The Making of the 'Hell is Real' Soccer Rivalry
“HELL IS REAL.” If you’ve traveled southbound on I-71 toward Cincinnati in the last dozen years or so, you’re familiar with the phrase. Kentucky real estate developer Jimmy Harston has spent two decades installing billboards proclaiming that message (and more upbeat alternatives such as “JESUS IS REAL”) across the South and Midwest. Say what you want about these signs, but they leave an impression — so much so that the “HELL IS REAL” sign in Mt. Sterling about halfway between Columbus and Cincinnati has become a part of local iconography.
So when the Columbus Crew faced minor-league upstart FC Cincinnati in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup two years ago, someone from one of the fan bases — no one can agree on whom — dubbed the burgeoning in-state rivalry Hell Is Real. This idea caught fire (sorry) among supporters of both clubs. And when Cincy upset Columbus in that Open Cup showdown, a proper intra-Ohio grudge was established.
A few months after that match, Anthony Precourt announced he was exploring options to move the Crew to Austin, which, among many other sad consequences, would have extinguished Hell Is Real before it really got crackling (again, sorry). Instead, the Crew stayed in Columbus, FC Cincinnati upgraded to MLS, and Ohio gets its derby — pronounced darby, it’s soccer slang for a match between two teams from the same vicinity.