CINCINNATI -- Amanda Correll saw the announcement last week that FC Cincinnati was starting a kids club and knew she had to sign up her daughter.
One of FC Cincinnati's biggest little fans, 9-year-old Lilly collected autographs from almost the entire team during its inaugural season. But as the club began to grow in popularity, it became increasingly more difficult to score a signature.
The FCC Kids Club will make that task a little easier in 2017. The club -- for kids ages 4 to 12 -- runs annually from January through December, costing $25, and members will receive a club T-shirt, cinch bag and wristbag, as well as opportunities to attend player meet-and-greet events, autograph sessions, a practice and the "Kids Club Night" game for free.
A Kids Club member tent will be set up on Sheakley Lawn during home games and kids wearing their Kids Club gear will receive an item at each home fixture. Plus, randomly selected Kids Club members will be invited to participate in the walk-out ceremony for two designated home matches.
"She is-soccer obsessed, especially with FC Cincinnati, and she really enjoys having the opportunity to meet players and get their autographs," said Correll, a 39-year-old Colerain Township resident. "Between all the matches and a fundraiser we went to, I think she got all but maybe two players, but with the team growing in popularity, I noticed it was getting more difficult to get those opportunities after matches end. There are a lot of people at that wall lining up for autographs, so this is a good opportunity for her to get a little time with the players without having to get through the push."
According to FC Cincinnati spokesperson Fumi Kimura, more than 250 kids had been signed up in the first week since the club was launched. Signups are available on the team's website or at its Downtown gift shop at 14 E. Fourth St.
The goal is to reach 500 fans in the first year, but FC Cincinnati hopes it will continue to grow and bring more young fans to the stadium.
"The main purpose is to provide a fun and unique experience for our younger fans," Kimura said. "The Kids Club will allow them special access to players and exclusive opportunities, and our ultimate goal is to create FCC fans for life. There is a strong youth soccer community, and we wanted a way for them to connect in a special way with our club."
Kimura said FC Cincinnati looked at multiple kids clubs throughout the United Soccer League and the city as models for its own kids club.
The Cincinnati Reds have a similar Reds Heads program for kids ages 3-12. The largest of all MLB kids clubs, Reds Heads began in 2007 with the goal to reach 1,000 fans. The club, which costs $30 to join, has drawn more than 10,000 members since 2012, with additional members in two other consumer clubs. Reds Rookies (ages 3 and under) started in 2013 and Club Red (ages 13-18) began in 2015.
Each club offers exclusive merchandise, free game tickets and other members-only perks, such as autograph sessions, a chance to run the bases after games and Q&A sessions with players.
"It's about creating that experience for the kids and developing a love for the Reds to keep them coming back for years to come," the Reds director of promotional events and player relations, Corey Hawthorne, told WCPO last summer.
That's what FC Cincinnati is trying to do, too, and the kids club is just the next step in its efforts to bring families to games and help young fans develop a lasting love for the local professional soccer team.
FC Cincinnati tried to make the game-day experience a family-friendly one in its first season in part by offering a UDF Kids' Zone on Sheakley Lawn outside of Nippert Stadium before home matches. Families who showed up early on game days found plenty of entertainment for their kids in the Kids' Zone, which offered games, interaction with some of the inactive FC Cincinnati players, food and beverages, starting 90 minutes before kickoff.
The Kids Club is an extension of that.
"Sheakley Lawn worked out really well," Kimura said. "They (the kids) enjoy the activities that are set up at Sheakley, and it was more successful than we expected. It has provided the foundation to establishing the Kids Club."
The team also had a "ball kid of the game," and encouraged youth teams to come to games through the giveback incentive program that sent $40,000 to local organizations who had been promised 20 percent of ticket sales purchased under their name.
Players have made appearances at several youth organization events throughout the year, too, though Cornell said she hopes they can get out to some of the smaller organizations in the future, such as the White Oak Athletic Association, where her daughter plays.
Still, Cornell was pleased enough with the club's operations in Year 1 that she signed up for season tickets and looks forward to Lilly's participation in the FCC Kids Club.
"I think they did a great job," Cornell said. "We enjoyed the kids zone before the matches for the kids to have opportunity to go out and play and get a chance to meet a couple players, and during the match itself, the atmosphere is great. They make everyone feel welcome, and the Kids Club is a good addition to what they've been doing."