CINCINNATI -- Redsfest, to fans, is a chance to mingle with the players, get a few autographs, play some games, shop the memorabilia. But it is also a shining example of how the Castellinis -- Reds CEO Bob and his son Phil -- get it right with the fans and do right by the community.
The beneficiary of Redsfest is the Reds Community Fund.
Charley Frank, executive director of the fund, had a brainstorming session a couple of years ago. Fund members figured if the Reds charged $5 or $10 for one of Joey Votto's or Brandon Phillips' autograph sessions, they could raise some serious money. He took the idea to Bob and Phil Castellini.
"There are formulas out there that say if you have a very nominal charge for a handful of the stars' signing sessions -- and still have most open to the public -- you can make five figures in revenue," Frank said. "Bob and Phil have opted not to do that. They don't want to go down that road. They want this be something that's easy and affordable."
So, for that reason, all the sessions at Redsfest remain free.
Ticket prices remain reasonable, too. This year's fest is Friday and Saturday at Duke Energy Convention Center. It's $25 for adult two-day passes; $17 for kids (12-and-under) two-day passes; $17 for adult one-day passes, and $7 for kids one-day passes.
Two-day passes include two tickets to the April 5 game with Philadelphia; one-day passes get one ticket to the April 5 game.
The Castellinis are all for raising money for the Community Fund, but they prefer other means than making Redsfest an over-priced autograph show.
Redsfest does, however, raise a large part of the Community Fund's $2 million annual budget.
"It is the biggest event we're part of on an annual basis in terms of scope, expense, revenue," Frank said. "But I think most importantly for us, it's really the exposure and connection. It's an expensive event to put on.
"There is no other local event of this magnitude. No other wintertime team fan festival goes to the All-Star level that this does. And, yet, this is as affordable as any ticket out there.
"They made this about us from Day 1," Frank said. "They highlight our programs."
The Community Fund has been around since 2001. It sponsored a Redlegs Run in 2002. The Rookie Success League began in 2003, and 120 kids went through it. Frank was hired in 2004 as the first full-time employee.
"By '05, we were about a $450,000 entity," Frank said. "We had established an endowment."
Then the Castellinis took over in 2006. Frank knew immediately that things were about to change.
"Bob said, 'You don't need an endowment,' " Frank said. " 'Spend what you raise. You don't need to put money away. We're not saving the arts. We're helping kids play ball. Be responsible but spend what you earn.' "
The Castellinis' motive with the Community Fund was altruistic, of course, but it was also part of the overall business plan.
"One of the things we had learned in our due-diligence phase of buying the team is that the marketing effort had been condensed down to the 275 loop," said Phil Castellini, the club's COO. "Pretty standard stuff; newspaper ads and whatnot. The radio network had shrunk down to 46 stations from over 100. We knew we had to grow the market. It's a regional team, right? You can't be marketing a regional team to just the city of Cincinnati.
"The game plan was to get that marketing out to a 150-mile radius, what we call Reds Country. That included work in the community -- Knothole and girls softball. It was a multi-phase strategy. Community, marketing, radio network."
The radio network is up to 105 stations. The Community Fund has renovated fields throughout that 150-mile radius.
"It's helped reconnect the team to Reds Country," Castellini said.
It helped the Community Fund grow as well.
Frank has seven others on the staff now and a budget of $2 million. Four hundred fields have been renovated. The Reds sponsor 700 youth teams a year, up from nine when Castellini took over.
"They did that by culturally putting their money where their month was," Frank said. "They did everything that Bob promised in January of '06 and then some."
Castellini made the Community Fund a priority throughout the organization. One example: Players were donating $10,000 to $20,000 a year to the fund when the Castellinis took over. The Community Fund gets $250,000 out of the clubhouse some years.
Players going back to David Weathers and Mike Lincoln have funded fields named for them. Jay Bruce did it twice.
"He was as good as we've ever had," Frank said. One half of one percent of Joey Votto's annual salary goes to the Community Fund.
All of the Central Division teams came to Cincinnati for a meeting in 2014 to see the Urban Youth Academy, which offers year-round baseball and softball clinics, after it opened.
"The teams were just as impressed, if not more impressed, by how integrated the Community Fund is," Frank said. "Ownership decided from Day 1 that the Reds Hall of Fame Museum and Reds Community Fund is part of the fabric of the Reds."
Sales people don't just seek sponsorship dollars, they sell the Community Fund events. That's allowed the Community Fund to extend all of its programs.
"We reach, conservatively, 45,000 kids a year through our Urban Academy," Frank said, "our Reds Rookie Success League program, our RBI program, our match program and our field-renovation efforts."
Field renovation picked up under the Castellinis as well. Bob Castellini challenged the limited partners in the club and said he would match whatever they donated to the Community Fund. That raised $450,000 for field renovation.
"We planned on doing 12 fields that year," Frank said. "Because of the money Bob and the other owners raised, we ended up doing 60 fields that year."
The pace of renovation is slowing down, though.
"Instead of finding 50 or 75 fields a year, now we try to spend that budget to make sure we revisit each field on a two- to three-year cycle," Frank said. "Then we find probably five to 10 projects to do a year, which includes one big jewel project each year. One of the most significant things we do on an annual basis is what we call a community makeover.
"We bring 400 volunteers and months of planning to a neighborhood. We typically do a couple of ball fields, recreation center for kids and outdoor component."
Last summer, the Community Fund went to Lower Price Hill and redid an old Boys & Girls Club into the Joe Williams Family Center, built an L-shaped garden and rebuilt the fields at Oyler Park. Joe Williams, chairman of the Reds, made a donation to fund the project.
The biggest jewel project of all for the Community Fund was building the $7 million Urban Youth Academy in Bond Hill.
"It's transformed us," Frank said. "We were operating a fall and winter academy at the old CAPE High School in Winton Terrace for years. This is Year 8 for us as far as offering fall and winter programs."
The academy is on par with the Reds' spring-training facility in Arizona. Since its opening in 2014, the Urban Academy gets 1,000 kids through the turnstiles in fall and winter -- all at no charge. The Urban Academy allowed the Reds to land the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) World Series.
"In my opinion, this is the standard bearer," said David James, Major League Baseball vice president of youth operations. "This is an absolutely phenomenal facility. When the teams came and saw it, it was interesting to see the reactions. A lot of the league directors who are here, you could see their eyes light up. They're making notes because they're going back to their home community and see what they can do to get one built in their hometown."
It's not just a baseball academy.
"It's strength and conditioning, speed and agility," Frank said. "We also have a partnership with the University of Cincinnati, so four days a week, we provide free tutoring. Any kid, any class, any team that is a partner of ours can use these resources free of charge."
Part of the money from each Redsfest ticket helps with that.
Again, Frank credits the Castellinis for allowing the Community Fund to grow Redsfest. It drew 20,118 fans last year.
"We couldn't dream of any of this if we were a stand-alone nonprofit," Frank said. "They don't have to do a fraction of this and it would still be a good community event. They've made this about telling the story of the Community Fund."