Bengals' ring of honor part of offseason push to spark fan base

CINCINNATI -- The Cincinnati Bengals announced on Thursday a project that answered the cries of a long-suffering fan base.

This year, the Bengals will unveil a ring of honor to celebrate the former greats in franchise history, joining a majority of NFL teams which have a similar component. Team founder Paul Brown and former offensive tackle Anthony Muñoz, the Bengals’ lone player representative in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, were announced as two of the four members of the inaugural ring of honor class, which will be unveiled at halftime of a game this season.

It’s an overdue endeavor for former players. Perhaps more importantly, however, it’s an appeasement of a fan base that has wanted a ring of honor for years and become increasingly frustrated with their local NFL franchise.

Elizabeth Blackburn, the Bengals’ strategy and engagement director and granddaughter of team president Mike Brown, said the team is exploring new ways to engage with fans who have a “pent-up demand” for a connection with their club.

“I personally feel the desire from the fans,” Blackburn said during a virtual news conference on Thursday. “I want to tap into that and give the fans the engagement that they want.”

Blackburn, who has a background in private equity, has made the rounds with local media outlets throughout the offseason to promote the newfound mission to improve engagement. It’s atypical for a front office that, before Thursday, has not held a news conference since July 2019.

Even the pandemic-riddled 2020 season didn’t buck some of the trends that existed before COVID-19. In 2019, Cincinnati’s attendance was 72% of its stadium capacity, the lowest in the NFL. It mirrored the on-field product. The Bengals finished with the NFL’s worst record that season.

It’s likely no coincidence the team’s longest-tenured and deep-pocketed fans will play a key role in the new ring of honor.

Season-ticket holders and suite owners will get a team-issued ballot to vote for the other two members of the inaugural four-person class. Blackburn said the longer someone has held season tickets, the greater their vote will be multiplied.

“I hope that that shows our season-ticket holders and suite holders how much we genuinely value and appreciate your loyalty to us,” said Blackburn, who is the daughter of team vice presidents Katie and Troy Blackburn.

The ring of honor is the first of at least one major offseason unveiling. Cincinnati will also have new uniforms ahead of the 2021 season, which has been teased for months. Cincinnati has also worked to beef up the quantity and quality of in-house content it produces, an aspect Blackburn referenced when discussing some of the hires made since the start of 2020.

Fans in Cincinnati have had little success to cheer about recently. The Bengals haven’t reached the postseason since 2015 and are still without a playoff win since 1991, back when the team played at a now-demolished Riverfront Stadium.

Muñoz, a 1998 Hall of Fame inductee, said he often has to deliver history lessons in classrooms around Cincinnati when asked if he wishes he could have played at Paul Brown Stadium, which debuted in 2000. During Muñoz’s 13-year career that featured two Super Bowl appearances, he tells kids what the atmosphere was like at Riverfront during those deep postseason runs in the ‘80s.

The legend who still lives in the Cincinnati area said he can’t wait to see a stadium filled with home fans and tailgating lots that make it hard to get inside the building. Muñoz hopes the changes throughout the franchise and a winning team led by quarterback Joe Burrow can make that vision a reality.

“That is something that I’d love to see here,” Muñoz said Thursday. “And hopefully with all the player engagement and what’s going on here, that will spark the excitement and get people back in the stadium. Of course, we know, you have to win games.”