- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

The Baltimore Orioles enjoyed a six-year run of on-field success and unprecedented revenues from Camden Yards. The Cleveland Indians were an American League power for eight seasons on the fiscal strength of constant sellouts at Jacobs Field.

That honeymoon period from a new ballpark has tightened considerably in recent years. Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburgh saw their economic situations, relative to the rest of baseball, barely improve in just their second seasons in their new parks.

But the Cincinnati Reds have trumped them all, having spent four months in brand-new, $297million Great American Ball Park before falling apart. The Reds entered 2003 with hopes of a return to playoff prominence and newfound economic security, but everything has gone wrong for the once-proud franchise.

The team is fifth in the National League Central, above only hopeless Milwaukee. Oft-injured franchise icon Ken Griffey Jr. again is out for the season, this time with a torn ankle tendon. Manager Bob Boone and general manager Jim Bowden were fired last week. And just days after insisting Cincinnati had not given up on the season, chief operating officer John Allen allowed the team to trade All-Star third baseman Aaron Boone, power hitting outfielder Jose Guillen and star reliever Scott Williamson.

In return, the club received only one bona fide prospect, pitcher Brandon Claussen, and about $5million in cash as well as relief from future salary obligations. The remaining Reds players are fuming over the blatant salary dump by a team already pinching pennies with a $65million payroll for its 40-man roster, 12th lowest in baseball.

Worst of all, the Reds have come nowhere near reaping the fiscal returns the club said it needed when it, along with the Bengals, asked Cincinnati taxpayers for a half-cent increase in the local sales tax rate to fund both a football stadium and ballpark.

Last year Allen predicted a 2003 total home attendance of 2.8million. Through Friday, the Reds were averaging 29,898, which projects to 2.42 million for the season. That number would be the lowest total for any team playing its first full season in a new ballpark since Toronto began baseball’s stadium development boom in 1989. In just the first season at Great American Ball Park, attendance has fallen to what the team and its consultants projected for stable years after the stadium’s novelty ebbed.

“We had high expectations for the season,” Allen said last week. “I’m not saying that we necessarily expected to go the World Series, but we certainly didn’t expect to be sitting 10 games out and 12 games below. 500 at this point in the season.”

Said Mitchell Ziets, a New Jersey-based sports industry consultant who worked with Hamilton County, Ohio, during the early Cincinnati stadium development efforts, “Two point three, 2.4 million for the first year [in the new park] certainly portends bad news for the later years.”

The Reds’ fortunes will, in all likelihood, get much worse before they get better. The average second-year attendance decline for new ballparks since 2000 is 10 percent.

“I, like so many here in Cincinnati, feel a great sense of betrayal,” said attorney Tim Mara, who led a strident but unsuccessful fight against the sales tax increase. “But I’m not sure the Reds care at this point. The only thing I can do now, as a fan, is not go to the games anymore. If enough people feel the same way I do, maybe then the team will get the message.

“The pro-tax people during this whole process referred to the need to remain a major league city. How can we say we’re major league after what’s now happened?”

So what went wrong? How did the Reds misfire so badly on so many different fronts? And what can be done to fix it?

There is no real short answer, but the more abbreviated ones are: There was a combustible mixture of the still-spendthrift ways of owner Carl Lindner; a troubled marketing strategy since the late 1990s that pinned fan hopes squarely on 2003; an ill-fated decision to tie up nearly a third of player payroll on aging stars Griffey and Barry Larkin; a similarly disastrous move by Bob Boone to try a four-man pitching rotation killed the Reds’ chances of playing in October; and a chronic inability to develop pitching through their farm system. The Reds have burned through 31 starting pitchers since the beginning of the 2000 season.

As a result, the Reds’ current malaise will be a true test of the new labor agreement, which has helped propel the Kansas City Royals back into contention but also has been criticized in many circles for not going far enough to promote competitive balance. Revenue sharing will increase from about $170million last year to more than $300million by 2006, providing teams like Cincinnati a more NFL-like chance to succeed.

In the meantime, Reds management insists the team will be competitive next year. The luxury for them is that everyone must wait a year to find out if that’s more than spin.

“The Reds, as well as the Pirates, are having to make conscious business decisions, that the revenues they expected weren’t entirely coming in, and having an extra $15million to $20million in payroll wasn’t serving a real competitive advantage,” said Rick Horrow, visiting professor of sports law at Harvard University. “But this still may be a short-term issue. Revenue sharing is going to rise significantly in the next few years, and it’s going to be more difficult to have these kind of salary dumps.”

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