Bonkowski the man behind Reds promotions
The Reds Fan Zone. Fireworks Fridays. The mascots. Redsfest and the Reds Caravan. How does it all happen?
Zach Bonkowski, the Reds' director of promotional events, and his staff are behind the special events at Great American Ball Park.
"Our department is responsible for all the events that the Reds put on, so that's 81 home games a year plus our offseason events," he said.
Bonkowski reeled off a list of those offseason events: Redsfest, the Reds Winter Caravan, the Reds Hall of Fame induction, the Civil Rights Game (which Cincinnati has hosted twice on behalf of MLB) and the All-Star Game the Reds hope to bring to the Queen City one day soon.
"That means [we're in charge of] everything you see taking place in the Fan Zone before the game. [Plus] the flyovers, the national anthem singers ... we're assisting during the game with our entertainment department to make sure the fan experience is fun. And we're picking the participants for the contests in between innings. We might have a postgame concert, or Fireworks Fridays. I work with Rozzi's Famous Fireworks to create the soundtrack for those fireworks. Every game's an event, so it's a lot of fun," Bonkowski said.
He also helps makes sure the players' community engagements -- through the Reds organization or the Reds Community Fund -- are properly executed.
Bonkowski, who grew up playing baseball in Harrison, Ohio, said a job in sports is something he'd long coveted as a kid.
"I just had a passion for sports. When I went to college, I looked for a degree that would keep me involved in sports, because that was my passion. I decided I wanted to be involved in this kind of world, and the dominoes just kind of fell into place to have a job with the Reds, my hometown team. My family's been season-ticket holders since I was six years old," he said.
Bonkowski joined the Reds' staff as a seasonal intern at Cinergy Field. After a stint in Washington, D.C., working for a Minor League team, he moved home to Cincinnati when the Reds came calling. They were expanding their staff as they prepared to move to Great American Ball Park: Would Bonkowski like to interview for a job?
That was in November 2002, and Bonkowski's been with the team ever since.
"It's a credit to the organization that everyone here is really family," Bonkowski was quick to note.
But no job is perfect, right?
"In baseball, by nature of the game, you're going to work a lot of weekends and nights. You work your normal 9-to-5 duties, but also then adding on weekends and night games," Bonkowski said.
But he doesn't mind -- the experiences and opportunities he's afforded as a Reds staff member more than make up for it.
"The work that we do and the people we work with is very fulfilling," Bonkowski said, adding that he's been to five All-Star Games and makes annual trips to Spring Training with the club.
While Bonkowski's career with the Reds has been very successful, he credits Redsfest as his true tour de force. The wildly popular fan festival is the organization's "crown jewel," he said.
"People can't believe that our busiest month is November. Getting prepared for [Redsfest] is a lot of work, but you get a lot of fulfillment when you see all the people come -- especially the kids and all of the excitement and fun they have."
Another of Bonkowski's projects are the famed Reds mascots. The team just expanded to four with the recent revival of the classic Mr. Red.
"There's a number of teams that do mascot races, but those mascots are only involved in the race itself," Bonkowski said. "We actually have four mascots here at the ballpark every day to entertain fans. It is part of our initiative to be as fan-friendly as we can.
"Everybody wants to take a photo with the mascot during the game, and it is really hard when you have one mascot and 30,000 fans. We try to lessen the blow a little bit by having four mascots and 30,000 fans. And I think, if you give us a few years, there may even be another one that comes along," he hinted.
Bonkowski credits the Reds Heads Kids Club as being yet another aspect that makes the Reds organization unique.
"We are 10,000 Kids Club members strong, and hopefully growing. It really shows a great deal how involved we are in the city of Cincinnati. The Kids Club gives [kids] the opportunity to get some Reds gear and be a member of an official club for the Reds and become a diehard Reds fan at such a young age, and carry that with them wherever they go," Bonkowski said.
Bonkowski also mentioned a possible sister club for the Reds Heads, either a club that can be joined before or after Reds Heads membership.
Although the Reds think up most of their promotional ideas themselves, they do get a bit of help.
"Every two years, MLB organizes a four-day-long business conference among all of the teams where we go and share best practices and ideas," Bonkowski said. "You get to go and hear from other teams and learn about trends. It is really a neat experience, because the best ideas are really borrowed ideas."
Still, the Reds often put their own twist on other teams' promotions.
"We don't want to do it necessarily the way other teams do it," Bonkowski said. "We want to give our fans something unique."
Bonkowski and his staff have also made a habit of scouring other teams' websites for other promotional prospects -- whether it be baseball teams or other sports.
"Some of the best ideas are born out of brainstorming sessions with our events, creative services, advertising, marketing [and the] scoreboard and entertainment [departments]," Bonkowski said. The Reds also depend on fan feedback to shape their future decisions.
In fact, Bonkowski said his own personal crowning achievement was based on a fan suggestion.
"A fan emailed me in 2003 and asked me, 'Why can't you get [an Ohio] license plate with a Reds logo on it? You can get a license plate with a college logo on it, but you can't get a Reds logo,'" Bonkowski said. "It got us thinking here at the Reds, and we found out there were laws in place that didn't allow for professional sports teams to place their logos on license plates. That idea from that fan led me on an 18-month journey to working with legislators here in Ohio to create a law where you can get a license plate with your team on it. The proceeds now benefit our Reds Community Fund."
Reds fans will fondly recall last season's Dusty Baker bobblehead, which featured a toothpick holder. The man responsible for the chewing stick container? None other than Zach Bonkowski.
Bonkowski also suggested that the plaque on this year's Jay Bruce bobblehead read "BRUUUUUCE!" instead of simply "Jay Bruce."
Bonkowski hopes to help host the ultimate event one day in Cincinnati: The All-Star Game.
"We look forward to the challenge [of hosting the All-Star Game], whenever it may happen, here in Cincinnati. We think we can represent the city of Cincinnati the way it should be represented on such a national stage," Bonkowski said.
The biggest challenge Bonkowski faces on the job might be its ever-changing nature. There's always a new and exciting prospective promotion on the horizon. For example, this season, Bonkowski is working on such ideas as the soundtracks for the 11 Fireworks Fridays that Great American Ball Park will host. In fact, Bonkowski said that the soundtrack and theme of each show will vary. He's also putting the finishing touches on a bigger and better Opening Night festival, and working in conjunction with the Banks development downtown to forge a partnership between the two.
"It really opens up so many different avenues to really make ballgames not just an experience from the point you set foot on ballpark property, but as you get within the radius of the ballpark. Because of the Banks, we can now look at that whole experience that much better," Bonkowski said of the development.
And with the revival of the throwback Mr. Red mascot for the 2012 season, Bonkowski sees a live mascot race at the ballpark as a real possibility.
"Now we have all of the components that need to be in place for a live mascot race here at the ballpark," Bonkowski said.
Bonkowski even brought up the chance of a partnership with a local corn maze to feature a Reds theme in this fall's harvest.
Bonkowski's job always has him looking to the future; for him, there's always another exciting project on the horizon. Whether it be the annual growth of Redsfest, the possible addition of a fourth bus to the Reds Winter Caravan, or the potential of a Reds Mascot No. 5. No matter what the task, Bonkowski is sure to make it happen.
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.