Through just 60 percent of its first season in the USL, FC Cincinnati has already racked up a number of accomplishments on and off the pitch. The burgeoning club sits in third place near the top of the USL Eastern Conference standings, but a real measure of the team’s soccer success must wait until the inaugural campaign has concluded. The achievements Cincinnati can take to the bank are its impressive attendance figures.
Those attendance figures are nothing short of amazing. FC Cincinnati vs Louisville City FC set the USL attendance record for a regular season game with 20,497 in the stands on April 16, A month later, a crowd of 23,375 showed up to see Cincinnati host the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, setting a new high mark for single USL match, regular season or playoffs. A sellout crowd of 35,061 packed Nippert Stadium last week for an exhibition against Crystal Palace of the Premier League.
The most recent crowd of 16,127 for FC Cincinnati vs New York Red Bulls II brought the season total to 164,109, breaking the USL single season record, a feat that becomes more impressive when one considers that Cincinnati still has five home dates remaining on the regular season schedule. If Cincinnati maintains its current pace of 16,411 fans per match, the club will break the mark of 11,323 set by Sacramento Republic.
FC Cincinnati Home Attendance (2016 USL Regular Season)
|9 Apr||Charlotte Independence||14,658|
|16 Apr||Louisville City FC||20,497|
|20 Apr||Wilmington Hammerheads FC||11,318|
|14 May||Pittsburgh Riverhounds||23,375|
|28 May||Harrisburg City Islanders||16,097|
|4 Jun||Richmond Kickers||11,278|
|11 Jun||FC Montreal||14,267|
|18 Jun||Toronto FC II||19,112|
|2 Jul||Bethlehem Steel FC||17,380|
|16 Jul||New York Red Bulls II||16,127|
The soccer community across the globe has taken notice of what is happening in Cincinnati. Some have heaped praise for what a first-year club has done while competing in the third tier of American soccer. Others, driven by cynicism (and a touch of envy?), believe that FC Cincinnati bolsters attendance numbers with dubious means.
The common claim that some USL clubs falsely inflate attendance figures has not been aimed at FC Cincinnati, though.. Anyone who watches the matches, whether at the stadium or through television or streaming services, can plainly see that the numbers are legitimate. Fans really are coming to Nippert Stadium in droves to watch professional soccer.
The accusatory rumors do not claim that Cincinnati lies about its attendance, but suggest the club attracts the crowds by giving away free tickets or selling tickets at a deeply discounted price. Having covered the club since its inception, Scratching the Pitch knew that these rumors were false, but contacted FC Cincinnati Vice President of Sales Jeff Smith to confirm the facts.
“I’m glad you reached out. I want to absolutely combat any of the rumors and misinformation that’s out there about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” said Smith.
With regard to the notion that FC Cincinnati is giving away free tickets, not only does the club not do it, it is viewed as bad business practice.
Smith said, “Here’s the thing. You come out of the gate and you’re year one, year two, or year three, and you’re doing free tickets, it’s extraordinarily difficult to come back and then start selling tickets to people. We felt very strongly about having very affordably priced tickets and sticking to that.”
With the exception of the first two home dates, FC Cincinnati has not offered tickets at a discounted price. For the home-opener on April 9 against Charlotte and the next match against Louisville on April 16, youth could purchase tickets for $1 if they wore a soccer jersey.
When asked about the number of $1 tickets sold for those two games, Smith responded, “Not nearly as many as the public seems to believe. I don’t have a definitive number, but I don’t believe it was even over 1,000.”
That promotion was invented as a way to reach out to local youth players that might not otherwise be able to afford to see a professional soccer match. Since that promotion ended, FC Cincinnati has adhered to an unaltered pricing structure.
“You don’t see us doing two-for-ones, buy-one-get-one-frees, half-off ticket nights, any of that. Price yourself the way that you want to price and stick to that price. We’ve done a very good job of that,” said Smith.
From the very beginning, Cincinnati has offered discounted rates to groups that purchase 20 tickets or more for a single game. The discounts only apply to Zone 1, Zone 2, the Bailey, and the Youth/Family Section. It is a way to reward those who go above and beyond. Some local businesses have taken advantage of this offer, particularly for the Pittsburgh match on May 14. The discounts reduce the ticket prices to the same rate as a season ticket, a far cry from being free.
Most of the tickets to an FC Cincinnati match cost between $20 and $25, which is not far afield from the rest of the USL. There are sections with more affordable tickets available to be purchased. If you want to stand in the Bailey, which is not for the faint of heart, it will cost you $10. General admission tickets in the south end of the stadium can be purchased for $5.
General admission in the south end was originally envisioned as a way to attract college students to matches, but was opened to the general public when the club considered that it played a large portion of its schedule during summer break. Even so, this section holds an estimated 6,500 seats and is typically the least full on game day. As affordable as they may be, the $5 tickets are not the foundation of FC Cincinnati’s attendance numbers.
FC Cincinnati’s attendance numbers are not derived from free or deeply discounted tickets. The club draws fantastic crowds due to a number of other factors:
- a respected ownership group with the resources and sense to allow a talented front office to do things the right way
- a head coach, John Harkes, whose name is firmly cemented in American soccer lore
- a world-class stadium and a wonderful game day experience
- a team that plays at a high level and wins matches
- a hard-working sales team
No one, not even the FC Cincinnati front office, anticipated this much success in the first year. A certain amount of skepticism is understandable, but it is also unfounded. The attendance figures are legitimate, and so is the manner in which they are achieved.
“It’s been a lot of hard work by a lot of people, and I think what’s most exciting to us is we’re just getting started. There’s a lot that we couldn’t get to this year.,” said Smith.
He continued, “Year one, we talk about it all the time, is mostly about survival, and year two is probably the most significant transition to approach, strategy, refinement, and all those things that will make us better. A lot of opportunity ahead.”