Rochester Rhinos midfielder John Ball gradually made his way down the line of young fans clamoring for an autograph after the Rhinos' August 26 game against Puerto Rico. Signing every T-shirt, ball, and cleat presented to him, Ball came to one particularly small youngster and lifted him up onto the metal gate that separated them. He scrawled his John Hancock for the boy and smiled.
After nearly two seasons in Rochester, Ball has come to appreciate the legion of fans who support one of minor-league soccer's most successful franchises. Even though the Rhinos' new stadium, PAETEC Park, hasn't been filled to capacity in recent months, Ball knows there's enough fans in Rochester --- especially the kids who line up for the players' autographs after games --- to pack the stadium when it really counts.
"As long as they're there for the playoffs, when it really matters," he said after signing his last T-shirt. "In the playoffs I think it'll be pretty full. We know we have loyal fans out there."
Ball also knows that those fans are also demanding. So far this year the Rhinos have piled up a whopping six draws at home this year, a fact that, Ball said, could be affecting attendance. "The people of Rochester are used to wins," he said. "They're not used to ties."
Even though the Rhinos have already clinched a berth in the United Soccer Leagues' First Division playoffs, and even though they've posted a relatively glowing 12-4-10 record, the team hasn't played for a sellout crowd at PAETEC since the 13,768-seat, $40 million stadium's grand opening June 3. Most games feature a bevy of empty seats, enough to make it glaringly noticeable. But is that enough to question whether the roughly $35 million of taxpayer money that went into the building --- money that could have been spent other ways to help an economically depressed city --- has been worth it?
Absolutely not, says Steven Thompson, USL director of professional league operations, who said league officials are thrilled with the Rhinos' attendance figures so far this year.
"We're tremendously pleased Rochester is supporting the Rhinos the way that they are," he said. Besides, he said, where the team plays is secondary to how the team plays.
"The fans are there to watch what's on the pitch," he said. "They're coming to see the product."
Still, the criticism that PAETECPark simply isn't doing what its builders said it would do --- attract old and new soccer fans in droves --- might be gaining traction thanks to the empty seats.
Rhinos supporters, on the other hand, cite the cold, hard facts. Through the weekend of August 26-27, the Rhinos averaged 10,185 spectators at their 2006 league games. In all of the USL that figure trailed only Montreal's average attendance of 11,452 and far outpaced the third-highest drawing team, Portland, which averaged 5,431.
And Rochester's average attendance so far this year is topping last year's average of 9,570 and comes fairly close to matching the team's all-time high of 11,628 in 2000.
Others aren't sold on the numbers. Given the amount of empty seats at each game, some have grumbled that this year's attendance figures have been artificially inflated by free ticket giveaways, absent season-ticket holders, and other factors.
All such debate doesn't worry Rhinos co-owner Steve Donner. That's because regardless of attendance, the team is still reaching its revenue goals so far this year. He noted that "more fans are paying more money for tickets," and he added that advertising revenue has doubled at the new stadium. Plus, he said, when he and fellow owner Frank DuRoss pitched the stadium to state legislators, they presented a plan based on an average attendance of 9,000 anyway.
But what about all those empty seats? Donner said most of unfilled spots are located in the corners, and he noted that the stadium isn't even finished yet; the team is hoping to complete a second phase that will bring a bunch of new amenities like enclosed luxury suites. Once that happens, he said, "We'll look at tweaking our marketing strategies." All in all, he said, "We're not unhappy."
Still, Donner acknowledges that the Rhinos could be drawing more fans than they are. "We know we need to make improvements," he said. "We don't shy away from that."