Baseball’s popularity is consolidating in the Northeast, where predictions of a Red Sox and Phillies World Series match-up might be spoiled by the always dangerous Yankees. Baseball’s World Champion resides in California where MLB marketing, Showtime and video game ads are wisely promoting the Giants as the fun young team to root for. (I had suggested they do that this winter.)
But the most popular teams of Middle America, the Cubs and the Cardinals, are ironically at crossroads. The Cardinals might be losing their franchise superstar and the Cubs have a huge payroll but are already fighting and not expected to contend.
This leaves, however, a unique opportunity for one of baseball’s most traditional franchises to expand its appeal beyond its city limits. With the right marketing, coverage and fan support, the Cincinnati Reds could become the new Boston Red Sox.
A baseball-first city
Most major cities’ sports fan bases tend to put football first. While that statement might yield some angry comments, numbers don’t lie. Football team’s popularity tends to trump the baseball teams in most areas. I would argue that even in Philadelphia, the Eagles are more popular than the best Phillies team since Mike Schmidt was in uniform.
Boston, New York and St. Louis are consistently baseball-first cities. San Francisco can be as well, but I was living in the Bay Area when the Giants were in the World Series and the 49ers were in the Super Bowl in the same year. It was no contest. San Francisco was a Niners city and the Giants almost left town.
Cincinnati, however, could become a baseball-first city. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in 20 seasons. The only headlines they have been making in the past few years have been in the police blotter.
The Queen City is much richer in baseball tradition and memories than for football. The Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first professional club and their formation is recognized by many as the beginning of Major League Baseball. (That’s a somewhat dubious claim seeing that the Red Stockings no longer exist.)
For years baseball would start its season in Cincinnati (before it started opening the season in Japan at a time too early to watch). And the Reds have a wealth spring of great former players to celebrate, including the Big Red Machine stars like Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez, Dave Concepcion, Ken Griffey Sr., George Foster and some other player who wore number 14 that we aren’t supposed to mention.
And, of course, whenever anyone throws a no-hitter, the name of Reds pitcher Johnny Vander Meer is brought up, being the only player to throw no-hitters in consecutive games.
The Reds had great teams in the 1910s, the 1940s and the 1960s. They had arguably the greatest National League team in history in the 1970s, contenders in the 1980s and another championship team in the 1990s.
After a decade of irrelevance, they are back. The Reds are the defending division champs. With the reigning MVP Joey Votto signed for three more years and an exciting young pitching staff, the Reds might be playing in October for the foreseeable future.
There should be a combination of rekindled nostalgia for the Reds in older fans and the novelty of being excited about the Reds for the first time in younger fans. And while Great American Ballpark has been open for more than a decade, the experience of going there to see a good Reds team is still a novelty.
The current Celtics team has brought back for me memories of rooting for Bird, Parish and McHale and for older fans rooting for Russell, Havlicek, Cousy and Cowens. But younger fans in Boston finally have their own era to root for. I saw it in New York when the Joe Torre era brought about a new pride in being a Yankees fan. Older fans loved coming back to the stadium where they remembered Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson while younger fans embraced the team as the players they were going to cherish.
Expanding the tentacles
But remember another interesting fact about Boston and New York as powerhouses. In the early 1990s, as the Reds were defending their last World Series title, tickets were easy to get for Yankees games. The Red Sox had their passionate following in New England, but they were hardly a national presence.
The Yankees marketing themselves into coast-to-coast prominence and the Red Sox becoming a world wide brand are relatively new developments. Yes, much of the rise of the franchises came from media coverage and it didn’t hurt that ESPN was smack dab in the middle of Boston and New York.
It also didn’t hurt matters that the two teams were the best teams in the game. Plus, their head-to-head games were great TV and they faced off in a pair of classic seven-game ALCS in back-to-back seasons.
And of course many people move to Boston in college and get hooked on the Red Sox for life. And more people move to New York and adopt the Yankees as their own. And there are countless transplanted New Yorkers and New Englanders throughout the country who never surrender their fandom. I am one of them. I haven’t lived in Massachusetts since 1987. I live a mere 10 minutes from Dodger Stadium but remain a loyal Red Sox fan.
But they were also sold to a very wide region. The reach of Yankee fandom spread far beyond the metropolitan area. Northern New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut up to New Haven, upstate New York including Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo are all Yankee territory. (Of course they share those places with the Mets, but the Yankees reign supreme.) Meanwhile the Red Sox have all of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and those parts of Connecticut not on the Metro North Line.
That regionalization (plus TBS) made the Braves the team of the South. The Giants are learning the advantage of their team having a presence in surrounding cities as their brand is expanding. It is the main reason why they won’t simply let the A’s move to San Jose. And the Orioles reach into Washington was the main controversy that kept the Expos-to-D.C. move on hold all those years.
Which brings us back to the Reds. Geographically and in terms of baseball relevance, they rest in a potentially advantageous spot on the map.
Cincinnati has the 24th largest metropolitan area in the country, bigger than Cleveland but smaller than Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Tampa. But the Reds are also the closest team to Dayton (61st largest metropolitan area.) With the Indians being a truly dreadful team, the Reds could become the top team all across the state except in the Cleveland-Akron area. That would include Columbus, which is the 32nd largest metropolitan area.
Beyond Ohio, the Reds are across the river from Kentucky, only two hours from Louisville, the 42nd largest metropolitan area. Plus the Reds are an hour and a half drive from Lexington, another metropolitan area of half a million people. Extending slightly further into Indiana, the Reds are the closest club to Indianapolis, the 34th biggest region and one of the largest without a major league team.
Create a radius from home plate at Great America Ballpark and extend it out to Louisville, Indianapolis, Columbus, etc and you will see a wide reach of cities besides Cincinnati that should be cheering for the Reds. And the Reds’ presence in those cities should be noticed.
The Reds of course have minor league teams in Louisville and Dayton. Sending the pipeline of players through other cities has certainly helped the Red Sox gain popularity (players go through Lowell, Mass., Portland, Maine and Pawtucket, R.I. before hitting Boston.) And the Giants send their players through San Jose and Fresno before they show up at China Basin.
Eyeballs, not fannies
The financial success of a franchise used to be calculated by attendance. The Reds need to do some catching up in that department. I would think that with a winner finally on the field, more seats will be filled in 2011.
But today, the real financial success of a franchise is based on television revenue. And unlike the nationwide broadcasting of football, the success all is regional. The Braves and the Cubs became national brands because of the super stations on the 1980s and 1990s. And the Yankees and Red Sox expanded their TV power with their own networks (YES and NESN.) And those networks became staples in all of those additional metropolitan areas I listed above. The Reds need to do this as well. Of course they show games on FSN Ohio and other states carry their games. They need to do more.
Think about that radius of cities that should be Reds first. That is a collection of cities that could constitute a television network. Old memories are rekindled. The chances of new memories are sold. And the Reds could make the transformation from a relatively small market to getting a much larger slice of the baseball profit pie.
This needs to be a network that the Reds own and set up, not partner with Fox or some other conglomerate. There is a chance to tap into the advertising revenue of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana the way that NESN does all over New England.
This is a unique time for the Reds, especially with the Cubs, Cardinals and Indians not expected to be a factor in 2011. They can win over the hearts—but more importantly the eyeballs and the wallets—of a large fan base. They can get that fan base to watch games, buy merchandise and fill the stadiums and put the Reds in a position where they might become big buyers in the offseason.
Imagine a baseball world where the Cincinnati Reds are mentioned alongside the Yankees and Red Sox as a potential free agent destination. Wouldn’t that be positive for baseball?
Market your product aggressively, Reds. Put that TV network together. And if you need star power, never forget that George Clooney is a Reds fan. Invite him to the network launch.
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