Downtown businesses take a hit with Reds' slump

Out-of-towners, FC Cincinnati ease pain for some
Posted at 6:01 AM, Aug 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-16 15:56:43-04

CINCINNATI – Another poor Reds season is hurting the bars, restaurants and retailers Downtown that depend on fan foot traffic for big boosts to their bottom line.

Some are calling it "the worst baseball season" they have seen. But in some cases, new and unexpected revenue streams have softened the blow.

Kitty’s Sports Grill, for one, is in the midst of its first Reds season. Owner Billy Watson and his wife, Betty, opened last September after pouring their life savings into rehabbing the West Third Street building, which has been owned by Billy’s mother since 1983. The restaurant and bar is closer to Paul Brown Stadium than Great American Ball Park, meaning it’s now seeing more traffic decked in orange and black. If the Reds were better, though, he thinks the crowds would reflect it. Right now? It’s next to none.

“The last time the Reds played Chicago, you would have thought I was a Cubs bar,” Watson said. “We didn’t have one Reds fan here (on a recent Monday night). In fact, we’ve gotten far more business from out-of-town fans when the team is home; part of that is because we’re close to the hotels and we’ve gotten good reviews. But as good as Opening Day was, the little bit (of traffic) we did expect at the beginning of the season is now non-existent.”

Instead, they’re relying on residential regulars and business-time lunch crowds. Thursday’s wing night has been key; Kitty’s also serves up burgers, hand-cut chicken fingers, a prime rib and turkey club. There are 12 TVs in house. Watson, who says he’s followed the Reds his whole life, even while living out of state, will continue to show the games.

“Otherwise, you’d almost forget they’re in town,” Watson said. “If the two stadiums were reserved, we’d probably get more (Reds) business, but I know from talking to other people at other restaurants, they’re saying this is probably the worst baseball season they’ve ever worked.”

When it comes to parking at The Banks, there’s also been a noticeable Reds-related decline, said Joe Feldkamp, Riverfront Stadium and Parking director for The Banks Public Partnership, which operates the various surrounding surface lots and garages. But, as he predicted earlier this spring, other events and attractions have lessened the blow.

Baseball revenues are down 15 percent year-to-date, he said, but he’s predicting an overall increase for 2016. That’s attributable in part to larger business customers, like Cincinnati Bell and General Electric Co., which is operating out of the Atrium II building on Fourth Street until its new $90 million office building opens in September. Planned new businesses, like Taste of Belgium, opening end of summer, Pies & Pints,  targeting a late fall opening, and Splitsville Luxury Lanes and Howl at the Moon, which will debut Aug. 26 in the former Toby Keith’s space, also are helping.

“Overall, I think our numbers will be up this year compared to last year, even with the Reds dip, which we thought would be the case,” Feldkamp said. “We’re diversified enough that, when one category falls, another picks up. Overall, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle here.”

The Banks Public Partnership plans to add another 700 spaces in September – new spaces constructed over Lot D will come online in first 10 days of September, he said – to accommodate GE and the additional eateries. Officials are also not dismissing a more recent announcement: the planned relocation of Oktoberfest. Set for Sept. 16-18, the festival is moving to Second and Third streets to accommodate the city’s new streetcar line.

“That will be another little perk for us on the riverfront,” Feldkamp said. “That’s also during a Reds home week, and because the Reds are down we think we’ll be able to pad those numbers a little bit with Oktoberfest that we didn’t have last year.”

At Koch Sporting Goods on West Fourth Street, too, it has been quiet on the Reds front. As the team traded away fan favorites like Todd Frazier, Aroldis Chapman and Jay Bruce, sales have slumped.

“We didn’t have very high expectations at the beginning of the season, but we’re of the mindset that Reds fans will always be Reds fans and buy gear and go to games,” Eric Koch said. “There’s been some truth to that. When they’re in town, traffic (at the store) is steady. Where we see the biggest difference is when they’re not here. People aren’t coming in like they used to when the team is on the road.”

While Koch doesn’t do numeric projections, he said they expect sales to remain on par with 2015 despite the drop-off in demand for baseball jerseys and T’s.

Why? Two words: FC Cincinnati.

Koch has a licensing agreement with the soccer club, which has taken the city by storm. They make team hats, T-shirts, jerseys, golf shifts and more. As the hot-hand, FC has been given an increasingly bigger footprint on the main sales floor.

“Basically, I’d say the FC section of our store has slowly taken over where the Reds used to be,” Koch said. “They’ve certainly taken over the baton as far as summer excitement. The football club business has been amazing; it’s far exceeded our expectations, and I think their expectations as well.”

Koch Sporting Goods is also starting the transition to orange and black as the official kickoff of football nears. They have high expectations for “big” Cincinnati Bengals sales.

“From our standpoint, it would have been nice if the Reds were better and there was more of a buzz, but it’s been a good year for them to be down with the other teams in town doing as well as they are,” Koch said. “If they were going to take a year off from being competitive, this was a good year to do it.”

Follow Liz Engel on Twitter: @_LizEngel.