This past weekend, I went back to my hometown of Rochester, NY and the only thing locally going on in the sports scene was the Rochester Rhinos. I was happy they had a Friday Night home game I was able to attend because the last game I went to was 2006, when their new stadium opened up (formerly PAETEC Park, now known as Marina Auto Stadium). For those not familiar (and being that it’s minor league soccer, I’m sure that’s 98% of the population), the Rhinos play in the USSF Division 2, which is basically one step below Major League Soccer. The league has been in flux and has recently announced it will be restructuring to something called USL – Pro. Anyway, the Rhinos were one of the most popular franchises in Division 2 both on and off the field. They won the ’98, ’00 and ’01 league titles, plus had the tremendous achievement of being the only non-MLS team to win the US Open Cup in 1999. They played at Frontier Field, a pure baseball stadium built for the AAA Red Wings and consistently averaged over 10,000 with many crowds reaching 13,000. After much discussion and failed proposals, they finally got their own soccer-specific stadium built in 2006 and amidst all of the talk and lead-up to the eventual plans, MLS was on the minds of fans hoping small-market Rochester would get a team.
The MLS never happened, but it’s a nice facility. However, the most disappointing aspect has been the deteriorating fan base and atmosphere. Most of the blame can be put on new ownership. During the move in 2006, the ownership in place made many bad moves that alienated fans including: not letting season ticket holders sit where and with who they wanted to when transferring their seats, having strict security, bad customer service, poor stadium accessibility and high corporate sponsor prices (information from Jeff Diveronica of the Rochester D&C who has an excellent article on the Rochester sportscape here). Next, new ownership led by Rob Clark alienated “The Stampede”, Rochester’s European-like support group and cheering section. This essentially led to what I believe is a boycott and disbanding of the boisterous support group. Ownership is at fault, but not entirely as some of the blame has to go to fans who just for some reason decided not to make the switch and go to games at Marina Auto Stadium. All of this has led to an atmosphere that is nowhere near where it used to be in the Rhinos heydey ten years ago. Games at Marina Auto Stadium are your typical, run-of-the-mill minor league events and the passion seems to be gone with fans much more casual. Attendance has dropped significantly from 10,110 during the stadium’s first year to 9,705 the next year in ’07 all the way to 6,137 this season. It’s fairly common for new teams (the Rhinos started in 1996) to lose that momentum after the newness wears off, but the Rhinos seemed like they would have staying power. Unfortunately because of so many prior mistakes, I don’t think they will ever be able re-create that atmosphere and fan support that was seen so often in Frontier Field.
As for stadium changes I saw…the parking is still an issue because there is no information on the website and fans seem to be driving to near the stadium and then forking over $5 for the first side lots they see. The best option is to park at the Frontier Field/Kodak main lot for free and walk the extra quarter mile. The exterior is still underwhelming, but they did add a few decorative structures and a new permanent box office. By far, the most noticeable change is the remarkable positive upgrade in food! I really believe Rochester is the best minor-league city I’ve been to when it comes to food at sporting events. Now available are such local great delicacies like: Bill Gray’s cheeseburgers, Zweigle’s Hot Dogs, Red Osier Prime Rib, Abbott’s Frozen Custard plus other unique items such as crepes, sandwich wraps, various coffees, smoothies and by far the most popular items of the night: fried dough and funnel cakes. Aside from the food, the other major change I saw was they got rid of the tent over the picnic/club area in the open end. That also means the banners are gone. This area now is filled with various things including the smallest team store ever (inside a tiny trailer). They also got rid of the banners that were on the tent…a horrible decision as you can’t see their great past and the only thing honoring past championships are some small flags that go unnoticeable. Speaking of the seats, I still love the seating design and sightlines of the stadium. We had pretty good seats at midfield and enjoyed a nice close-up view. In the game, the Rhinos came up flat losing to minnows Miami FC 2-1 as the winning goal came on a botched defensive play in the first half.
My busy sports September will continue next weekend with some football as I have a free weekend. Plans are still up in the air and I’ll decide them mid-week on where exactly I’ll be going. But a new stadium is going to be seen.