A generation ago, the experience of attending a Reds game revolved around what was happening on the field, and really, little else.
That wasn't necessarily because the Reds teams back then were so great. There were good years. There were bad years. The one consistent element was that there was nothing much to look at other than the field itself. Riverfront Stadium was a lot of things. Aesthetically pleasing wasn't one of them.
Things have changed, obviously, for the better. Not only have the Reds been consistent with the product on the field -- producing contending teams year after year comprised largely of a homegrown nucleus -- but the game experience is simply better, too. It's always been fun to watch the Reds play baseball. But nowadays, there's something to be said about the whole shebang: the ballpark, the food, the atmosphere, the bars, the downtown vibe. There's reason to go early and stay late.
The timing couldn't be better. Not only are the Reds winning a lot, but they have a huge event on the horizon that will put them even more on the national map when they host the All-Star Game in 2015. It's one thing to provide a comfortable venue for fans to enjoy during the regular season. Stakes are raised when anticipating a surplus of games in October and an event that brings all of baseball together for three days in the middle of the season. In that respect, the Reds are prepared.
They've come a long way since they hosted the last All-Star Game at Riverfront in 1988. Back then, the area around the ballpark -- later renamed Cinergy Field -- was nondescript, save for a couple bars that served as gathering places for fans on their way to the game.
Priorities were different back then. It wasn't about ambiance and a fulfilling night out. Simply being lucky enough to land a parking spot less than a mile away and not having to sit in the seats under the giant outfield scoreboard played a big role in determining whether this was a good night out at the ballpark, or a mediocre one.
"As a kid growing up in Riverfront, it was almost like the ballpark was intended to be stark," said Reds chief operating officer and native Cincinnatian Phil Castellini. "It was, 'This is just about the game,' and there was a part of it where that was true. There wasn't a lot of glitz and glamour. You came to the stadium and you engaged in the game, whether it was a football or baseball game."
The game is still the focus today, but fans want and expect more. A quick glance at almost all 30 ballparks in the Major Leagues today is evidence of that. The peripheral offerings -- whether it's food, party suites, gathering areas or nightlife outside the gates -- play a big role. Winning is the overriding factor, but there are other things in play as well.
That's why the bland, cookie-cutter, multi-purpose stadiums that seemed so innovative in the 1970s are gone for good.
"You can't get away with that vanilla box today," Castellini said. "The entertainment and what you can get all over the place ... there are way too many places that are competing for the entertainment dollar. There has to be a little bit more going around the game than you can get away with in the Riverfront era."
When Great American Ball Park opened a little over 10 years ago, the Reds experience got better overnight. But there was still work to be done. Sure, the stadium was shiny, new and clean, and a million times better than the old digs. But as nice as it was, it was still a little sterile.
Three years after it opened, that started to change.
The Castellini ownership team came in and closely surveyed every inch. What it found was a nice place that was somewhat shortchanged because of circumstances involving the Cincinnati Bengals, whose stadium was the first of two publicly-funded venues approved by Cincinnatians in the mid to late 1990s. The Bengals' stadium construction ran at least $40 million over budget. The Reds, who, unlike the Bengals, accepted financial responsibility for any overruns, had stricter guidelines to adhere to. That meant fewer bells and whistles.
"You can imagine the last $40 million of a $400 million project is all the cool stuff," Castellini said.
In 2006, the time came to refocus on some of that cool stuff that was lost in the shuffle the first time around.
"That was a reality we walked into," Castellini said. "A beautiful ballpark, intimate, not a bad seat in the house. Our No. 1 priority was to increase top-line revenue. We felt that a big part of that was to try to join sponsorship activation with fan experience and look at the ballpark. Rather than look at it like, 'Oh, it's brand new and we should be happy with what we have,' if your goal is growth, you have to look at it as, let's find the weakest link and try and make that better."
Not that they needed added incentive to spruce up the ballpark, but these two elements -- a watchable team and a crowned jewel event on the docket -- provided perfect timing for everything to come together. And when it's attractive to the fans, it's attractive to the sponsors, whose interest in incorporating their names into the ballpark generates revenue that gives teams the ability to improve the facility.
Slowly, areas around the ballpark have improved, from suites to party platforms and patio areas.
"We're trying to relate those ideas -- what are cool things we can do to improve the park, or green it up?" Castellini said. "That's what we're looking at right now that we can connect a sponsor to, and connect a special part of that related to the All-Star Game."
The franchise has two elements to draw from -- its decorated history, and the talented team of the present.
The Reds have a free-standing Hall of Fame adjacent to GABP that is arguably the best team-related museum in baseball. They've erected several statues of their most celebrated players, and in front of the main entrance sits Crosley Terrace, a nod to the Reds' home from 1912-'70, highlighting the park's famous left-field terrace. The area is adorned with bronze statues of stars from that era: Joe Nuxhall, Ernie Lombardi, Ted Kluszewski and Frank Robinson.
Next up: exploit what they have right now.
"We look forward to creating areas in the park that are really going to represent the accomplishments of the current Reds teams," Castellini said. "The 'New Red Machine.'"
Add to that the booming nightlife literally right outside the stadium gates, and Cincinnati is right there with many other Major League cities that offer the total package. Namely, The Banks is a hopping area, with a slew of bars and restaurants a stone's throw from the ballpark.
At first glance, there's something for everyone. This will come in handy when the baseball world descends upon Cincinnati in July 2015.
And inside, the ballpark won't disappoint, either.
"I'm really glad we got off to the start we did, back in '06, '07," Castellini said. "There are a lot of things we've done to date. A lot things worked great, some worked average. Other things we tried didn't work. It's nice to kind of have that behind us.
"I think it would feel more daunting if we tried to kind of prep the park for the All-Star Game if we hadn't done any of that work over the last six or seven years. I look forward to the work to be done, but I'm awful glad we got as much accomplished as we have since 2006."