The Cincinnati Bengals have one more chance to reward home fans for the investment of their time and money, but it might be too late.
Cincinnati (5-8) drew its smallest crowd since 2011 during the last game at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 2, and the Bengals host one of the few teams worse than they are Sunday in their home finale against the Oakland Raiders (3-10).
Any improvement in attendance would be the sign of a marketing miracle as the Bengals have lost five straight and dropped seven of their last eight games, although the lackluster AFC North still leaves room for Cincinnati to come away with the division with a sudden turnaround.
Players say they aren’t giving up and hope fans won’t quit on them — those that haven’t already, at least. Cincinnati is facing the possibility of its third straight losing season unless it wins out to finish 8-8.
“We’re not going to quit on no one,” Bengals wide receiver John Ross said when asked what the message to fans should be Sunday. “We’re not going to quit on each other. We’re not going to quit on our coaches. We’re definitely not going to quit on our fans.”
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Ross said it’s disheartening to look around the stadium on game day and see so many empty seats, but he can’t really blame the fans considering the team’s performance this season.
The Bengals have the second lowest attendance in the league, averaging just 51,637 fans a game in the 65,000-seat Paul Brown Stadium, and only the Los Angeles Chargers draw fewer while playing in a facility made for soccer with a capacity of only 27,000.
A season-low crowd of just 44,392 showed up Dec. 2 against the Denver Broncos. The highest attendance came when 60,594 fans attended the Oct. 14 game against Pittsburgh when Cincinnati was 4-1. Even then, much of the crowd was made up of Steelers fans, and the same was true of Browns fans at the Nov. 25 game against Cleveland.
“We kind of understand it’s our fault,” Ross said. “It’s hard to look up in the stands. If we were undefeated and there were no people in the stands, we wouldn’t understand, but we definitely know why there is no one here so we have to put that on ourselves and make sure we change that in the future.”
Running back Joe Mixon said he doesn’t notice the empty seats until around the second quarter usually and it bothers him knowing the team has disappointed the fans to the extent they won’t come out for games.
He teeters between understanding frustration and wishing fans would realize how much they can help the players.
“I didn’t like it personally,” he said. “I’m sure they don’t like seeing us lose like that. I understand that, and I feel that. But I feed off of energy. I feed off of the crowd. That’s going against the players because you’re not liking what you’re seeing … I understand frustration. We can’t go out there and just stink it up like that. We’ve got to do whatever we can. I try to go out there and do whatever I can to give as much energy and whatever I can to our players.
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“We’ve got to go out there and put on a show. That’s what they’re coming to see. And we didn’t do that. So we’ve got to do whatever we can to make it more exciting for the fans, for them to be there and for them to watch and support. I understand the frustration that’s going around in the city. We’re going through it, too. At the end of the day we’ve all got to stick together and be in this as one. That’s how I feel about the situation.”
Ross said players can “get going” without needing to feed off the crowd but it “definitely helps.” Cincinnati is 3-4 at Paul Brown Stadium this season. The home team has won in 63.3 percent of all NFL games this season.
Linebacker Vinny Rey said he has been shocked coming out of the tunnel in recent homes games to see such an empty stadium, but he still hears the crowd on third down and after big plays. He still hopes to feel some support Sunday as the Bengals wrap up the home slate.
“It makes a big difference,” Rey said. “No. 1, just having people cheering for you, it’s a big confidence builder that people are pulling for you and believe in you. I think most home games are won in this league. I don’t know the percentage, but I know that’s true, so it’s big just being at home with people cheering for you.”