How a fanbase was built to achieve FC Cincinnati's MLS dream

Those who saw FC Cincinnati’s MLS home opener earlier this month marveled at the numbers of blue-and-orange-clad fans marching to Nippert Stadium, filling it to its 32,250 capacity, and being an impressive vocal and visual presence — especially from the north end supporters’ zone known as The Bailey — in the team’s 3-0 win over the Portland Timbers.

They’ll look to keep that momentum going, and build on Nippert’s potential to become among the best home-field crowds in MLS, when FC Cincinnati host the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night (7:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info).

For Jared Handra, president of Die Innenstadt, one of the two largest FC Cincinnati supporters’ groups (with about 650 members), the home opener was incredible, but also an extension of what they’d done in building up for the club since it launched as a USL franchise in 2016.

“To be honest, it operated as a normal matchday for us,” Handra said. “The march, the tifo, The Bailey, that's all stuff we’re used to. People keep asking what we are doing and how we bring in that many people, but to be honest that's just kind of how it's been. We tell people when and where to show up, and by God, they show up.”

Chris White, president of The Pride (currently around the 725-member mark), credits the continued lofty attendance numbers for FC Cincinnati to the gutsy decision to make their home at Nippert, which also serves at the home for the University of Cincinnati’s football team.

“Going into the 2016 season, we honestly had no idea what to expect,” White said, noting that they expected attendance numbers at about 7,000 on average. “No one expected almost 15,000 to show up in 39-degree weather for that first match against Charlotte. Our role as a supporters group was just to spread the word to everyone that would listen that there is this team starting up, here are the people involved with it, and they're playing at Nippert. When I would get to the part where I [mentioned] Nippert, that’s when people's ears would perk up. I absolutely believe that the decision to play at Nippert from day one is what allowed this team to take off like it did.”

Members of The Pride when the team was announced as an MLS expansion side. | Courtesy of The Pride

The Pride started in June 2015, taking what White calls as “build the plane as you fly it” approach to creating a supporters’ group, relying on talents from founding members and new recruits to handle its various needs. White also fronted the $1,000 for The Pride’s first 100 scarves, hoping they’d be able to pair them all with new members by the end of the first season. 100 members joined within the first week, and White ordered more scarves for their growing ranks.

Die Innenstadt — German for “the inner city” or “downtown” — formed in early 2016 prior to the team’s first USL match. With its name inspired by what Handra calls “the renaissance we were seeing around our city,” as well as the city’s German heritage, the group has worked to create a full matchday experience, with gatherings starting five hours before kickoff at the Mecklenburg Gardens biergarten. The March to the Match — which caught national attention at the FCC home opener for its massive size — starts at Mecklenburg Gardens, stops at The Pride’s hangout (Top Cats), and winds a mile in total through the city’s Corryville and Clifton neighborhoods before finishing in The Bailey.

Both groups agree that their plans for their inaugural season boil down to doing what’s worked so far, doing more of what’s worked, and making minor tweaks as needed. White, extending his plane metaphor, notes, “We built a really nice Learjet that was great for USL, but it doesn't have anywhere near enough seats, so we're building an even bigger plane while we fly on."

“Every year we tend to make steps as a supporter culture, and this year is no different,” Handra asserted. “Our tifos are going to be much bigger this year, our away travel is going to be way more organized, the march will be bigger. We are planning on just making those steps every season, and before you know it, we'll be in our new home and can start to settle in a bit,” referring to the West End stadium which broke ground in December and is set to host 26,000 of the Cincinnati faithful starting in 2021.

The home opener’s tifo (captured in time lapse in the tweet below), checked in at 120 feet by 40 feet; according to White, supporters got to the stadium at 11 am to make sure it was ready for display six hours later. For White, the best part of the match came in the 85th minute, when capos got the full stadium involved in the "F-C-C thunderclap", noting, “I loved [FS1] allowing it to breathe” — letting it play on the broadcast without commentary — “because it really was a sight to see.”

The front office has definitely noticed the impact supporters are having in creating home atmosphere.

“There is no question that without the passionate and vibrant support of our fans at Nippert Stadium, we would not be a Major League Soccer franchise today,” FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said. “We invited the fans to take ownership of the club. We asked them to believe in our vision, to use word of mouth to help us grow, and organically create the match environment that would be the siren call to draw new fans in and to get them to return. Our gameday experience from the large supporter march to the electric atmosphere was so new and different and has been completely fan-driven. We’re so pleased that our army of fans have been recognized for what they have created in support of our club – and our city.”

While the home opener was something that they’ve enjoyed, the SG leaders haven’t quite had time to savor all that’s happened, given that there are another 16 home matches to prepare for — plus, if all goes well, the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“It's been absolutely insane,” White said of the journey to their first MLS season. “We honestly haven't stopped working since we were founded. There is something to be done 365 days a year.”

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