CINCINNATI -- Harrison Delbridge will never forget the noise from the stands above him while getting ready for FC Cincinnati’s inaugural home game last year.
He had been a part of an even larger United Soccer League crowd when Sacramento Republic played its first game at Hughes Stadium in 2014 and set the still-standing home opener attendance record at 20,231 fans.
But on a chilly April evening in a Midwest city with no notable professional soccer history, FC Cincinnati’s first home crowd of 14,658 was a little more surprising.
“We noticed it before we even came out of the locker room and people were already out here,” Delbridge said. “Usually it's kickoff and people are still walking in. I remember sitting under the Bailey and listening to the fans come in. The noise was something I will never forget.”
FC Cincinnati is hoping for even more noise Saturday when it plays its 2017 home opener against St. Louis FC. The club is hoping to break Sacramento’s home-opener record -- a number FCC surpassed in its second game at Nippert Stadium last year -- and is well on its way to doing so.
FCC topped 15,000 tickets sold for the game by Monday, including about 11,500 season tickets, and attendance should be helped by warm, mostly sunny skies in the forecast for Saturday. FC Cincinnati drew a single-game, regular-season record crowd of 24,376 fans in the home finale against Orlando City.
“We feel good about the opportunity to draw 20,231, then next thing would be to get to 25,000,” FC Cincinnati President and General Manager Jeff Berding said. “If fans continue to buy tickets, and we get a good, healthy walk-up crowd opening day we have a good shot at breaking the records.”
This time last year FC Cincinnati was just hoping to draw 10,000 fans a game and didn’t necessarily expect to be doing it so quickly and so consistently the first year. The club brought in 17,296 fans per game in a league that averaged less than 4,000.
FC Cincinnati finished the year with about 6,000 season ticket holders.
“We were really surprised with how many people came out,” midfielder Kenney Walker said. “We didn't think we would have as many as we did, so it was exciting coming in and starting a new club and having that atmosphere. The first one was special, but we didn't know it was going to carry on throughout the whole year and it seems it's still carrying on from last year.”
To accommodate the anticipated larger crowds this season, FCC will not be using two of the four decorative tarps that blocked off seats in the lower bowl last year. The tarps were used to make the 40,000-seat Nippert Stadium feel more full.
Berding said the club has added a few ticket sales staff members, but the increase in sales comes from people calling and going online to buy tickets, not from salespeople churning out calls.
“It’s the demand fueling the rise for FC,” Berding said. “It's a testament to the fans, the market and support for FC Cincinnati. It's a testament to the rising city."
Berding added that there's a convenience factor to the way games are set up.
"It's two hours, 7-9, you can be on your way to dinner with another couple at 9 or get your kids home to bed at 10 o'clock, so we've become a very fun thing to do in our city and we're just very grateful for the support.”
FC Cincinnati also has made some improvements to enhance the fan experience, Berding said.
A new merchandise stand with Nike gear was added on the mezzanine behind the south endzone of Nippert, and the club invested in some new technology to make sales transactions quicker and cut down the time people are in line. Another addition is a fifth beer garden, hosted by Rhinegeist Brewery and located behind the Bailey section in the north end of the stadium.
Fans can also use a newly added cash line for ticket purchases in the northwest entrance of the stadium, so they no longer have to go all the way around to the southeast corner ticket window before entering. Those sitting in the Bailey will need their wristbands to enter, as the change from paper tickets and mobile barcodes was made to prevent fans from sneaking into the popular standing-room-only section.
“We continue to try to find ways to improve to provide the game-day experience for our fans,” Berding said.
Some wins would help too, of course. FC Cincinnati (1-2-0) is coming off a disappointing showing at Bethlehem on Sunday when it lost 2-0 after an early red card and injury left the club short-handed.
The club won its home opener 2-1 against Charlotte last year, as Sean Okoli ignited the crowd with a SportsCenter Top 10 scissor kick goal in the fifth minute and Austin Berry provided the insurance goal early in the second half.
“It was so special,” midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin said. “None of us really knew what to expect. We didn't know what the environment was going to be like, what the crowd was going to be like. It's something I'll always cherish, and I'll never forget celebrating with Ugo (Okoli) when he scored the crazy scissor kick and with Austin Berry with the header in the second half to give us the win in our home opener.
"Hopefully we can give the crowd another good game to get things started at home.”