Some topics strike a nerve for me more than others. One in particular of late that truly hits home is attendance at Great American Ball Park and exactly what does it mean to be a fan of the Cincinnati Reds. Before someone gets offended about the direction I plan to take, I’m not questioning the “fandom” of any particular people, or groups of people, who go to games, but there are some legitimate issues I have about the decline of the “intelligent” fan in the stands.
First and foremost, I know a large subset of what were the loyalist of fans back in the day, who attended games with intensity, were probably alienated by Major League Baseball somewhere along the way. Whether it was the work stoppages (i.e. strikes / lockouts), particularly in 1981 and especially in 1994 into 1995, or just the strength (or lack thereof) of the product on the field for the better part of a decade plus that followed 1995, attendance in Cincinnati has dwindled. I can understand if the steroid / HGH scandalous period alienated some of the base, but overall attendance rose across the majors in that same period (seemingly making that argument flawed). Attendance has had its ebbs and flows, and certain games or series featuring certain opponents are inevitably the better draws. Trust me, I get it. Going to see the St. Louis Cardinals should be better than seeing, say, the Houston Astros. However, in the case of GABP, a different phenomenon seems at play.
GABP is a nice place to catch a game. The amenities are solid and improving year on year. There isn’t really a bad place in the park to watch (great sightlines from almost every location). I know there are financial considerations for why people don’t attend more often, BUT somehow the base for the Bengals during a period of comparable (if not worse) futility was able to sell-out Paul Brown Stadium for eight home games over a long stretch of seasons despite the product on the field. Selling out baseball games for an 81-game schedule isn’t exactly the same, no doubt, but other teams in other stadiums do it. Cleveland did it for years after Progressive (nee Jacobs) Field opened in 1994 and even maintained the streak after the team was in decline. The Reds have a product seemingly “on the rise”, a first-place club, a team in contention in the NL Central each of the past handful of years, yet the stands are rarely full.
I’m not usually the kind of person for calling out a fanbase, but I feel like to some extent I must. Bob Castellini and the Castellini ownership group has made a clear commitment to putting a better product on the field. The progression of this club since 2006, when he took controlling owner status, is marked. I bought a partial season ticket package that very season in 2006 because I saw a change at the top that showed a commitment to winning I hadn’t seen in years. Clearly, in the intervening years, I’ve been in the minority on that opinion, but I think the on-field results since 2005 speak for themselves. Sure, not every year has been great (and it may be unrealistic to expect year-on-year greatness). The reality is this team has contended more years than not in the past half dozen. On the plus side, attendance is up year-on-year from 2011 to 2012 (through 30 home games, 814,919 in 2012 versus 629,869 in 2011 – up from 23,096 to 27,164 per game or 4,068 per game boost). On the downside, what exactly are those fans doing while they’re in the park?
Well, here’s where the rub comes: the crowds may be healthier but the fan base support in the stands sure isn’t showing it. Has going to games simply become a “social event”? Are people actually watching the game on the field? Sometimes, I truly have to wonder. It became glaringly obvious during this past Tigers series, as a significant Tiger fan contingent took hold in the park (to which I don’t begrudge them in the slightest), that opposing team “vociferousness” was deafening by the lack of response in our own fans. Does the big screen *really* need to say “Make Noise” for people to know when to make noise? If there are runners on base, a big hit is needed, the Reds are trying to rally, etc., isn’t it just obvious to provide a little noise? I don’t know what happened from the old park (and I mean Riverfront Stadium, since I’m not old enough to reference Crosley Field) transitioning to the new digs. I used to think Cincinnati had a more responsive crowd in the stands, unless my memories from the late 1980′s are failing me. What happened?
I hate to say that the crowd has been “dumbed down” because that’s a blanket statement, but, with the exception of Aroldis Chapman on the mound, I rarely see much crowd reaction. I’ve been to enough games this year (and this is not a “toot my own horn” moment, but you see things in 15 home games so far) to know that the crowd could easily get into games more. I’ve seen more enthusiastic college baseball crowds. I even heard the most passionate fan you’re going to find at GABP – the incomparable Chuck D – call into Mo Egger’s show just yesterday and talk about how people have told him to “shut up” during rallies or vocalizing his support. Really, folks? I’d rather have a hundred more of him than the thousands who sit on their hands and wouldn’t clap if their lives depended on it.
My soapbox has gotten its use for the day. I’m sure there are conflicting opinions to my own, but, at the same time, help justify to me how a team gets a home-field advantage without a rousing, vocal crowd in the stands. There are plenty of bodies there to get it done; it just takes the right attitude to make a difference. Reds fans still outnumber the opposing fans, even in a Cubs series. People can be “out-louded”; be gracious but don’t let the opponent take over.
Follow me on Twitter @jdrentz to keep the discussion going.