CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor wasn’t trying to score marketing points when he started delivering game balls to local bars and restaurants.
"We give out game balls probably as many as any team in the NFL," Taylor told reporters Jan. 16. "I just thought it was a great opportunity for (fans) to share in the moment."
But the idea is paying dividends for a team that drew lots of critics over 31 years without a playoff win and a stadium deal that left taxpayers on the hook for more than $920 million in expenses since 2000. It’s even helping Bengals fans see owner Mike Brown in a new light.
“It’s actually really, really a good idea because they’re connecting with Bengals fans on their turf,” said Nick Vehr, founder of Vehr Communications downtown. “Everyone likes a winner. With the Bengals winning, Cincinnati is winning. And everyone is excited about that. I think that’s where the magic happens.”
The magic started at Mt. Lookout Tavern, where Taylor personally delivered the first of seven game balls after the Bengals beat the Las Vegas Raiders Jan. 15. Over-the-Rhine’s Pontiac restaurant and Walt’s Hitching Post in Fort Wright, Ky. also received game balls that weekend. Four more balls were delivered after the Bengals beat the Tennessee Titans. They went to the Precinct restaurant in Columbia Tusculum, 16 Lots Brewing Co. in Mason, Delwood in Mt. Lookout and Holy Grail Tavern & Grille at the Banks.
The Bengals are hoping to continue the game-ball tradition in the future, but insist it isn’t part of any public relations strategy.
“Our fans mean so much to the team and this is an authentic way for our players and coaches to say thank you after a big win,” said Emily Parker, Bengals director of communications. “One of the reasons this is successful is there is an element of surprise. As soon as we won against Tennessee, fans were guessing which bars and restaurants we would deliver game balls to and sending the team suggestions.”
Vehr has been a public relations strategist in Cincinnati for more than two decades. He’s built campaigns with broad community impact, including the World Choir Games in 2007 and an early 2000s attempt to make Cincinnati a US Olympic bid city.
“I think it matters a lot to people that their teams are successful in this town and the Bengals are having that success,” Vehr said. “I just haven’t seen it this exciting.”
Vehr credits Taylor for connecting with Bengals fans in a new way that matches the team’s personality.
“It’s not just that they’re good athletes and they’re competitive, but they’re humble and they’re focused and they’re all about winning,” Vehr said. “The bottom line is Cincinnati has fallen in love with the Bengals. Again. And that second time through with love, that’s a great love.”
Holy Grail owner Jim Moehring agrees that Taylor’s game ball idea has energized the Bengal fan base. He ordered a display case to house the 7th ball distributed by the team during its playoff run.
“I didn’t look at it as a public relations strategy,” Moehring said. “I looked at it as a give back to us, specifically the fans.”
Video of punter Kevin Huber’s game-ball delivery was viewed more than 200,000 times on social media, Moehring said. It led to global media exposure on Switzerland’s Sky TV platform and ESPN this week.
“The Bengals are a media darling right now across the country,” Moehring said. “Everybody loves the underdog. And I think this city plays that role really well.”
Moehring also thinks Taylor is helping to change the perception of Mike Brown as a penny-pinching NFL owner who blocks riverfront progress.
“Kenny Anderson told me once people don’t understand Mike Brown’s desire to win and how good of a human being he is. And to see him getting some of that credit now publicly is what I’ve always heard privately. And I think hopefully it validates it,” Moehring said.
Taylor helped to flip the script by giving a game ball to Brown when the Bengals beat the Raiders.
“We just owe so much to that man for being patient with us,” Taylor told reporters afterward. “Personally, if I coached in any other organization in football, I probably wouldn’t be here right now in my third year. That’s the truth.”
Former Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis chimed in with praise of his former boss, too.
"The one thing he cares about is that team winning, and that those players reap the benefits in their careers because he does genuinely care about them and their health, their future and to see them grow as men," Lewis said. "It's been time to get off his back and move on."
Vehr said those comments will improve Brown’s reputation. So would a Super Bowl appearance.
“My guess is it doesn’t make a bit of difference to Mike Brown what other people think,” Vehr said. “Mike’s relationship with this community reflects the experience that the Bengals have had. When the experience was great and they were winning, everybody was fired up. When they weren’t winning, someone’s gotta be blamed. And my guess is Mike says, ‘My shoulders can handle that. Put it on me.’”