CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati had seven months to hype its inaugural home opener, and it worked: Nearly 15,000 fans showed up for the club’s first game at Nippert Stadium on Saturday.
But now that the build-up is gone, will the crowds fade away?
While FCC general manager and president Jeff Berding doesn’t expect to match the opener’s attendance every game, he doesn’t anticipate much drop-off — especially with 70-degree temps and sunshine in the forecast for this week’s game.
Cincinnati (2-1), coming off its 2-1 win over Charlotte in front of 14,658 fans, hosts Louisville City FC at 7 p.m. Saturday. It's also another Youth Community Days event, meaning youth soccer players who wear their team jerseys can buy tickets for $1.
“From the buzz I’m hearing, I think a lot of people will come back,” Berding said. “There was so much going on on campus, with a concert and some other things, plus the cold weather — we expect to do better with the college students. And, with the youth side, there are some tournaments in town, so that could help draw some more youth players with our $1 tickets. And warmer weather should help. Plus, people that weren’t there are hearing the buzz, and people that have civic pride in Cincinnati understand this is adding another jewel to the Queen City’s crown, and I think people want to be supportive. We’re continuing to build.
“Am I confident we’ll have 15,000 again? No, but do I think we’re going to be at a minimum 12,000 range? Yes, maybe somewhere in between. We’re not seeing anything to indicate a drastic drop-off.”
With Louisville being FCC’s closest USL competitor, the natural rivalry of the “River City Cup” series between the two clubs should add some excitement to this week’s game. The Louisville Coopers supporters group has already been in touch with FC Cincinnati about getting a block of seats, and Berding said at least 1,000 fans supporting the visiting team are expected to attend.
Berding had been hoping for 10,000 fans a game at Nippert Stadium, so the fact that the club surpassed that goal for the first of 15 United Soccer League home matches in cold, cloudy conditions is a positive sign going forward. The temperature at Saturday’s 7:05 p.m. kickoff was 39 degrees.
FCC has sold more than 5,000 season tickets, but even members of the club’s supporters groups were surprised at the turnout Saturday.
“Going in, we had no idea what the crowd would look like,” said Ryan Lammi, president of Die Innenstadt, which went from about 50 members six weeks ago to about 200 now. “It was cold, in the 30s, and with all the presale tickets, I worried some wouldn’t show up. But people came out and supported the team. I thought it was a great atmosphere for us at Nippert Stadium, and as long as we keep drawing a big crowd, it will be a good atmosphere for future games, too.”
The supporters groups — including The Pride and The Den — were a big part of creating such a great environment, but their passion seemed to spread throughout the stadium.
Die Innenstadt and The Pride, the two most noticeable groups, marched into the stadium together after their respective pre-game gatherings, and both congregated in “The Bailey” section behind the north endline, where they held banners and displayed tifos, shot off blue and orange smoke and led organized chants. They were scheduled to hold a practice Tuesday night to work on some new chants and songs.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Payne Rankin, president of The Pride, which was one of the first groups to launch and now has about 240 members. “Months ago when the team first started, we had no idea what to expect in terms of attendance. Attendance was fantastic, but even moreso, it was great to see fans were not there just to sit and watch a game. They were passionate, standing up and cheering, and I’ve never seen that kind of enthusiasm for soccer here in Cincinnati. That was really cool.”
Even coach John Harkes acknowledged how loud the crowd was in his postgame press conference.
“It was just a great environment,” he said. “The key is it's not a manufactured environment. People were dying for this to happen, and to be honest, we delivered."
Every section in the stadium’s lower bowl was mostly full except “The Legion” college student section at the south end.
That is an area Berding said the club is trying to emphasize this week, sending out promos for the $5 college student tickets (for anyone with any current college photo ID) on social-media outlets and trying to drum up some more excitement among that audience.
FC Cincinnati also is working to improve the game experience for fans in general, addressing some of the issues that came up Saturday that caused delays in lines at the box office and Will Call windows, as well as at concessions and merchandise stands
Berding said there will be cash-only tables set up for those purchasing college student tickets, which should help them get in more quickly and help alleviate lines at the box office, and the club will add more signs to help direct fans to the right lines.
A receptionist also will be added on game day to take the job of answering phones off the plates of the ticket sales workers. The box office opens at 3 p.m. Saturday and will also serve as Will Call until that opens at 5:30 p.m.
“The key points we’re stressing are to come early, plan out your parking and know where you’re going so you’re not circling and looking around. Buy your tickets online and print them off ahead of time,” Berding said. “You can pick up tickets starting at 3 p.m., then go get dinner, and particularly for the $1 ticket kids, come early and hang out on the (Sheakley) lawn at the UDF Kids Zone.”
Concession lines were slow last week mainly because Aramark had a few dozen no-shows from its game day staff, many whom were supposed to be in-seat vendors. Purchases at merchandise stands also took longer than expected to go through because of problems with the Verizon hot spots that were bogged down by the large crowds of people with smart phones attempting to connect to the Wi-Fi signal.
Berding said the club appreciated people’s patience with some of the first-game issues that arose, but hopefully those problems didn’t take away from the experience for fans.
“It was a special night,” Berding said. “The beautiful thing about sports that is very unique is, at a time we’re very divided in many ways as a country or society, it brings people together. There’s a special unity that comes with rooting for your city at a soccer match, and we’re well on our way to proving this is a big-league soccer market.”