So much goes on at sporting events besides the game itself. Just ask Tim O’Connell, vice president of ballpark operations for the Cincinnati Reds. Wedding proposals are made, business deals struck, relations between nations soothed and restored.
In the early 1980s, O’Connell hosted then Vice President George H. W. Bush and the Crown Prince of Kuwait for a Reds game. In those same years, the governors of all 50 states took in a game together while in town for their annual meeting. Between his early years with the Reds and his return to the ball club two years ago, O’Connell spent 18 years as the assistant athletic director for the University of Dayton, which meant he was running the show when President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron stopped by for a Division I Men’s Basketball Championship First Four at the University of Dayton Arena.
“President Obama was walking up the ramp and the Secret Service representative tells me that the President wanted to take a picture with me,” O’Connell remembers. “I said, ‘Mr. President, you don’t need to do that.’ And he said, ‘Your commander-in-chief wants to take a picture with you.’ So I said, ‘Okay, I guess I’m taking the picture.’”
Visits from presidents and prime ministers aside, O’Connell says that the Reds’ focus has always been on the visitor experience—and not just a segment of fans, but “all of the 2 million-plus people we put through our gates every year. Ballparks are not just about baseball, they are a destination.”
The fine art of making a ballpark a destination—for mothers, children, teens, businessmen, seniors, and everyone else who wants to come—is something O’Connell learned when he was hired by the Reds’ stadium operations crew in 1983. After three years as a jack-of-all-trades for the club, he was promoted to director of stadium operations “at the ripe old age of 25.”
O’Connell’s early Reds years were focused entirely on operations and event management. In addition to the regular stream of VIP guests, the stadium hosted the 1988 MLB All-Star Game and the 1990 MLB Postseason, in which the Reds won the World Series. However, an initiation into construction management would not come until the second chapter of O’Connell’s career in the sports industry.
After the 1994 strike season, he moved over to the University of Dayton, where he embarked on several renovation and new construction projects, including a 32,000-square-foot, $5 million addition to the university’s main arena. Managing $40 million in improvements during his tenure at the university, O’Connell says there was a lot of on-the-job learning, but that he made up for his lack of training with a mantra of “on time, on budget, and exceeding everyone’s expectations
. . . which put me in good graces.”
The Dayton experience proved to be crucial since O’Connell returned to the Reds in 2014. Unlike in his previous stint with the club, his leadership is heavily involved in improvements for its new stadium, the Great American Ball Park, which opened in 2003.
“Under the leadership of our ownership (the Castellini Family), we have been continuously making the ballpark a more attractive destination for our fans,” O’Connell says. “Subsequently, we have been basically non-stop in terms of projects.”
The biggest difference between managing the construction portfolio for a university athletics footprint versus a professional sports team, O’Connell says, is aggressive timetables. He adds that “at the university, the process was slower, because we usually had time in our corner, whereas now, we commonly only have three months to construct (January through March) to be ready for opening day.”
This off-season, the Reds have been busy renovating an area at the top of the stadium in right field to serve as a headquarters for one of the team’s sponsors. O’Connell says the $2.9 million project includes taking out some of the existing seating and installing a “drink rail system,” converting a concession stand into “more of a lounge feeling,” and developing the roof of the same concession stand into an informal space for people to socialize while enjoying the game and the Cincinnati skyline.
“It’s been a very active off-season for us,” O’Connell says. “We really cannot have projects going on during the season for safety and aesthetic reasons—but there is also an ROI attached to all of these, so we have to start generating revenue.”
As an active member of the International Association of Venue Managers, the Stadium Managers Association, and a collective of the league’s 30 stadium managers, who meet formally to talk shop each year, O’Connell keeps his finger on the pulse of the industry. Although conventional amenities, such as concession and children’s areas, continue to be a focus, he says a variety of changes are in store for major league ballparks and other professional sports arenas. Paperless tickets, concessions without lines, increased automation of operations, and a plethora of Internet-based enhancements to visitor experience top the list of emerging trends.
Sustainability and security are also focal points for the organization. O’Connell says the Reds are contemplating a move to LED technology for stadium lighting. The club also installed walk-through metal detectors at stadium gates in the past year. Additionally, there’s now a plan for how to respond when drones are spotted over the stadium, an increasingly common occurrence.
“Dealing with drones is a learning curve that everyone is going through right now,” O’Connell says. “It’s very concerning to us for security and game-interruption issues.”
From security to fan engagement, the game of stadium management is taking off in new directions, with new technology guiding the way to enhance this most traditional of American pastimes. Still, with more than 30 years under his belt coaching the team that works behind the scenes, O’Connell says some things remain constant.
“When it’s all said and done, it’s the people that buy tickets that are our backbone,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure that their experience here is positive.”
That will always be true, but achieving that goal also takes a more multidimensional approach than ever before.
NEW THEMED BARS NOW OPEN AT THE GREAT AMERICAN BALL PARK
Just in time to host the 2015 MLB All-Star Game, the Cincinnati Reds completed renovations on two destinations, giving fans a new way to take in the game.
Size: 2,500 sq. ft.
Information: This first-base side attraction mimics the early 20th century feel of Wielert’s Café in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine, where the political influencers of the time, “Boss” George B. Cox and August “Garry” Hermann were regulars. Garry went on to be the first commissioner of baseball.
Contractor: HGC, Cincinnati, Ohio
Architect: MSA, Cincinnati, Ohio
Size: 8,600 sq.ft.
Information: A 24’ x 8’ glass wall opens the room to the sights and smells of the ballpark as baseball is being played, while customers can enjoy oversized “throne” ticketed seats with a bar-length video wall (including video columns), and an entire new look that brings new life to this right-field destination.
Contractor: HGC, Cincinnati, Ohio
Architect: MSA, Cincinnati, Ohio