How Cincinnati Became a Football Town

The Bengals' roaring success this year, combined with the Reds' decline to a 50-year low, has raised the question as to whether Cincinnati is a football town or a baseball town. As such, the qu

Jerry Dowling

The Bengals' roaring success this year, combined with the Reds' decline to a 50-year low, has raised the question as to whether Cincinnati is a football town or a baseball town.

As such, the question is slightly confused. It's not simply a false dichotomy, meaning the question leaves out some of the alternatives. A town could also be both, or it could be neither.

In fact, though, no town is neither, because every town is a football town. Cincinnati is a football town, Des Moines is a football town, Florence is a football town and every town in America larger, smaller and in between is a football town.

Somewhere out on the great information superhighway, it's noted that baseball still might be America's pastime but football is America's passion. No other sport has an event like the Super Bowl, which draws 85 million viewers in a bad year. Baseball needs four World Series games to match that. No other American sport fills 100,000-seat stadiums, and no sport except football draws 10,000 cash customers to regular season high school games on a frequent basis.

Cincinnatians were happy and excited when the Reds won the 1990 World Series. But the Bengals about doubled that buzz two years earlier when they went to the Super Bowl.

The response would be exactly proportionate today, and it would be the same in every other big league town with the possible exception of St. Louis. Every town loves winners, but they don't love their winners the same.

Even a guy who prefers baseball must concede that football is easier to follow, requires a smaller time investment to stay reasonably informed and packs more action into every play. The big games come along at an opportune time, when the air turns cold and any good news becomes great news.

It's true that the forced departure of Bob Huggins has angered University of Cincinnati basketball fans, but it's also been quite some time since every UC basketball game was a burning hot ticket. The Bengals have something to do with taking wind from those sails, going to Christmas the last couple years with a chance for the playoffs. The Bengals are the dominant force because they are the NFL team. Winning just makes them more dominant. Right now, of course, it's frenzy.

On Dec. 11, the Bengals turned up a massively letdown performance coming off their huge victory in Pittsburgh and still beat a motivated rival. They needed a last-second field goal for a 23-20 win against the Cleveland Browns at Paul Brown Stadium, but it happened and now the Bengals are one win away from clinching the AFC North.

The Bengals are 10-3, their most wins since the 1988 Super Bowl team. Since that time, the Bengals have endured three different stretches during which it took them three years to win 11 games. Sunday, the Bengals will try for their 11th win of this season at Detroit, home of the messy 4-9 Lions.

One win clinches the division championship. Think the Bengals will be motivated?

We're seeing today an unprecedented contrast in the fortunes of the Reds and Bengals, which motivates the misstated question of whether Cincinnati is a baseball town or a football town. In 2005, for the first time in history, the Reds and Bengals will both play a full season, uninterrupted by labor action, in which the Reds finished with a losing record and the Bengals finish with a winning record.

It's come to us gradually. Change a play here or there, and it could have happened in the past two years, both of which ended 8-8. But it's a huge shift in the athletic order for the Bengals to be this good while the Reds are so poor.

It doesn't mean, though, that Cincinnati isn't a baseball town. Older Cincinnatians haven't suddenly started hating the game, even though they might hate Major League Baseball and despise five consecutive years of losing by the Reds.

But there's danger. One wonders about kids. What's their motivation? The last generation had its Big Red Machine following years of competitive clubs and deep traditions. Even 15 years ago, it would be hard to imagine a tighter bond between a town and its club than Cincinnati and its Reds.

The past 30 years of trend, though, has ripped that bond, beginning with free agency in the late 1970s. The Reds started trading stars or letting them go elsewhere for more money, and the old stadium sat dead on the riverfront for a couple years before Pete Rose returned in 1984 and Marge Schott came along with sufficient resources for the time. But that revival was a blip on the screen.

Rose, an enormous hero to older generations, has been thoroughly discredited. Baseball exiled Schott, sold out Cincinnati's treasured Opening Day and turned off thousands of local fans with the 1994 players' strike. The fans never warmed up to Reds' good teams in 1994, 1995 and 1999.

Now the Reds have lost for five straight seasons. Last week, they traded one of their most popular players, first baseman Sean Casey. Too much money.

OK, the trade relieved a surplus in the outfield because Adam Dunn now can take first base. It added a left-handed pitcher, Dave Williams, who comes from the Pittsburgh Pirates with some regard, and loosened money for other purposes. The trade makes good baseball sense.

But it's not the kind of news that sets off reveries of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training while the Bengals are making a bid for the Super Bowl. And it won't have that effect in Pittsburgh, even though the deal is magic for the Pirates, bringing back a hometown star.

Pittsburgh is the capital of western Pennsylvania football country, after all, and no one has ever questioned that the Steelers own the town, even as they fight for a playoff berth. Pittsburgh, like every other town, is a football town.

Cincinnati is a baseball town in a dark age. One hopes it returns. In the meantime, Who Dey!

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