Could the Rochester Rhinos be nearing extinction?
Like a longtime marriage that has gone bad, it seems like the bloom is off the rose. The magic is gone. Like a husband and wife who barely grunt hello at each other when they pass by in the kitchen, the Rhinos long time love affair with its fans appears to have soured.
One time Rhinos superfan Erik Rhodes is a close friend of mine. He, like many Rhino fans, is discouraged. Rhodes was at tonights US Open Cup match with the New England Revolution, and couldn't believe his eyes.
When the Rhinos won the US Open Cup in 1999, Rhodes says there were probably more Rhinos fans that made the trip to that game in Columbus, than were at tonights game against the Revolution.
That may be an exaggeration, but it's probably only a slight one. As you can see from the picture above, if there were a thousand fans at the game, it would be a miracle. Granted there was rain, and it was a lousy night. Granted that the team only had a few weeks advance sale to sell the game. In the past, that would never have mattered. Now it does.
What went wrong? How did this organizsation go from top dog to just plain bow wowsville? The theories are plenty, and combined, they probably all have validity.
It all started when the Rhinos decided to leave the cozy confines of Frontier Field and build their own stadium. The beauty of Frontier Field, and the fact that they shared it with the Red Wings helped the Rhinos both at the gate and on the balance sheet. Fans loved coming to Frontier to watch a game. It was an event. It was the place to be in town.
The Rhinos had a notion of going to MLS. They knew they wouldn't have a chance of that unless they had their own stadium. They thought they had the fan base. They thought a new stadium would bring people out to see the team, at first if only to check out the new stadium. They thought "if they build it....people will come", enjoy the action and the stadium, and then keep on coming. It didn't quite work out that way.
The first ever Rhinos game played there was a washout. A capacity crowd showed up, saw a still unfinished monstrousity of aluminum, got soaked on an uncomfortable, rainy night, and vowed never to return. The security was like the gestapo, chasing everyone out of any seats they should not be in. It took me half the first game I was at to get allowed in the media area, because Soccer Sam told me to just tell them he said it was ok, and no one could find him to verify. A bad taste was left in many a fans mouth early on.
The other problem is the quantity of other professional teams. When the Rhinos started, they only had the Red Wings and Amerks to compete against for the local sports fans dollar. Now there are the Lancers, WNY Flash, Knighthawks, Rattlers, RIT hockey and Roc City Thunder. That's a lot of competition, especially for a lousy team.
After that, the A league changed, and the NASL became the top feeder league for MSL, and the Rhinos joined that league for a year. Then they dropped down to the USL pro league, which is basically the same A league, which is now two leagues lower than MSL. So, the Rhinos are in a lower league than they used to be, the play is not as good, and fans can't keep track of the league they are in. Many of them probably don't care, but just notice the quality of play isn't as good.
Gone are the days when fans could identify with all the players. Doug Miller, Lenin Steenkamp, Craig Demmin, Scott Schweitzer...these guys were rock stars in this town. Now, even rabid Rhinos fans are hard pressed to name one or two guys on the team.
Gone are the days when the local TV stations would lead their sportscasts with Rhinos highlights and the game. Now they barely get a mention near the end of the sportscast, and barely a highlight after home games.
Gone are the serious thoughts of joining MLS. That ship has long since sailed away. The Rhinos used to play against teams like Seattle and Portland in the old days of the A league. Now many of those teams are in MLS and the Rhinos are drawing flies. Now when people call the Rhinos box office to ask what time the game starts that night, they ask them "what time can you get here?"
The Rhinos, to their credit have tried. They brought back Pat Ercoli to be the GM and coach. Problem is, they haven't surrounded him with any talent. The quality of play is awful. The team acts lifeless. There is no emotion or excitement. Will things change? Is this just a blip on the radar, and the Rhinos will bounce back?
Erik Rhodes doesn't think so. Rhodes used to be the guy who banged a drum in the stands, lead his groups chants, started the "Rochester.....Rhinos" chants you would hear on both sides of the stadium. Against the Revolution, he also did something he has NEVER done....left a game early.
According to Rhodes, "Now I know what it must have been like to be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in the last year or two. The team is still there, but it's as if they are already gone." He says he will come back, but has serious doubts if many of his fellow die hard fans will.
"The way I see it, they've alienated and lost 80-85% of their fan base in the last year or two. I've never seen anything like this," Rhodes says, "this team isn't even a shadow of past Rhino teams. There are maybe only two players on this team who could even play on those teams a decade ago." He added, "Fans know a bad product when they see it, and this is a bad product."
Any way you cut it, it's a sad demise to a formerly great franchise. It's not over yet, but the Rhinos sure seem to be following in the footsteps of the Lancers and their successor, the Flash.
For the sake of soccer fans in this area, I hope things are able to turn around. It would be sad to see these Rhinos become extinct.