By all accounts, the Louisville City soccer club is having a good second season: The team is in first place in its conference, revenues from sponsors have improved, and attendance has increased.
And yet, the local club’s luster is being overshadowed somewhat by the record-breaking support for its River Cities Cup rival and league newcomer FC Cincinnati.
After a win in its first match of the season and a loss in the home opener, Louisville City FC began a seven-game unbeaten streak. A shaky defense that allowed nine goals in the first five matches has solidified and achieved three straight shutouts. The team has scored a conference-best 17 goals, three more than its closest rival.
Team President Amanda Duffy said that from athletic performance to sponsorships and attendance, Louisville City FC is moving in the right direction.
Through the first four home games, the United Soccer League team has welcomed more than 26,000 fans at Slugger Field — about 1,400 more per game than during the first four matches of the inaugural season.
That’s an increase of nearly 30 percent despite some inclement weather — but you can almost hear the roars from the neighbors across the river.
Those 26,000 fans LouCity had in the first four games? FC Cincinnati had more than 23,000 — on Saturday.
The United Soccer League boasted that it had set a new attendance record this past week, with 74,627 fans pouring into the stands; about a third of those congregated at Nippert Stadium, where Cincinnati’s soccer team plays. The stadium — home of the University of Cincinnati Bearcats — recently underwent a $90 million renovation and has a capacity of about 35,000.
Jeff Berding, president and general manager of FC Cincinnati, told IL that the centrally located stadium “is obviously a great draw.”
Before the season start, the team hoped to average 10,000 paid spectators, and through the first four matches, the team has drawn an average 17,000.
Berding said the success is a result of team leaders marketing the team not just to soccer and sports fans but to the community at large, to generate a “civic embrace” of the club. He said the team gets an enormous amount of support simply from people who want to see Cincinnati represented positively.
In preparation for the club’s inaugural season, Berding said, officials conducted research at Louisville City FC home games to see how the local team managed to attract large crowds.
“I think they’re doing a great job down there,” Berding said.
The executive also said that FC Cincinnati has its sights set on eventually becoming a Major League Soccer team. The club wants to present soccer at the highest level, and Cincinnati is a major league community with other pro teams such as the Bengals and the Reds, he said.
FC Cincinnati already is drawing MLS-type crowds. The first division soccer league last year drew an average of 21,574 fans. The Seattle Sounders led the league with more than 44,000 spectators on average — about 11,000 ahead of second-place Orlando City.
Duffy said the Cincinnati crowds are helping raise the league’s profile.
“I think it’s great for the league and great for the sport,” she said.
But it’s also putting the Cincinnati team way ahead in contention for one of the few remaining MLS slots, something to which Lou City officials said they aspire.
While MLS officials have said they are reluctant to add more teams besides the 28 to which they have agreed, Duffy said she believes the league eventually will expand beyond that.
LouCity, she said, is trying to put together the pieces to be part of the conversation when that happens.
One of those pieces is a soccer-specific stadium, preferably in downtown Louisville, because team officials and fans like Slugger Fields’ proximity to local bars and restaurants that allow for home games to present more of a day-long party opportunity. But a new stadium’s location and financing — whether solely private or partially public — have yet to be determined. The city allotted $75,000 for a feasibility study this year, but the study has not yet been completed.
Another big question mark behind any move into the majors is the league entry fee. Recent teams that have joined MLS have paid more than $100 million to join, Duffy said. For the local club to raise that amount, it likely would have to lure a few new investors with deep pockets.
For now, Duffy said the local club is focused on its second season, continuing to build the fan base and gearing up for another run to the playoffs.
About this time in last year’s season, fan support started picking up, and Duffy said she expects the same trajectory this year. The first big goal is to hit 10,000 spectators.
The next two home games — against the rather provincial Wilmington, N.C., (population 112,000) and league doormat FC Montreal, which has managed a measly three goals in seven matches — are unlikely to draw huge crowds.
But mark your calendars for June 25, when first-place Louisville will host second-place Cincinnati FC. On April 16, in the first River Cities Cup match at Nippert, the teams attracted more than 20,000 fans.