Saturday, March 1, 2003

Reds look to the fans to get them to payoff


Great American question: Will the fans take a seat?

By John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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This chart shows which areas of the new Great Amaerican Ball Park have seats available. Click to enlarge.
(Acrobat PDF, 150k)
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Overture. Curtain lights ... This is it, the day the Cincinnati Reds have been awaiting for nearly eight years - the day tickets go on sale to the general public for the first season in the new $280 million Great American Ball Park.

"Personally, I have knots in my stomach, butterflies," said Reds chief operating officer John Allen. "Every day we get excited about the ballpark being built, but this is a big piece of it."

All of baseball has knots in its stomach, too. In a tight economy, with many teams seeing ticket sales wavering, ticket buyers in Cincinnati will help answer a big question: Do new ballparks still matter?

Today's ticket sale - at 53 retail outlets, over 100 phone lines and 1,000 Internet connections (www.cincinnatireds.com) - is a litmus test for fans' interest in the team and especially the new ballpark. The Reds are looking for substantial improvement from last year's attendance of nearly 1.9 million - a below-average year for their 33 years in Cinergy Field.

The new ballpark brings talk of challenging the team's all-time attendance record of 2,629,708 in 1976, and maybe even its first season of 3 million. The boost in attendance would also bring a boost in revenue, as the $21.50 average ticket price is about 30 percent more than last year.

"I can remember when 2 million was the holy grail for attendance, and the Reds were one of the first teams to consistently hit the 2-million mark in the 1970s," Allen said. "I would be disappointed if we're not in the top three or four of all time, but I'm not going to predict breaking the record."

Five years ago, topping 3 million in a new ballpark was thought to be as certain as Amazon.com stock hitting $200 a share. In the early 1990s, new parks in Cleveland and Baltimore drew flocks of fans, and attendance in those cities ballooned.

But some new ballparks haven't been as successful, especially when the home teams finish last. The Milwaukee Brewers' new Miller Field drew an encouraging 2.8 million fans its first season in 2001, but attendance fell by more than 800,000 to 1.96 million last year, barely more than the Reds saw in their old stadium. The Pittsburgh Pirates fared poorly as well, as attendance fell by 650,000 to 1.8 million last year, the team's second season in the new PNC Park.

Attendance at the Detroit Tigers' Comerica Field has fallen by 1 million during the team's first three years in that ballpark, to 1.5 million last year.

"We've certainly seen that a new ballpark isn't a guarantee of instant riches," said Bruce K. Johnson, a sports economist at Centre College in Danville, Ky.

Cincinnati, though, should fare better, he said. "It's a historic team, clearly very important to the Cincinnati community," Johnson said. "It could be the new ballpark propels Cincinnati from the ranks of small markets, like what happened in Cleveland."

The drops in attendance in Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Detroit have caught Allen's attention. "I certainly have been watching it. But they haven't had success on the field.

"The difference between us is the quality of the product. Last season we were in first or second place 120-plus days, and as late as the middle of August we were still in a fight for a playoff spot. I think that gives us a leg up."

But, Allen said, it emphasizes that new ballparks don't cure all ills. "Not only do you have to have a new ballpark, you have to have a good competitive team, and we think we're there, certainly," he said.

He noted that season ticket sales are down. "Almost every city's season's tickets are down. Only two or three are up, and we're certainly one of them. Other than that, everybody I've talked to is having trouble maintaining status quo in their season tickets," he said.

Allen wouldn't say how many season tickets the Reds have sold. The Reds' Web site lists tickets at nine price levels as sold out, including just about everything between first and third base. Those sold-out sections add up to around 17,000 seats, or 40 percent of the new ballpark's capacity. That means that before the first ticket is sold this morning, the Reds' attendance for their first year in the new ball park will be at least 1.4 million.

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Debi Schwartz of Amelia and her son Tim Schwartz of Mt Washington sit near the front door of the Reds Dugout shop in the Westin Hotel. They were the first people in line.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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Group ticket sales and sales of partial-season tickets have been strong, Allen said, giving him optimism for today's sales. "All indicators are positive. Let's just hope it continues," he said.

The Hader Hardware store in Delhi Township is one outlet that will be selling Reds tickets, and manager Chuck Shope is expecting a big crowd. Tickets go on sale at 9 a.m., and each buyer's place in line will be determined by lottery, pulling numbered tickets out of a bucket.

Last year, for the Opening Day ticket sale, 350 people showed up. "It's a little frantic for a couple hours," he said. "It all handles itself pretty well."

The last thing the Reds need is a repeat of last week's sale of Opening Day tickets, available only by phone or the Internet. The 14,000 available tickets sold out quickly, but the telephone busy signals and timed-out Internet connections drew catcalls from many loyal Reds fans.

Debra Jessee of Union Township in Clermont County tried to get Opening Day tickets as a birthday gift for her husband, but couldn't get through by telephone or on the Internet. She said she wouldn't even bother trying this morning. "I can see from the way this is set up it would do me no good," she said. "I guess if you want them, you have to go to eBay." Opening Day tickets are selling from $125 to $175 on eBay, up to eight times the ballpark's average ticket price.

Another fan shut out of Opening Day tickets was Scott Csendes, an architect from Mason. He said he believes the novelty of the new ballpark won't last long. Whether fans keep coming back depends on how the team plays and how well management runs the new ballpark. Last week's ticket sale "wasn't a good start," he said.

Max Rigsby of Withamsville is scouting for the best location to buy tickets. A lifelong Reds fan who grew up in western Kentucky, he moved here with his family just four months ago and is excited about the coming baseball season.

He "struck out swinging" for Opening Day tickets last week, but he said he'll try again today.

Show 'n' Tell

The Great American Ball Park will be open to the public March 22 and 23.

March 22 gates the ballpark will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a formal dedication ceremony at 9 a.m. The stadium is open from noon to 6 p.m. on March 23.

Fans will have access to the multiple levels of seating, bullpen overlooks and dugouts, plus areas normally closed to the public such as the Reds' clubhouse and batting tunnels.

Admission and parking at Hamilton County-owned riverfront lots will be free. Concession stands also will be open.

Hottest Reds tickets

• The two exhibition games against the Cleveland Indians March 28-29 could be the first to go. These are the first games played in the new ballpark, and everyone who couldn't get tickets for Opening Day'll seek them. But tickets will be limited because season-ticket holders were allowed to buy extra seats for these games.

• The New York Yankees series June 4-6. The last time the Yankees played in Cincinnati, they lost 4-3 in Game 2 of the 1976 World Series, which the Reds eventually won. Like the Indians' games, availability is limited.

• Pepsi's Marty and Joe Dual Bobblehead night May 24, a Saturday night game against the Florida Marlins. The first 20,000 fans get a Bobblehead souvenir honoring the Reds beloved radio broadcast team. Other Bobblehead nights are Austin Kearns July 15 against the Houston Astros, and Gapper (the new Reds mascot) Aug. 1 against the San Francisco Giants.

• The Reds also expect good crowds for seven home stands on summer weekends, as fans drive in from West Virginia, Columbus and Louisville to see the new ballpark. The best of those series are the New York Mets July 4-6, the Giants Aug 1-3, and St. Louis Cardinals Aug. 29-31.

• There are four Kid Glove Games, where ticket sales benefit local youth baseball: April 2 vs. Pittsburgh Pirates; April 22 and April 24 vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers; and May 6 vs. the Cardinals.

E-mail johnb@enquirer.com




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