How often is a ballpark or stadium built nowadays without years of debate and controversy? Well Cincinnati's new ballpark was certainly no exception. The park had to fight angry citizens, tough politicians, and the always-controversial Reds' owner, Marge Schott. It would take nearly a decade for talk about a new stadium to progress into the actual opening of Great American Ball Park, and it would result in a ballpark that would keep the charm of Riverfront Stadium (Cinergy Field, 1996-2002) while providing all the amenities of a modern stadium. To keep the charm of Riverfront Stadium, however, the new ball park would need to do one thing: remain on the riverfront.
In 1993 the Reds were one of many baseball teams to share a stadium with a football team. The Reds and Bengals had shared Riverfront Stadium since it was built in 1970, but the "cookie-cutter" stadium was beginning to show that it wasn't built to last well into the 21st century. The Cincinnati Bengals football team had begun talking about their own stadium early in 1993, and owner Mike Brown was threatening to move his team to a new city if the Bengals didn't get their own stadium. The team even mentioned that there were several cities courting the Bengals, including Baltimore. In August of 1993 Reds' General Manager Jim Bowden left a baseball owners' meeting stating that in order for the Reds to remain competitive in baseball a new baseball-only stadium needed to be built that would bring in more revenue than the aging Riverfront Stadium. From this point on the deals for the two new stadiums would go hand-in-hand, but that didn't mean the two teams would receive the same deals.
The plan for two new publically-funded stadiums was studied starting in 1994. A task force was formed by Cincinnati mayor Roxanne Qualls and Hamilton County commissioner Guy Guckenberger. The task force used stadium initiatives that led to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and Coors Field as the basis for their work, and in 1995 it was determined that $544 million would be required for all projects on the riverfront, $185 million of which would be used for the football stadium. The problem at this point was that the task force did not have a solution to where the money would come from. This is when an up-and-coming politician stepped up to the plate in a risky move that would eventually derail his political career.
In January of 1995 Bob Bedinghaus was appointed to fill a vacated county commissioner position. Bedinghaus was a staunch Republican, and had been working his way up the ladder in the local Republican party with the popular conservative stance of "no new taxes." This was a pretty safe position in the highly-conservative suburbs of Hamilton County. Despite this stand, however, and possibly because of some pressure from the powerful business leaders in Cincinnati, Bedinghaus quickly became a leader in the charge for a one-percent sales-tax increase in Hamilton County. This plan meant anyone buying something in the county would be contributing to the new stadiums, regardless of whether they lived in Cincinnati, or whether they even lived in the state of Ohio. Despite the fact that he was taking a very unpopular stand, Bedinghaus believed his commitment to the city's riverfront was the correct approach. "When you're making decisions like this," Bedinghaus said, "you have to have a long-term view. And the long-term view is that if a city like Cincinnati doesn't invest in itself, it becomes a lesser city." This view was seemingly the party line from the powers-that-be who wanted to see the stadiums built. Cincinnati is a small city, but a wealth of corporations use the city as their headquarters. The people of Cincinnati felt that the loss of one or both of their major sports teams would make the city one step closer to becoming the next Dayton. However, despite this strong stance there was still heavy opposition to the stadium plan, and it would take a lot of work, and some good timing, to convince the residents of Hamilton County to vote for the tax increase.
Cincinnati citizen Tim Mara organized Citizens For Choice in Taxation in opposition to the stadium plan, and his group had several major concerns about the plan. Firstly, many critics were saying that the new stadiums would cost in excess of the $544 million that was estimated. This criticism would later be proven correct. Next, the group pointed out that there was no commitment from the Bengals to stay in the city even if the measure passed. Finally, the group noted that there was no "sunset clause" for the sales-tax increase to be dissolved after a certain number of years, and no guarantee that the money would not be used for anything other than the new stadiums. Mara's group was intent on getting the tax increase put to a vote by citizens as opposed to the county making the decision. In order to do this, though, he needed to obtain 25,000 signatures on two separate petitions in only 30 days. As it turned out, he was able to secure almost 90,000 signatures by the end of August 1995. One leader of the petition drive talked about their efforts:
[A petition drive] was never done before, so nobody knew how to do it. There was no example, so we said, "Good Lord, how are we going to pull this off with volunteers?" It was August. Terrible heat and rain. Our volunteers would go out and stand in front of Kroger's supermarkets [while the company itself was] being pro-tax. They would chase the volunteers away. It was hit-and-run. You would work at a supermarket for an hour until they shooed you away; then you would hit some others. It didn't take much to get signatures. In my neighborhood we used a schoolyard and had four tables set up. It was like a drive-in; they wouldn't even have to get out of their cars. We had cars lined up.
The commissioners were forced to place the increase on the ballot, and they were worried about the referendum passing because of the virulent opposition to the tax plan. The county reworked it by cutting the increase in half and ensuring the money would only be used for the stadiums and property tax relief. Although the tax increase would pass, it would cost Bob Bedinghaus his commission seat. Hamilton County had been, and for the most part still is, a heavily Republican county. A Democrat hadn't even been elected to the three-member county commission since 1964. That is, until Todd Portune, a four-term member of the Cincinnati city council decided to run against Bob Bedinghaus in the 2000 general election. Although Portune had supported the stadium bill, he believed the subsequent deals with the two teams gave up way too much. He still had to do a lot of convincing to get the voters of Hamilton County to vote for him. Many were choosing to vote for the Libertarian candidate Paul Naberhaus as opposed to voting for a Democrat. The tipping point may have come after the Bedinghaus campaign experienced a sudden windfall near election day. Reds' majority owner Carl Lindner, who also owned American Financial Group, Chiquita, Stokely-Van Camp, and Financial World at the time, donated $100,000 to the Hamilton County Republican party with the intention that the majority of it be used for Bendinghaus' campaign. In the closing weeks of the campaign a series of negative television ads along with web sites such as LiberalPortune.com were created mainly from the money donated by Lindner. Many voters said in exit polls that they voted for Portune because of the negative ads directed against him. Portune won with 48% of the vote to Bedinghaus' 43%, and Bengals' owner Mike Brown painted Bedinghaus as a tragic figure, even comparing him to Winston Churchill who won World War II but then lost in the next election. This was rather telling of Brown's opinion of Bedinghaus, and Brown would later hire Bedinghaus to work as a consultant for the Bengals.
A huge campaign in support of the stadium proposal was kicked off leading up to the vote in May of 1996. There were television commercials, newspaper ads, and even the newspaper columnists and radio hosts seemed to support the bill. The powerful coalition in Cincinnati in support of the stadiums had a huge influence on public opinion, as voiced by an opponent of the measure.
[Major corporations] control almost all the radio here in town...Their talk-show hosts were constantly pounding home the [pro-referendum] message. Day in and day out, they said we have to do this or Cincinnati will become another Dayton; we will slip to the next lower rung of cities. [So] speaking as one unified voice on these radio shows is not a coincidence. Some people on the radio did not support the tax, but it was made clear to them that they [should change their mind].
On May 19th, 1996 the proposal passed with an overwhelming majority of voters approving it, but not because of the public campaign that attempted to garner support for the stadium proposal. Polls taken weeks before the election insinuated that the resolution was going to be soundly defeated, but something unexpected happened about 250 miles from Cincinnati. The Cleveland Browns, who had been a major-league football team in Cleveland since the 1940s, suddenly picked up their bags and moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens. The shock that a well-entrenched team could just pick up and leave convinced many citizens of Cincinnati to vote for their own stadium proposal. Many who had signed the Mara petition voted for the measure even though it did not address all of the issues brought up by Mara. "People who eventually voted in favor of the tax increase signed our petitions because they wanted to be able to have a say in the matter," said Mara. "Then, months later, they approved it. I can't complain about that. But certainly we can hold our heads high knowing the issues we raised were real and not overstated." With the money available for the stadiums the city of Cincinnati began to negotiate with the two professional sports teams about stadium leases. The Bengals settled the terms of their lease in September of 1996, which many people called a disgrace. Cincinnati felt pressure to make a deal with the Bengals after what happened in Cleveland, and Bengals owner Mike Brown had once again started making threats about moving the team, and this time he wanted to move them to Cleveland. The city council wanted to increase the tax on tickets to quell the critics who were saying Cincinnati's public schools, which were horribly in debt, were being left behind in the wake of the massive stadium deals. Mike Brown would have nothing of it, however, and the two sides settled on a twenty-five cent surcharge that would go to the city. Although the city would officially own the stadium Cincinnati saw little financial benefit from it. The Bengals put up about $47 million for the stadium, but it would all come from future stadium-generated revenue. The team would also pay about $1.1 million a year in rent, but only for the first nine years in the stadium, after-which the rent would be dropped. Hamilton County would pay for all of the maintenance and stadium operations, but the Bengals would receive all revenue from tickets, concessions, parking, and broadcast rights along with half of the gate receipts from other events at the stadium. Some of the parking revenues would come from a new parking garage that was completely paid for by the county and the state of Ohio. Finally, if the team did not sell at least 50,000 general admission tickets at its first twenty home games, the county would make up the difference in revenue. One sports executive commented on the deal saying, "The Bengals took the county to the cleaners as far as I'm concerned. The net present value of the Bengals deal is negative. The county is paying them to stay there." Since there was not much of a concern about the Reds leaving town they were not given such a sweet deal, but irritable Reds' owner Marge Schott wasn't going to make things easy in securing the Reds' lease.
The chain-smoking owner of the Reds, Marge Schott, was always swirling in controversy. From calling Hitler a "reasonable fellow" to the racist descriptions she used for Reds players, she was always on the receiving end of major fines from Major League Baseball until her partners were ready to force her out in 1999 and she sold all but one of her shares in the team to Carl Lindner. Schott did many good things for the Reds, though, including helping them to a sweep of the Oakland A's in the 1990 World Series by rubbing dog hair on manager Lou Pinella and the Reds' players. In 1997 the plan for the new Reds stadium was for it to be built in the Over-the-Rhine section of downtown Cincinnati at the intersection of Broadway Street and Reading Road. This would mean the new park would not be on the riverfront while the Bengals' deal set aside some riverfront land near Cinergy Field for the Bengals to build their new football stadium. Schott complained that under the terms of their Cinergy Field lease they were suppose to be given "equal treatment" in regards to the Bengals. General Manager Jim Bowden threatened the city with a lawsuit while Schott threatened to move the team to Indianapolis or across the Ohio River to Kentucky.
The city of Cincinnati explored other options for the park in the face of the Reds' opposition to the Over-the-Rhine location. Two options that would keep the new park on the riverfront included refurbishing Cinergy Field or putting the new stadium in a narrow area between Cinergy Field and the Crown Coliseum. This latter solution became known as "The Wedge," and critics deemed it impractical. Architect Michael Schuster built a model of the new stadium that showed it was possible if a portion of Cinergy Field was removed and Fort Washington Way was reconfigured.
A year later, in March of 1998, the county finally capitulated and offered the Reds a deal to build a ballpark on the Ohio River. Two weeks later the Cincinnati city council offered the Reds $20 million in incentives if the Reds would reject the riverfront proposal and agree to a new park in the Over-the-Rhine area. Supporters of this location began collecting signatures in an attempt to allow the voters of Hamilton County to decide where the new ballpark would be built. The Reds had major concerns with the location on Broadway, however. One concern was the much higher cost of land in that area as opposed to the riverfront. They also were bothered by the fact that the front entrance of the stadium would face the Hamilton County Justice Center, and the need for a large parking garage in the area. On November 3rd, 1998, the voters of Hamilton County rejected an initiative to force construction of the new ballpark in Over-the-Rhine. The new Reds ballpark was ready to begin construction in "The Wedge."
Of course, things weren't going to be quite so easy. The owners of the Firstar Center (formerly Crown Coliseum) argued that the demolition of portions of Cinergy Field, and of parking around the stadium would cost them revenue. Firstar's attorneys wanted a restraining order until they received financial restitution for their potential lost revenue. Judge Robert Ruehlman, however, ruled against the restraining order saying that in the interest of the greater community the construction of the new Reds ballpark must proceed on schedule. After the judges ruling on August 2, 2000, plans were made to demolish Cinergy Field's parking areas, plaza, and the bridge connecting the plaza levels of Cinergy Field and the Firstar Center. This was all happening as the Bengals' Paul Brown Stadium was ready to host its first football game.
After the 2000 baseball season 14,000 seats from Cinergy Field were removed to allow for the construction of the new ballpark to continue. Earlier, in July of 2000, Great American Insurance purchased the naming rights to the new park, and it was then known that the building that was to begin construction in August would be known as Great American Ball Park when it was completed. Construction moved along as scheduled, and in December of 2002 Cinergy Field was finally put to rest with a 37-second implosion that would allow for the completion of Great American Ball Park in time for the 2003 baseball season. On March 31 of 2003 the park celebrated Opening Day with former President George Bush (not Dubya) throwing out the first pitch, and a patriotic theme permeating the evening. The Reds were swept by the Pirates in the first series at Great American Ball Park, but they earned their first win on April 4th by defeating the Chicago Cubs 10-9.
There is no stadium-specific parking, but there is a lot of parking between $5 and $15 in the downtown area around the stadium. Some of the parking can be far away, though, so don't be surprised if you see a "Welcome to Kentucky" sign while walking to your parking spot after the game. There really aren't any plausible public transportation options to get to Great American Ball Park, though. There is no subway system in Cincinnati, and there are no bus shuttles that I know of from distant parking lots. There is a lot of cheap parking, though, even if it can be far away.
Tickets and Seating
A game at Great American Ball Park can cost anywhere from $5 for the upper-deck bleachers to $230 for the Diamond Seats directly behind home plate. Most of the seats are reasonably priced, though, with box seats available for around $30. The seats themselves are pretty good, and some of them seem big enough to fit two people. Almost every seat in the lower part of the park seems to have a great view of the action, and even seats in the upper-deck offer a better-than-normal view of the game. The upper-deck seats aren't nearly as far away as in some stadiums, but they aren't as good as the classic parks such as Wrigley, and the upper-deck is pretty steep. The only bad seats would be behind the smoke stack in centerfield where there are a few obstructed-view seats. The Reds also get credit for not following the trend of raising prices for "marquee" games.
The outside of Great American Ball Park has a metallic look to it, which may have worked for ballparks in other cities, but it just doesn't seem to fit against the backdrop of the Ohio River. Other stadiums located near rivers, such as PNC Park in Pittsburgh and AT&T Park in San Francisco utilize their river locations much more successfully. The front of the park features a courtyard known as Crosley Terrace, and eventually the courtyard will feature a number of statues of past Cincinnati greats. When I went they only had a statue of Ted "Big Klu" Kluszewski who played for the "Redlegs" during the 1950s. They also had a statue celebrating the Big Red Machine of the 1970s, but overall the courtyard was pretty barren. It was obvious a lot of work needed to be done as the remains of Cinergy Field were still right next to the park.
The wide main concourse allows you to circle the entire stadium, but the outfield concourse doesn't allow a view of the field. There isn't much to do of interest around the stadium, either, besides a Hall of Fame that wasn't open when I went to the park, and virtual batting and speed pitch games. There are two large smokestacks, celebrating the riverboats traversing the Ohio River, that blow puffs of smoke for ever strikeout by a Reds' pitcher. I'm told they also shoot out fireworks for a homerun by a Red, but that isn't something I was able to see. The view of the Ohio River and the Kentucky hills is fantastic, and even better from the upper-deck seats. You will constantly see boats floating by the stadium, and many of the riverboats will make their presence known by blaring their horn as they go by the park. It's just a shame that no one is going to hit a homerun into the river unless they are on steroids, use an aluminum bat, and are being pitched to by little leaguers. "Splash hits" are what make some other river parks great. The use of bricks as opposed to concrete within the stadium, though, is a little touch that a lot of parks neglect nowadays, and something they should have used outside the stadium.
The scoreboard is really big, and gives you just about any statistic you would want to know. The video is also incredibly clear, and is on par with the best video boards in baseball. It also does a good job showing out-of-town scores, and even kept track of the playoff races going on in baseball. The best part about the scoreboard is the replica of the Longines clock that had been a staple of the last few years of Cincinnati's Crosley Field. This gives the scoreboard a touch of classic baseball while still giving it just about every modern feature needed.
The system at Great American Ball Park isn't overbearing, but it also doesn't make use of the organ much, and Great American actually has a real organ. I can forgive the park for playing popular music as most stadiums do nowadays, but all I ask for is a little bit of a classic-baseball feel outside of the middle of the 7th inning. They do play a fun, albeit unoriginal game during the ballgame in which fans applaud to determine what song will be played later in the game. Overall, it's not a bad public address system, but it doesn't do much to differentiate it from other modern ballparks.
Fans at Reds' games are incredibly nice, almost to a fault. They don't seem to get too involved in the game, though, and the atmosphere is really laid back. The product on the field when I saw the team wasn't too inspiring so you can't fault the fans too much for not getting into the game.
Ushers and Trading Up
There are a lot of ushers at Great American Ball Park, but they really don't give off a threatening aura. They aren't all that enthusiastic, either, and just seem to be going through the motions during the game. However, they don't seem to get in the way if you feel like moving up a few rows, or even from the upper-deck to some nice box seats, unless, of course, you try to get into the $200 Diamond Seat section.
7th Inning Stretch
The real organ gives the 7th inning stretch at Great American Ball Park a touch of old-school baseball charm. The stretch starts out with 'God Bless America,' and then moves into 'Take Me Out To The Ballgame.' Although they do go back into playing popular music directly after 'Take Me Out...' is over, it isn't as much of a culture-shock as hearing 'Cotton Eye Joe' after the song like at Yankee Stadium.
The riverfront area around Great American Ball Park has a few restaurants and bars, and the view of the river from the stadium can't be beat. There is also a Reds Hall of Fame that celebrates baseball's oldest franchise. You could also walk a few minutes to get to Cincinnati's Fountain Square, which has a nice mix of popular restaurants and Cincinnati originals. On a hot day, get some ice cream at Graeter's after the game and you won't be disappointed.
Final Score: 75/100 C