CINCINNATI — In March, the steel bones of a $250 million Major League Soccer stadium were starting to soar over Cincinnati’s West End, an unmistakable emblem of the growth of the professional sport across the country.
The stadium, home to the F.C. Cincinnati soccer club, is one of seven under construction in the league’s building boom — projects totaling $2.85 billion that will stretch into 2022, when the league expands to 30 teams from 26. In a departure from the billions of public dollars spent in the 1990s and early 2000s for new stadiums and arenas for Major League Baseball and other professional sports leagues, all of the new soccer stadiums are privately financed, with modest public support for modernizing infrastructure.
“There’s a lot to unpack about this trend,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program who studies stadium development. “It’s a different political economy from what it was a few decades ago. Cities are willing to say, ‘We’re not going to build that stadium for you.’”
And there is a limited supply of teams and a growing demand to own them, Mr. Tomer said. “We are creating wealthy individuals faster than we’re creating sports teams.”
That was certainly the case in Cincinnati. The club was started in 2015 as a minor-league team principally owned by Carl H. Lindner III, co-chief executive of American Financial Group and a member of one of the city’s wealthiest and most philanthropic families. The team attracted more than 17,000 fans to its games, which were played at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. Major League Soccer offered the team a franchise, contingent on its paying a $150 million fee and building a new stadium.
Mr. Lindner and his colleagues jumped at the opportunity, and F.C. Cincinnati played its first major-league season in 2019. With $35 million from the city for infrastructure and the support of neighborhood residents, team executives were confident they were on a smooth path to finishing their 550,000-square-foot, 26,000-seat stadium for the 2021 season.
But on March 12, the coronavirus pandemic shut down league play after two games. Nearly 5,000 people have been infected and close to 200 have died in Hamilton County, the home of the stadium.
The virus also prompted changes in the design and operation of the new stadium. All entrances, for instance, will have electronic ticket scanning. Bathrooms will have touch-free faucets and attendants to wipe down stall doors and sinks. The team is prepared to reduce seating and establish social distancing measures if they are needed next year.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Jeff Berding, the team’s president and a minority owner. “With a cutting-edge stadium, people expect that venues like this are doing what we can to serve public health needs.”
The pandemic has disrupted the stadium construction plans for F.C. Cincinnati and six other franchises, but the extent is unpredictable. What is clear is that the coronavirus crisis is the biggest obstacle in the development of Major League Soccer since 2002, when the league dropped two franchises and came close to collapsing.
Started in 1993, M.L.S. played its first season in 1996 with 10 teams that played principally in front of small crowds that looked even smaller in college and professional football stadiums.
But the league’s profile was raised significantly in 1999 with the opening of the $34 million, 20,000-seat Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, Ohio, home of Columbus Crew S.C. and the first M.L.S. stadium specifically designed for soccer.
In the subsequent 20 years, 19 others were built at a total cost of $4.2 billion, an average of $221 million each, according to M.L.S. figures. More than half were constructed with substantial amounts of public support. And in response to tastes in food, entertainment and technology among its young fans, each new stadium became increasingly sophisticated in design, amenities and expense.
Columbus Crew S.C., for example, is scheduled to open a $300 million, 20,000-seat stadium next year in the city’s Arena District, a sports-focused residential and entertainment neighborhood that also has a National Hockey League arena and a minor-league baseball stadium. The team raised private financing for the new stadium and will convert Mapfre Stadium into a training complex.
Inter Miami C.F., which counts David Beckham as one of its owners, is also using private financing to fund a $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., that will be used as a training center after a larger and more elaborate stadium is built in Miami, perhaps as soon as 2022. That 25,000-seat stadium will be the centerpiece of a $1 billion sports-focused hotel, residential and entertainment development. The 131-acre project is on land that the team will lease from Miami. Negotiations on lease payments are nearing completion.
In September, the owners of Austin F.C., the Texas capital’s first major-league professional team, reached an agreement with the city to start construction of a $260 million, 20,500-seat stadium on 24 acres of long-vacant city-owned land. Scheduled to open next spring, the stadium will be built with private funds but be owned by the city. The team reaps all revenue from games, pays the city $550,000 annually as lease payments and will contribute $16.1 million to support youth soccer and community programs. The team is also building a $45 million training center five miles away.
Austin’s construction agreement is consistent with the imaginative deals cities are making to build M.L.S. stadiums, especially in lowering the public expense.
In the early 1990s, in a stadium deal typical of the era, $258 million in public funds were used to build a domed stadium in downtown St. Louis to attract a National Football League team. This year, owners of the St. Louis M.L.S. team are using up to $400 million in private funds to build a 22,500-seat downtown soccer stadium scheduled to open in 2022 just a few blocks west of the Gateway Arch.
The city’s contribution to the project was a 25-year property tax abatement. It also allowed the team to collect a 1 percent tax on stadium revenue as reimbursement for building new infrastructure.
“We’re thrilled with this project,” said Linda Martinez, St. Louis’s deputy mayor for development. “Major League Soccer makes such sense with all the other things happening in our downtown.”
Cincinnati officials and residents are similarly enthusiastic for their soccer stadium. Mayor John Cranley said the city’s M.L.B. and N.F.L. stadiums were financed with $1.2 billion in taxpayer dollars.
In 2018, he helped deliver $35 million in city support for roads, water, sewer and other infrastructure needs around the stadium. Hamilton County also approved $17.3 million to build an 833-space parking deck at the stadium.
“It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done in my work,” Mr. Cranley said.
F.C. Cincinnati’s stadium features an angled roof, covered stands and state-of-the-art exterior LED lighting, much of it designed by Jonathan Mallie of the Populous architectural firm, a prominent member of the team that designed Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Mr. Berding, the club’s president, led the team’s response to concerns about gentrification, economic opportunity, displaced homeowners and businesses, traffic, and other issues in the West End neighborhood, where more than 6,000 people live, 80 percent of them in rental housing.
The new stadium fits snugly on a 15.5-acre site, most of it previously occupied by Stargel Stadium, a high school football stadium owned by Cincinnati Public Schools. F.C. Cincinnati agreed to replace the old facility with a $10 million stadium, which opened across the street last year.
The team’s owners are planning more construction, including three projects alongside the stadium that will encompass 575,000 square feet of space for residences, offices, retail and entertainment.
“F.C. Cincinnati has definitely put in work through their community service, bringing in youth soccer programs and the $100,000-per-year grants,” said Alexis Kidd-Zaffer, executive director of Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses, a community service and development group. “Transformation, like stadiums, highways and developments in the name of progress, have often come at the cost of black, under-resourced communities across our country.”