CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding has said many times before that fans will ultimately determine the club’s fate among the professional soccer ranks.
Any chance of FC Cincinnati one day becoming a Major League Soccer team will depend on how well the city embraces the United Soccer League expansion team.
So far, FC Cincinnati has received the warm welcome it was banking on when Carl Lindner signed on as principal owner and officially launched the franchise in August. Berding said the club is on track with its goals of filling a reconfigured Nippert Stadium with 10,000 fans a game during its inaugural season, which begins in late March with the first home game set for April 9.
“To some degree, there is some pride among soccer fans,” Berding said. “They want to see Cincinnati succeed. They want to see Cincinnati compete and have an opportunity at some point to be promoted, but obviously the soccer fans in Cincinnati will have that opportunity to affect that outcome by coming to our games, and in all likelihood, that will be the most critical factor – do people in this market come to our games? If we’re getting 10,000 fans a game, we strengthen the view of Cincinnati as a strong professional soccer market, and we’re right on track with reaching our attendance goals.”
FC Cincinnati received deposits on almost 3,000 season tickets before any players were signed and a schedule released. Now, two weeks into preseason training, the team is nearing 4,000 – among the highest number of season tickets sold in the league to this point, according to director of marketing and community engagement Kate Lackey.
The USL averaged 3,332 fans per game last year, led by Sacramento Republic FC’s 11,323 average attendance. Louisville, FC Cincinnati’s natural rival, averaged the next highest with 6,765 fans a game.
Berding said the goal is to reach at least 5,000 season tickets by opening day. That, along with several inquiries for large group outings of 100-200 people and mini-plan and individual game ticket purchases, which went on sale Wednesday, should give FC Cincinnati the home-field advantage it seeks.
Season tickets range in price from $50 for students to $595 for club seats, which are almost sold out of the 1,100 originally available. Private suites and patio suites also are available.
“We have a great venue at UC, and our tickets are very affordable,” Berding said. “The goal is not to maximize profits; the goal is to maximize the opportunity to have 10,000-plus fans at all of our games and help great a great home-field advantage for our team in a great soccer environment for people to enjoy and make Cincinnati successful as a professional soccer market.”
WHY FANS BUY IN
Fans have jumped on board in large part because of FC Cincinnati’s commitment to taking professional soccer to the highest level here.
In obtaining a home field at the University of Cincinnati’s newly renovated Nippert Stadium, bringing in former U.S. national team captain John Harkes as head coach and receiving the backing of the prominent Lindner family, the club gained instant credibility in a city that has seen professional and semi-pro soccer teams come and go over the years.
“Back in the summer when they first started talking about Cincinnati having a team, it really grabbed my interest because I wanted to be a part of having professional soccer here,” said 28-year-old Loveland resident Bryan Griffin, a long-time soccer fan who was among the first to sign up for season tickets. “I never really knew of any of the other teams that have played here, but FC Cincinnati caught my interest because of the ownership group backing the team, the affiliation with UC … and the ability to play in a stadium like Nippert.
“They are serious about their aspirations to go to the MLS, and they’ve always said from Day 1, all we need to do is show we can support it and we’ll sign over the check. I’d like to be a part of bringing the MLS to Cincinnati.”
Others are just as enthusiastic.
Fans initiated three supporters’ groups back in August when the team was announced. The “Cardiac Cats” are a University of Cincinnati alumni and student fan club; “The Den” brings “rowdy parents and little fans together,” according to its Facebook page; and “The Pride” seeks to “foster a passionate, organized fan base,” according to its page.
A fourth supporters’ group, Die Innenstadt (the name hails from the German word for downtown or inner city), sprung up in December when a group of eight fans decided to “create a unique experience” they felt was lacking at the time, according to their website. Die Innenstadt members will hold match day activities at Rhinegeist and will congregate at games with smoke bombs, flags and members’ scarves in Section 135 of “The Bailey” seating area behind the north endline at Nippert.
Harkes said has seen “an overwhelming response” from the people of Cincinnati. It comes in waves, but he’s heard a buzz around town since he arrived.
“You go grab a sandwich at Pot Belly’s and people are talking about FC Cincinnati, right around the corner,” Harkes said. “It’s great to hear it at the watercooler, everybody talks about it. Conversations with people who have been through Cincinnati, people that just think soccer is going to take off here.
“The fans here have been excellent. From the first day we launched, from getting out to the pubs and the supporters groups we have. Season tickets have been tremendous, and we haven’t even opened Pandora’s Box yet. I think as we get closer to the season, people are really going to jump on board.”
REACHING THE REST
For those who didn’t immediately drink the team-colored Blue and Orange Kool-Aid, FC Cincinnati has launched several different marketing and community engagement initiatives to reach more fans.
Among those efforts was the creation of the “ambassadors” program that invites volunteers, like Griffin, to help get out in the community and spread the word -- in particular by attending youth clinics and tournaments in the area and passing out promotional items such as stickers and flyers.
Lackey said connecting with youth soccer programs has been a main focus, through appearances, as well as a “giveback program” in which fans can associate themselves with a local youth club to have 20 percent of the value of their tickets donated back to that organization.
FC Cincinnati also is working to connect with local college students through student organization outreach and has developed partnerships with 12 local pubs, which will hold match day specials and host FCC events.
“From my perspective, I think things are going pretty well,” Griffin said, noting the ambassadors program has 10-15 dedicated volunteers.
Even Lindner wasn’t expecting things to go so well this soon. And, this isn’t the first start-up he’s been a part of.
“I didn’t know if in a town where the Reds and Bengals are pretty prominent just how supportive the community would be,” he said. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the way ticket sales are going and in particular the sponsorships. I’m not an expert in the USL or sponsors for particular teams, but we had a league meeting and talking with some of the other franchise owners, they were struggling on the sponsorship side. We haven’t even hit our first game and we have (15) sponsors. This startup is really coming along great. It’s getting an unusually good start.”