Here we go again, as the Reds just finished stumbling and bumbling through a horrific homestand, losing six of seven games. With the Brewers wrapping up a win to close out the series at GABP last Sunday, my thoughts wandered, as they often do, to the one question that every Cincinnati sports fan has looked in a mirror and asked: Why do I keep doing this to myself?
In the past eight years, the Reds have posted precisely one winning record, that uber-thrilling (perhaps you detect a note of sarcasm here) pandemic-shortened 31–29 season a year ago. During that span, they’ve posted a combined record of 469 wins and 585 losses. You know the rest of the story: Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff series since 1995, hasn’t won a championship since 1990, and yadda, yadda, yadda. I’ve written often about what I call the “lost generation” of Reds fans who have little to no memory of the home team being good at baseball.
Now, I’m not giving up on the 2021 version of the club, by any stretch of the imagination. As we’ve said all along, this team is flawed, but they do have talent and there are still 117 games left to play in this season. I do wonder why the casual fan would pay attention to this franchise, though. And why do the hardcore fans—including yours truly—continue to love the Cincinnati Reds when it’s obvious the current ownership group does not care about the fan base whatsoever?
Recently, I read a passage from journalist Julie Welch that seems to sum up my current feelings about the relationship between this franchise and its fans:
“Psychologists maintain that what happens in the brain when we are in love has similarities with mental illness, and that being in love is a form of temporary insanity characterized by intense emotions, anxiety, and affection. When these intense emotions are reciprocated, people feel elated and fulfilled. Unreciprocated love leads to feelings of despondency and despair.”
Welch is talking about love in the context of British football, or what we’d call soccer. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Believe it or not, events in the soccer world in recent weeks can provide insight into why Reds owners over the last three decades have simply refused to do what it takes to put a consistently good product on the field.
A few weeks ago, 12 of the biggest and richest soccer clubs across Europe announced that they were forming something called the Super League. This is a huge oversimplification, but it essentially was to be a closed tournament where those clubs would automatically qualify every year regardless of how good or bad they actually were.
Fans revolted. A protest of Manchester United’s ownership got so rowdy that fans occupied the field and caused a game to be canceled. (Can you imagine this happening in Cincinnati?) The protests worked. At this point, the Super League concept appears to have withered on the vine, as most of the clubs clumsily withdrew and apologized, largely because of outcry from supporters.
Why is this relevant to the Reds? The entire Super League concept was an attempt by the richest owners of European soccer clubs—a number of whom are Americans—to create a closed league where they’d be guaranteed profits. What does that sound like? Yep, just like American pro sports.
Bob Castellini and Reds ownership in previous years have had little incentive to improve the team. They know they’re going to make money whether they win or lose, so why would there be an urgency to win? And if we’ve learned anything over the last few years, it’s that Castellini has demonstrated little urgency to see the Reds win.
In most pro soccer leagues around the world, team owners are forced to act with urgency. If you don’t try to win, you get relegated to the next lower league. Here’s what that means, since it’s a foreign concept (literally) to most American sports fans: Imagine if the three worst teams in MLB each season got demoted to Triple-A for the following year, while the three best Triple-A teams were promoted to the big leagues. That’s how things work in these soccer leagues. Teams have to try to win, or else.
So you see why those European club owners wanted to guarantee a profit, just like franchises in America? If the Reds don’t try to win, they still make money hand over fist. There’s no chance of the Reds dropping down to the minor leagues, with all the loss of revenue that would entail. They remain a big league franchise, with all the television revenue, marketing push, ESPN highlights, etc. No wonder these billionaires over in Europe wanted a more “American-style” competition. They’re not dumb.
Eight years ago, when the Reds last had a winning record in a full season, the franchise was valued at $546 million. The most recent valuation of the franchise by Forbes.com says that the Reds are now worth $1.085 billion. The franchise’s value nearly doubled, even though the Reds have been a complete mess in those years!
Pep Guardiola, manager of Manchester City, which won England’s Premier League championship in the season just concluded, perhaps put it best: “Sport is not a sport when the relationship between effort and reward does not exist. It is not a sport if success is guaranteed or if it doesn’t matter when you lose.” I couldn’t agree more. But that’s exactly how Castellini and the rest of the MLB ownership mafia wants it—as does every other North American sports league, including Major League Soccer.
Another illuminating thing about the Super League fiasco was that the billionaire team owners were forced to respond to their fans’ concerns. The backlash to the Super League was largely fan-led. Each team has a “Supporters Trust,” and you’d be surprised how much their concerns are considered by club ownership. For example, in the wake of the recent controversy, Tottenham Hotspur (one of the Super League 12) agreed to meet with the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters Trust in hopes of smoothing over relations with the fans. Later, ownership announced that it would add a fan representative to the Executive Board that runs the club.
Can you imagine Reds ownership listening to fan concerns in good faith and taking them seriously? No, because there is no incentive for them to care about the fans and their concerns. Castellini can just toss us another bobblehead game or two and laugh all the way to the bank as his billion-dollar investment steadily increases in value, no matter how many games the Reds lose.
Castellini and his management team are good at paying lip service to the fans, and, sure, the gameday experience at GABP has steadily gotten better over the years. It’s a fun park to take in a game. Hey, I love RedZilla as much as the next guy. But there’s one area where the experience hasn’t improved, at least on a consistent basis: the product on the field. And isn’t that what fans ultimately want—a winning team to bring us together as a community and as a fan base? How many times have you watched fans in other cities celebrating, wishing that could be you someday?
That’s just not going to happen as long as the Reds have an owner who couldn’t care less about what the fans want. Why would he? This is the same Bob Castellini who made a number of promises to Reds fans 15 years ago in an open letter after his ownership group bought the team, and he has utterly failed to deliver on those promises. Do you think anything is going to change now?
Then again, maybe Castellini is smarter than we are. He has a billion dollar asset and knows that you and I, the hardcore fans, are going to keep watching them every night no matter what. We’ll keep loving the Reds, even though they don’t love us back. Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?
Chad Dotson authors Reds coverage at Cincinnati Magazine and hosts a long-running Reds podcast, Redleg Nation Radio. His first book, The Big 50: The Men and Moments That Made the Cincinnati Reds, is available in bookstores and online.