A journey to the big leagues

August 07, 2018 | GET MORE : Innovation

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The project exemplifies a journey to the big leagues for the team and the bank.

Sports have a way of bringing communities together, and for soccer fans in Cincinnati, they’ve rallied around their team so enthusiastically that they now have a Major League franchise and plans for a contemporary new soccer stadium in the heart of an urban neighborhood.

Professional United Soccer League team FC Cincinnati formed just three years ago, and as fans there kept breaking national attendance records, the city this year won its bid to be a Major League Soccer expansion team beginning in 2019.

U.S. Bank helped fuel FC Cincinnati’s move to the majors by financing the team’s new stadium, to be completed in the city’s historic West End neighborhood in 2021. It is one of several Major League sports facilities that the Professional Sports Group at U.S. Bank has financed in recent years, as the bank increases its leadership in sports finance.

“The owners of FC Cincinnati had a long-standing relationship with U.S. Bank, so there was a comfort level based on our track record and specialization in sports,” said Bill Mulvihill, Managing Director, Sports and Entertainment Group. “They felt it was a good fit for them, and it was a good fit for us, because we fully believe in the ownership group and the potential of MLS in Cincinnati.”

The bank’s sports group formed about 20 years ago and the recent Cincinnati soccer project brought it full circle: The group started with U.S. Bank financing the purchase of the Cincinnati Reds in 1999 by the Lindner family, which also owns FC Cincinnati. Back then, the Sports and Entertainment Group was a relatively small business with a portfolio of less than $100 million.

It was a time of crisis that led to greater opportunity for the group. U.S. Bank’s financial strength in the heart of the recession in 2008 allowed the bank to identify certain sectors in which to grow market share, and sports was one of those. At the time, the management team at the bank challenged the group to help U.S. Bank become a leader in sports finance.

“The recession happened, and banks were moving out of certain industries,” Mulvihill said. “We developed a detailed plan to build an industry-leading sports finance practice. We shifted our strategy to be able to provide unique financing solutions directly to clients, which led to increasing our resources and hiring people to help build out the business.”

After they financed a few projects, their successes built upon themselves. The sports group portfolio has grown to more than $2.5 billion, and has included financing projects with the Minnesota Vikings, San Diego Padres and Utah Jazz, to name a few.

Leading the team was a perfect fit for Mulvihill, who grew up around sports business, as his father worked for the athletic department at the University of Cincinnati. Mulvihill played basketball and baseball himself, and enjoys seeing how teams and stadiums can make such a big difference in the communities they serve.

“I grew up a huge sports fan, but I never thought I’d work in sports,” he said, noting he got a degree in engineering and an MBA right after that. After working on tax policy in Washington, D.C., and in finance in Chicago, Mulvihill jokes that even though he’s “an accidental banker,” he thoroughly enjoys bringing his varied interests and experience to the world of sports finance.

Now as stadium financing moves more to the private sector and relies less on public finance, banks with the expertise to finance complex sports transactions have become increasingly important.

For FC Cincinnati, the specialized expertise from U.S. Bank meant the ability to create a new home for the team and its fans in the heart of the city. The club’s owners envision a stadium that will represent both the global scope of soccer and the local diversity of the West End neighborhood – and serve as a model of inclusion for the region.

“It’s been a winding road to reach this point,” Carl H. Lindner III, managing owner of the club, said at a recent press conference announcing the new stadium plans. “We’re excited for what’s going to be our new home in 2021. We look to leave a legacy in Cincinnati and build a home that will lead to more good memories for our fans, our region and our club.”

Heather Draper is in public affairs and communications with U.S. Bank.