And This One Belongs to the Bengals

The Castellinis are now Cincinnati’s No. 1 sports villains, and the Brown family are the cool kids. Here’s how the Reds can duplicate the Bengals’ return to favor.

Illustration by Mike Tofanelli

The weather outside had dipped below freezing on a chilly Saturday afternoon in mid-January, but spirits were high inside the Bally Sports Club at Great American Ball Park. The annual members-only luncheon of the Rosie Reds featured a buffet spread, and members had been promised a keynote address from Cincinnati Reds President Phil Castellini.

The Rosie Reds (ROSIE: “Rooters Organized to Stimulate Interest and Enthusiasm”) are an institution in this town. Formed in 1964 as a “women’s only group” in response to persistent rumors that Reds owner Bill DeWitt intended to move the franchise to another city, these are perhaps the most loyal and dedicated group of Reds fans anywhere.

Castellini, son of team CEO Bob Castellini, has been a target of frequent criticism since his disastrous comments last year when he asked fans “Where ya gonna go?” in response to public criticism of the team’s small payroll and perceived lack of effort at improving the roster. Phil has largely kept out of the public eye since that day, but when given a platform at the Rosie Reds luncheon he proceeded to pick up where he left off.

Castellini opened by admitting that he had just learned that “Rosie” was an acronym and asked if everyone else knew that. A groan rose up from the crowd, but Phil was off and running. He claimed that the Reds operate as a nonprofit and lamented baseball’s guaranteed contracts, asking rhetorically if “anyone here [was] paid to not do their job?” And then, the coup de grace: a slide show in which he used cherry-picked data to argue that the Reds simply cannot compete with other teams in Major League Baseball.

One day later, just down the riverfront, the Cincinnati Bengals faced off against the Baltimore Ravens in the first playoff game since last year’s electrifying run to the Super Bowl. More than 66,000 fans poured into Paycor Stadium to watch Joe Burrow and company capture a dramatic victory, capped by the Fumble in the Jungle, a 98-yard return touchdown by defensive end Sam Hubbard, a Cincinnati native and product of Moeller High School.

As rapturous Bengals fans filed out of the stadium with dreams of glory to come, the contrast between Cincinnati’s two oldest professional sports franchises couldn’t have been starker. The Castellinis had officially replaced the Brown family, owners of the Bengals, as Cincinnati’s sports villains. It took Mike Brown and family almost 30 years to get the city back in their corner. How long will it take the Castellinis?

Chris Wilson grew up as a die-hard Reds and Bengals fan in southwest Virginia, just across the eastern Kentucky border in a region that was once part of “Reds Country.” As a child, his family made the four-hour trek several times a year to Cincinnati to watch the Reds, and it became a cherished ritual. “My buddies and I would get cheap hotel rooms across the river many times each summer,” Wilson recalls. “When Great American Ball Park opened, we attended 11 home games that first season.”

As he married and started a family of his own, they continued making the trip west as often as possible, his oldest son even learning to keep his own scorecard at GABP at the age of 4. “The Reds were our team,” he says. “It’s like they were part of our family.”

A couple of years ago, the Wilsons returned to Cincinnati. “My kids didn’t attend their first Bengals game until 2013, and we hadn’t been to another one since as a family,” he says, “but in 2021 we decided to go back.” Despite a Bengals loss, “the atmosphere, the energy, and the team itself created an environment that made us want to return. Which we did the following week. And they lost again. But we were hooked.”

The Wilson family took the plunge and bought Bengals season tickets. He was in the stadium for the Fumble in the Jungle. “Probably the craziest atmosphere I’ve ever been a part of,” he says. “Unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed.”

He and his family are still Reds fans but struggle to get excited about the franchise’s direction. “We attended just one Reds game last year,” says Wilson. “And we did that one only because we were in the city to watch a Bengals practice and figured we’d might as well go to a game since we were there.”

It wasn’t always this way. For years, Mike Brown was Public Enemy No. 1 among Queen City sports fans. Upon the death of his father, team founder and legendary NFL coach Paul Brown, in August 1991, Mike officially took over and served as the team’s de facto general manager. What followed was nothing short of disastrous.

After reaching the Super Bowl twice in the 1980s, the Bengals spent the next three decades as a league-wide punchline. Between 1991 and 2019, when the team drafted Burrow, Cincinnati had just seven winning seasons. “He took too much on himself and was not very good at it,” longtime Cincinnati Enquirer scribe Paul Daugherty told Cincinnati Magazine in 2014. “[The Bengals] were not only the worst team in the NFL, they were arguably the worst team in professional sports. And it was entirely Mike’s show.”

Accounts of Brown’s legendarily frugal ways are legion, with tales of used jockstraps, refusals to provide Gatorade to the players, and trips to a local Wendy’s restaurant for negotiation sessions with agents. The on-field product was often more embarrassing. Until the last two seasons, the Bengals had not won a single playoff game since Brown began calling the shots. In 2011, Forbes named him the fifth-worst owner in the NFL. A similar study in 2021 declared him the worst of the league’s 32 owners.

The depths of Brown’s villainy are best illustrated by his efforts to fleece Hamilton County taxpayers in what The Wall Street Journal termed perhaps the most lopsided public-financing stadium deal in U.S. sports history. Voters ultimately approved a half-cent county sales tax increase to pay for new stadiums for the Bengals and the Reds, but only after a coordinated PR campaign centered around the Bengals’ threat to relocate the team to another city.

By all accounts, the stadium deal has been calamitous for the county. As of 2016, taxpayers had forked over more than $920 million to build and operate what was originally known as Paul Brown Stadium. The total public cost is estimated to rise to $1.1 billion by the time the team’s lease with the county expires in 2026.

So yes, Mike Brown’s lousy reputation among local sports fans was indeed well-deserved. Bob Castellini, on the other hand, enjoyed a lengthy honeymoon after his ownership group purchased a stake in the Reds and installed him as CEO in 2006. At his introductory press conference, Castellini was very clear, saying, “We’re buying the Reds to win. Anything else is unacceptable.” Soon thereafter, Castellini and his fellow owners penned an open letter to fans, promising to bring a championship back to Cincinnati and famously guaranteeing that “[We] will not rest until you are happy.”

The Reds won division championships in 2010 and 2012 and secured a Wild Card berth in 2013. But thanks largely to Castellini’s persistent interference with baseball decisions, the Reds soon plunged into the depths of the National League. They suffered through six consecutive losing seasons, including four straight campaigns during which they lost no fewer than 94 games. Finally, in 2020, there was reason for optimism.

Under the leadership of former President of Baseball Operations Dick Williams—son and nephew, respectively, of Joe and Thomas Williams, minority shareholders in Castellini’s ownership group— the Reds reshaped nearly everything about the minor league system and began filling holes on the big league roster. Williams signed Nick Castellanos, Mike Moustakas, and Wade Miley and traded for pitcher Trevor Bauer.

Cincinnati finished the pandemic-shortened 2020 season with a 31–29 record, actually sneaking into an expanded playoff structure, where they were promptly crushed by the Atlanta Braves. But it was something to build on. Curiously, Williams stepped down immediately after the season in what was a harbinger of things to come. Within two months, Cincinnati had essentially given away two quality relief pitchers for free, and the Reds did little to improve the roster over the winter.

The 2021 Reds won 83 games and fell just short of the playoffs only because ownership quit on them. That’s when everything devolved into chaos. General Manager Nick Krall revealed that he had been ordered to “align payroll to our resources.” The Reds cynically gave away players (Miley and Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart) because Castellini didn’t want to pay them. Krall executed a fire sale, trading away the core of the roster: Jesse Winker, Sonny Gray, Eugenio Suarez, Luis Castillo, and Tyler Mahle.

Phil Castellini then verbally vomited all over himself on Opening Day 2022, and things went from bad to worse. The Reds lost 100 games for only the second time in franchise history and finished the season with the lowest attendance totals since the early 1980s. Things don’t figure to get any better in 2023, as Phil warned the Rosie Reds.

While the Reds have continued to alienate an already-frustrated fan base, the Bengals have engineered a stunning turnaround. “It’s night and day right now,” says Mo Egger, who hosts the afternoon sports talk show on ESPN 1530. “Bengals fans finally seem unburdened by the franchise’s past and no longer filled with the apprehension that came with decades of not advancing to the postseason. Even with the disappointment of losing in the AFC title game, there seems to be a legitimate feeling that a championship—while not inevitable—is very, very likely.”

Sara Elyse, a news anchor with WLW radio as well as iHeart Media, is a lifelong Cincinnatian who’s been attending Reds and Bengals games for years. She’s had a similar experience as Egger. “Bengals fans are definitely energized right now and feeling optimistic about the future,” says Elyse. “In the AFC Championship game in Kansas City, as soon as the field goal was good and the Chiefs were crowned winners, Bengals fans were sad, yes, but also still feeling optimistic. Like, Hey, we’ll get them next year. Key word here: optimistic. We all know the Bengals are capable of getting back to the big stage.

“Sadly, Reds fans are not optimistic right now. It’s a glass half full vs. glass half empty situation.”

If Mike Brown’s reputation has been resurrected from the dead, there’s no reason Bob Castellini can’t do the same. First, though, we must acknowledge the obvious: The NFL and MLB operate different business models in many ways.

The NFL has a payroll cap and a robust revenue sharing system that reflects the fact that pro football is a national product, while baseball is more of a local one. MLB teams don’t have a payroll cap; they have a luxury tax. Teams that spend more than the luxury tax threshold are “taxed” on the amount by which they exceed the number. The amount collected is then disbursed to the other baseball franchises.

In practice, MLB teams can essentially spend any amount they want on salary. There is a penalty for exceeding the luxury tax threshold, but that hasn’t discouraged baseball owners who actually want to win. Case in point: The New York Mets’ 2023 payroll is projected to be in excess of $330 million. That’s nearly five times the Reds’ projected payroll ($70,624,500).

Though there are differences between the economic systems in each sport, there are specific lessons that Bob Castellini can learn from the example of the Bengals and Mike Brown. Here are five of them.

  1. Stop Meddling! 

In recent years, Brown has stepped away from day-to-day operations within the Bengals front office. He began by ceding control of many on-field decisions to former coach Marvin Lewis. Off the field, Brown’s daughter Katie Blackburn and her husband Troy have steadily taken a more active role in nearly every arena of front office operations, from contract negotiations to marketing, while Duke Tobin—Cincinnati’s director of player personnel—has acted more like a typical NFL general manager. The product, both on the field and off, has improved substantially.

The Castellinis must similarly fade into the background. “I’ve often been critical of Castellini leadership,” says Egger, “either for being meddlesome or for not going all-in when they could have. Their almost constant switching from one plan to another has yielded very, very limited results. Remember when [former minor league pitching coordinator] Kyle Boddy was going to lead a total overhaul of how the Reds developed pitchers?

“Is Nick Krall the right person to run the team’s baseball operations? I don’t know. But if he and his staff are allowed to carry forth a plan without ownership interference and eventually with more financial support, then, yes, the Reds can execute a turnaround. You’re being fair if you lack faith in those things happening.”

Of course, Bob Castellini can’t simply permit Phil to take over his role, as Mike Brown did with his daughter. Phil has shown a talent only for inserting his foot into his mouth alongside his silver spoon. Both should get out of the way.

  1. Build Around Your Young Stars.

On the final day of the 2019 regular season, the Bengals clinched the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, which was used to select Burrow. The following year, they nabbed wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in round one. And just like that, the Bengals had two young pieces to build a franchise around, not to mention receiver Tee Higgins, kicker Evan McPherson, tackle Jonah Williams, and linebackers Germaine Pratt and Logan Wilson, all drafted in recent years.

Burrow, Chase, and company became big-time contributors pretty much from the day they arrived, of course, while even the best baseball prospects take years to develop into major leaguers. But building around young studs can absolutely work for the Reds. “What the Reds are trying to do will require a bunch of things to go right,” says Egger, “but they do have the building block of starting pitchers Hunter Greene, Graham Ashcraft, and Nick Lodolo to build around, which isn’t insignificant. I’ve got to think that lots of MLB franchises starting a rebuild would like to have those three pitchers as their foundation.”

Atlanta provides an instructive example. In recent years, Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos has been steadfast in a commitment to signing his young stars—including Ronald Acuña Jr., Ozzie Albies, Austin Riley, and Spencer Strider—to contracts that bought out their arbitration-eligible years or seasons in which they would have been free agents.

The Reds should look to lock up young players such as catcher Tyler Stephenson, second baseman Jonathan India, and the trio of Greene, Ashcraft, and Lodolo to deals that give the players some financial certainty while providing the team with a nucleus to build around. Then, as the celebrated prospects from the restocked farm system begin to arrive on the big league level, Krall must be prepared to identify those who might fit into that nucleus and lock them up as well.

  1. Modernize Your Roster-Building Philosophy.

Duke Tobin built competitive rosters during the Marvin Lewis era, but there’s been a notable change in organizational philosophy in recent years. “It’s been a little surprising to see the Bengals embrace more modern ways of roster building,” says Egger. “It was interesting last off-season when they steered away from their own free agents, Carl Lawson and William Jackson, and effectively replaced them with players from other teams. They’ve moved on from players who had years left on their deals, which was something they used to never do.”

The Reds were among the very last teams to fully embrace analytics, and in many ways they still lag behind most other MLB franchises. They also appear to be rolling back the radical player development efforts instituted under Williams. He’s never spoken publicly about the reasons for his departure, but shortly after he left Cincinnati’s minor league pitching (Boddy) and hitting coordinators (CJ Gillman) resigned on the same day. Both cited the fact that the Reds were “moving in a different direction in many areas of player development.”

If the Reds intend to build from within, it’s imperative that they embrace cutting-edge player development and not rely on old-school philosophies of the past. They should be aggressive in the international market, and Krall should also be ruthless in moving on from players who aren’t performing, regardless of how much they’re being paid. The release of Moustakas over the winter, despite being owed $22 million, was a refreshing decision. There’s no room for sentimentality in professional sports. Except where Joey Votto is concerned, of course.

  1. Never Stop Trying To Improve On The Margins.

One of the most impressive things about the Bengals’ resurgence is how aggressively they’ve addressed weaknesses on the field. In March 2022, Tobin worked overtime to improve the struggling offensive line, but you can see similar efforts all over the field. Most of the Bengals’ roster was acquired in the last three years.

Here, the Bengals have a bit of an advantage, in that they were able to exploit the fact that they have a franchise quarterback on a rookie contract, providing additional cap space to improve the team. But the Castellinis have consistently stumbled with putting the finishing touches on a competitive roster. Think back to 2020 when, in response to a pandemic-related dip in revenue, ownership panicked and actually downgraded the roster to save money. If they’d been aggressive in improving the team, the Reds almost certainly would have made the playoffs in 2021.

We can also look back to the 2010 and 2012 division champion Reds, both good teams with clear flaws. Instead of addressing those flaws, the Reds largely decided just to run it back with the same players or take flyers on those they could get on the cheap. It didn’t end well either time.

You can’t build a roster on prospects alone. At some point, the Castellinis will need to open up the checkbook again and be intentional about filling roster holes.

  1. Rebuild The Relationship With Your Fans.

Elizabeth Blackburn, Mike Brown’s granddaughter (and daughter of Katie and Troy), has been a revelation as the Bengals’ director of strategy and engagement. She was instrumental in finally bringing a Ring of Honor to the stadium and is laser-focused on improving fan engagement.

It doesn’t stop there. Think about Zac Taylor popping into local bars and handing out game balls after playoff victories. These are the things that help bond a fan base with the local team.

In general, the Reds have done a tremendous job of promoting their glorious past, but the club is on a two-year streak that can only be characterized as a public relations disaster. You already know about the ongoing Phil Castellini fiasco, but every time Krall speaks he says something else that frustrates a dwindling fan base.

There is a way to sell the Reds’ current plan, but it will require a coordinated PR strategy. Phil should never be seen in public again. Krall must stop talking publicly, and the Reds need someone who can clearly communicate the team’s strategy and highlight their successes. (I’m available to fill that position, by the way.) The Reds also need to be honest with fans about their past failures, admit that they haven’t lived up to their promises, and commit to listening to feedback.

Making the case for the Reds shouldn’t be particularly difficult. Thanks to trades engineered by Krall, Cincinnati’s minor league system is stacked with prospects. If the team plays things right, this could be a competitive team sooner rather than later, and winning ultimately cures everything. As we’ve seen from the Bengals, victories combined with a real focus on the fan experience can bring dynamite results.

“I’ve lived in Cincinnati my whole life,” says WLW’s Elyse. “This has always been a baseball town. I mean, Opening Day is a holiday! But now, for Bengals home games, you can’t even walk The Banks because of how crowded it is. Every home game feels like a playoff game, and every bar in Cincinnati is decorated in orange and black stripes. I’ve been going to Bengals games for years with my dad, and I’ve never seen anything like this. It all comes down to winning. Cincinnati fans are fans of winning.”

The Castellinis don’t have to be Cincinnati’s sports villains. Redemption is possible. Just ask Mike Brown.

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