COLUMN: Can Cincinnati maintain big crowds over the long haul in Major League Soccer?

If they build it, will you come?

The biggest selling point in FC Cincinnati’s quest to become a part of Major League Soccer has been fan support. The club has obliterated United Soccer League attendance records and blew away every other site’s attendance averages in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup, topping MLS side Sporting Kansas City -- which was second in average attendance -- 23,001 to 16,998.

Fans packed Nippert Stadium for FC Cincinnati’s friendly against Crystal Palace FC in 2016. (Nic Koppert/WCPO)

Add to that a U.S. Women’s National Team friendly against New Zealand that drew 30,596, an FC Cincinnati friendly in July against Spanish side Valencia CF that had 23,144 and a 2016 friendly versus English Premier League side Crystal Palace that drew 35,061 and it’s no wonder why MLS is drooling to add this fan base.

But will Cincinnati be able to maintain that soccer craziness if its team moves to the top-tier league in the United States? Looking at FC Cincinnati’s numbers, the answer would seemingly be a resounding yes. However, taking a look at trends with other local teams raises some questions.

The Bengals will finish the 2017 season ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams with an average of 53,242 fans at eight home games in 65,515-seat Paul Brown Stadium. They’re ahead of only the Los Angeles Chargers who played, coincidentally, in a small MLS stadium as they await a new venue to be built.

Bengals home attendance was second to last in the NFL this season. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Perhaps a couple down seasons have played into the Bengals’ attendance, but they weren’t exactly selling out during recent playoff seasons. In fact, they were dead last in 2011 despite being a wildcard playoff team. A look at the Bengals ranks over recent seasons shows they’ve consistently been toward the bottom of the league (*=made playoffs; Source: ESPN.com):

Bengals average attendance

  • 2017 -- 31st; 53,242
  • 2016 -- 29th; 60,511
  • 2015* -- 28th; 61,389
  • 2014* - 28th; 60,703
  • 2013* -- 25th; 63,297
  • 2012* -- 24th; 61,188
  • 2011* -- 32nd; 49,251

It’s apples and oranges to a degree when comparing different sports. Football has fewer games, tickets are far more expensive than any other local sports, games are outdoors in the winter and the Bengals are hardly the most storied franchise in the NFL. However, the NFL has been the king of pro sports in recent years, and Cincinnati hasn’t been as gaga about it as many other cities.

Also, venues are different sizes. The Bengals selling out requires 65,000 seats filled, whereas a new soccer stadium would be around 20,000 seats.

The Reds had a lot of empty seats during the 2017 season. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Baseball might be a better comparison for FC Cincinnati than football, with 81 games played in town throughout the summer. But a dismal 2017 Reds season meant a lot of empty seats at Great American Ball Park. The Reds finished 26th out of 30 teams with an average of 22,677 in the 42,319-seat stadium.

But unlike the Bengals, Reds crowds do show more signs of life when the team is winning. The numbers over since 2010 seasons show better ranks before the team went into a rebuilding process:

Reds average attendance

  • 2017 -- 26th; 22,677
  • 2016 -- 25th; 23,383
  • 2015 -- 18th; 29,870
  • 2014 -- 14th; 30,576
  • 2013* -- 15th; 31,288
  • 2012* -- 16th; 28,978
  • 2011 -- 16th; 27,327
  • 2010* -- 20th; 25,438

Reds promotions, such as bobblehead giveaways, as well as the ability to get cheap seats surely help their numbers, but it’s clear Cincinnati will come out to support winners much more than sub-.500 teams. In fairness, that is likely true of most cities.

So what about the consistent winners? Cincinnati has two of them, both in college basketball. The Xavier and Cincinnati men’s hoops teams are perennial participants in the NCAA tournament and are typically both ranked nationally in recent years. As a result, the fans have shown up.

Last season, Xavier had a school record 164,520 fans. They have ranked in the top 50 nationally in what is now 347 Division I teams in all 17 seasons at 10,250-seat Cintas Center. Xavier has actually averaged more than that capacity in the past two seasons.

Xavier has consistently had capacity crowds at Cintas Center. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

UC maybe hasn’t packed Fifth Third Arena in recent years quite like it did in the Bob Huggins glory days, but it has ranked in the top 50 four of the past five seasons. This season the Bearcats are playing in 9,400-seat BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University as Fifth Third Arena is being renovated. Fifth Third Arena has had a capacity of 13,176 but that will drop to under 12,000 after the renovations.

A look at UC and Xavier average basketball attendance shows consistency and top 50 rankings are good, relatively speaking, considering the number of DI teams. (* = made NCAA tournament; NCAA rank in parentheses; Source: NCAA.org):

UC men's basketball average attendance

  • 2016/17* -- 9,865 (42nd)
  • 2015/16* -- 9,415 (47th)
  • 2014/15* -- 9,334 (46th)
  • 2013/14* -- 8,567 (53rd)
  • 2012/13* -- 9,253 (48th)

Xavier men's basketball average attendance

  • 2016/17* -- 10,282 (38th)
  • 2015/16* -- 10,281 (41st)
  • 2014/15* -- 9,998 (42nd)
  • 2013/14 -- 9,890 (42nd)
  • 2012/13* -- 9,781 (43rd)

So what does all this mean for FC Cincinnati? Maybe nothing. Different sports attract different fans and soccer appears to have carved its own niche here.

If FC Cincinnati merely maintains the crowds it has, it will fit in just fine. Its 21,199 league per game average in 2017 not only eclipsed the next closest club (Sacramento) by just under 10,000 per game, it also outranks all but seven of 22 MLS teams this year.

Only expansion club Atlanta United FC (48,200) and Seattle Sounders (43,666) averaged more than 30,000 in 2017. The lowest average was FC Dallas at 15,122.

As for Ohio’s MLS club, Columbus Crew averaged 15,439 in 2017 league play.

There are potential stumbling blocks for FC Cincinnati to maintain such robust attendance. Fans can expect more expensive tickets if they move to the higher tier. And while it is the top league in the country, few would consider it among the top five leagues in the world. If fans go expecting to see players the caliber of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo or sides the quality of FC Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Manchester City, they will be disappointed.

Then there’s that whole issue of winning. While FC Cincinnati has been impressively competitive in its inaugural first two years and had amazing U.S. Open Cup upsets of MLS teams, it’s been a middle-of-the-pack club in the standings and has failed to win a playoff game. It’s a small sample size, but if Bengals and Reds trends hold true, crowds will wane for a team with a losing record.

That said, being an expansion team certainly wouldn’t be an automatic sentence to the league basement. Atlanta United finished fourth in the MLS Eastern Conference in its first season and made the playoffs. And FC Cincinnati would build a new roster of MLS-caliber players, so it wouldn't be the same team it's been the past two years.

How it plays out for FC Cincinnati remains to be seen, and they need to make it in first before any of this is even an issue. One could also question whether support will remain so strong if the club has to stay in the USL, but after two years there’s nothing indicating that it will let up anytime soon.

Dave Niinemets is a digital enterprise editor at WCPO.com who oversees Insider sports content for the digital team.

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