"FC Cincinnati breaks USL attendance record … again" That was one headline after 23,375 soccer fans filled Nippert Stadium to see FC Cincinnati host the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on May 14th. Only four weeks earlier 20,497 fans had set a new USL regular-season attendance record, but on May 14th the crowd in Nippert Stadium set a new all-time record for attendance in the USL. Don't be surprised if you see that headline again and again because FC Cincy fans and Nippert Stadium have the potential to push the USL attendance record even higher.
But before we even think about what the future holds, let's look back at the history of Nippert Stadium.
Soccer was not in mind when stadium construction began in 1915. However, it might be hard to convince supporters who are enjoying FC Cincinnati's inaugural season in Nippert that it isn't a soccer stadium, or that it is over 100 years old. The University of Cincinnati football team first played on the site of Nippert Stadium in 1901. The early stands were simple wooden bleachers built on the surrounding hillside. Lights were added in 1909 because the football team had co-op students who worked during the day and had to practice at night. (UC pioneered "cooperative education" in 1906.)
Construction of the stadium continued after 1915 as it was built section by section until its completion in 1924. James Gamble Nippert Memorial Stadium (capacity 12,000) was dedicated on November 8, 1924. The events leading up to that dedication and the story behind the name bear retelling.
Jimmy Nippert was a law student, following in the footsteps of his father who was a judge, and he played center on the football team. The University of Cincinnati football team, founded in 1885, began their long-standing rivalry with Miami University in 1888. It was during the 1923 meeting of these two rivals that the beginning of the tragedy occurred.
The Cincinnati-Miami game was played on Thanksgiving Day in 1923. The field that day was described as "a sea of mud" due to heavy rains. Despite the conditions, and despite suffering a spike wound during the game, Jimmy Nippert played the entire game. Only after the game was it apparent that Jimmy had suffered a serious cut on his right leg.
The wound became infected. Blood poisoning developed. All of the efforts to save Jimmy Nippert's life failed. He died on Christmas Day, 1923. There is a monument at south end of the stadium behind the student section which immortalizes Jimmy Nippert's last words:
"Five more yards to go - then drop."
Jimmy Nippert's mother, Maud Gamble Nippert, was the daughter of James Gamble. James Gamble was the son of one of Procter & Gamble's founders (as well as the creator of Ivory soap!). He donated the funds to finish the construction of the stadium which would be named James Gamble Nippert Memorial Stadium to carry on the memory of his grandson.
This picture above illustrates what Nippert Stadium would have looked like in 1924: small. The building at the top of the horseshoe is still there, and is linked to Nippert in an interesting way. It was built in 1910 as a women’s gymnasium through the generosity of Jacob Schmidlapp who wished to use his wealth to help women. The former Schmidlapp Gymnasium was converted to the Dieterle Vocal Arts Center through the generosity of Louise Dieterle Nippert and her husband Louis Nippert. Louis Nippert was the younger brother of Jimmy Nippert and owner of the Cincinnati Reds from 1973-1981.
Nippert Stadium has undergone a number of expansions and renovations over the past century. The first expansion was in 1936 and doubled the stadium capacity from 12,000 to 24,000. This involved lowering the field twelve feet, which explains why Nippert looks somewhat different in the drawing!
Seating capacity was increased to 28,000 by adding an upper deck on the east side in 1954, and increased again (to 35,000) by expanding the upper deck in 1992. The impressive five-story pavilion recently added on the west side of the stadium added suites and premium seating, pushing Nippert’s total capacity over 40,000.
While Nippert's seating capacity is over 40,000 for college football, the soccer configuration features various sections that are tarped off to limit seating to a little over 21,000. Even with the reduced capacity of 21K, Nippert Stadium is one of the largest soccer venues in the USL.
If USL stadiums were categorized like T-shirt sizes, seventeen would be either Xtra-Small (2,000-3,500) or Small (4,000-5,000). Four would be Mediums (6,000-8,000) and seven would be size Large (9,000-16,000 range). Nippert Stadium is one of only five USL stadiums which have seating capacities over 20K (Xtra-Large). The fact that Nippert Stadium offers the opportunity to keep expanding seating capacity at will is a huge advantage. Various soccer clubs across the country are looking to build a new soccer stadium, but face a number of dilemmas: where? how big? who is going to pay for it? Perhaps MLS's Orlando City has the worst dilemma: they have already outgrown their new 19,500 seat stadium and it has yet to open!
FC Cincinnati is building a tremendous fan base and part of that is due to the Orange and Blue playing in Nippert Stadium. The atmosphere and intimate setting of Nippert are certain to draw more and more fans, and as that happens the atmosphere will only be more electric.
But more and more fans will not be a problem. Every seat in Nippert has a good, if not, great view and adding more seats is as simple as removing a tarp. Cincinnati is not done setting attendance records (the upper deck will have its tarps removed and be available for attendees at FCC's upcoming match against EPL side Crystal Palace). Who knows what the USL attendance record will be by the end of the season?
As the inaugural season continues, FC Cincinnati and its fans will continue to help write the story of a historic stadium. While their short history so far may only be a footnote in a tenured past, one must wonder: what does the future hold for soccer and Nippert stadium?
...but that question is part of a much larger one surrounding the club's future and that's a story for another day.
Until then, Nippert's charm and character remain unmatched in the USL, connecting a new team with historic Queen City roots.
It's a beautiful place to take in the beautiful game.