in a new league, the Saints also have a new venue, Stargel Stadium at Taft High School. The West End location near downtown is more than what Satterwhite could ask for, especially with the atmosphere he hopes to create.
“Our whole goal is to attract the young professionals,” Satterwhite says. “We still want kids to be there, but we really want a professional atmosphere. Just like the Bengals and Reds, it’s an event every time you come out. With our location in Over-the-Rhine we’re hoping to create that Wrigley Field atmosphere.”
If all goes well, Stargel Stadium can expand to accommodate 6,000 people if the Saints regularly bring in 3,000. And, like joining MLS, there are goals to have a Saints stadium somewhere in the city.
Satterwhite did look into other areas, even over the river in Northern Kentucky, but Taft’s field is the “only place to play downtown,” he says, and it was the right fit.
Like most people with lofty ambitions, Satterwhite was told he couldn’t accomplish what he set out to do. At first it seemed that way. He didn’t have experience running such an organization — he was a fan and played the sport as a member of the Cincinnati Excite, but nothing more.
“Everyone told me it wasn’t going to work, but it’s starting to,” he says. “Even though we have been around for five years, the city is just starting to learn about us. We wanted to have our stuff together before we began promoting to the people.”
Getting soccer fans excited and involved has been another upward battle. There have been attempts at a professional team in Cincinnati before — the Excite was one such effort — but nothing has stuck until now.
“It’s been a sour note with fans in Cincinnati because it’s failed so many times,” Satterwhite says. “Being around for five years, we’ve been around longer than the others. This represents the city so we can’t just let it fold.”
And even with the Reds and Bengals firmly rooted here, Satterwhite believes there is enough room for a soccer team.
Another drawing point for fans could be the inclusion of a women’s team, which not many clubs in that fourth division have. Brought about to give former college players in the area a chance to continue their careers, the Lady Saints have been around since 2011, though they only have an outdoor season.
Above all else, trying to gain interest is the main focus of Satterwhite and everyone else involved. With the World Cup coming up in June, the Saints will be holding watch parties on Fountain Square where fans can come watch the United States matches, kids can enjoy soccer related activities and adults can enjoy a beverage or two.
“I come from a culture in England and Ireland where soccer has been the No. 1 sport,” says Wall, the Saints’ coach. “I’ve been here for 20 years now, and cities are producing high quality teams. Cincinnati is a magnificent city with a great sports history and talent level, so this is really exciting for the city.” ©
THE CINCINNATI SAINTS kick off their season Friday at Stargel Stadium (1430 John St., West End). The team will host World Cup watch parties June 16, 22 and 26 at Fountain Square. For more information on the Saints, visit cincinnatisaints.com.