Fay: What can the Reds do to get fans in seats?

CINCINNATI -- The Reds are clearly off to a much better start than anyone expected. Consider:

  • After 31 games last year, they were 13-18 and in fourth place in the National League Central, 11 games behind the Chicago Cubs.
  • After 31 games this year, they were 17-14 and in first place in the NL Central, a half game ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The success has not moved the needle at the box office -- at least so far. The Reds drew 412,545 for their first 20 home dates -- more than 30,000 fewer than after their first 20 home dates last year.

I'm never one to tell people how to spend their money, but you can do the Reds fairly cheap, and this is an entertaining team to watch. The Reds will never try to guilt fans into buying tickets.

The fact is in Cincinnati -- in any sport -- you have to win to draw. The University of Cincinnati's basketball teams are still recovering from some lean years nearly a decade ago. The Reds are dealing with aftereffects of three straight losing seasons.

And winning does not mean as instant boost in the ticket sales, particularly during a wet spring in Cincinnati.

"I think our challenge so far has been way more related to weather," said Phil Castellini, the Reds chief operating officer. "We've had a couple of great walk-ups with the team playing well. We've been much more challenged with the weather, and you still have kids in school for a couple more weeks.

"We expect this to continue to be a very positive thing and for the ballpark to get more and more full as the summer months come on and the guys continue to play like this. It's been a lot of fun. We fully expect to see a great reception relative to single-game sales.

"But the weather has to be with us. You can sit home and watch a broadcast on flat-screen TV."

Monday night was an example of how far things have fallen. The New York Yankees, the marquee franchise in baseball, were in town. Both teams were in first place. Both teams were on a five-game winning streak. Monday was a bluebird sky day.

And the ballpark was a little over half full.

The reality of baseball attendance is this: You need a strong season-ticket base to put up good numbers. The Reds drew 10,586 from the third game of the season. That tells you fewer than 11,000 full season-ticket packages were sold (the attendance number released counts tickets sold, not people in the seats).

The Reds drew 12,327 for a Sunday afternoon game with Milwaukee on April 16.

"We're realistic," Castellini said. "We only sold so many tickets ahead of the season. Season-ticket sales are down, so you need to do that much more in season in single-game (tickets). Weather, opponent, day of week, kids in and out of school, all that stuff is going to be a challenge when you're in a position of low season-ticket base."

Winning factors into that, but it seems to me that it takes a lot longer to build up attendance than it does for it to fall. The nine straight losing seasons had Reds yearly attendance down to 1,747,919 by 2009. Three playoff berths from 2010 to 2013 built it up to 2,492,059.

Having the All-Star Game in 2015 helped keep the number up, but it dropped from 2,419,506 in 2015 to 1,894,085 last year.

It's going to take some sustained winning to get it back up, but continuing to play well this year will would help greatly. The young players the Reds have been taking about for years are in the big leagues and playing well.

"There's promise," Castellini said. "The guys are having fun. It's a fun team to watch. As the season goes on, we're going to get some of these guys on the DL back. We're optimistic."

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