For the first decade of the 21st century, the Cincinnati Reds were a cautionary tale for Major League Baseball teams in small- and mid-sized...

For the first decade of the 21st century, the Cincinnati Reds were a cautionary tale for Major League Baseball teams in small- and mid-sized markets. Despite acquiring Ken Griffey Jr. — an Ohio native and the best player in baseball — prior to the start of the 2000 season and moving into Great American Ballpark in 2003, the Reds struggled to build a contender around Griffey and to draw fans to the new stadium.

Now, the Reds, like other teams, have figured out the real cash cow is a lucrative local television deal — one that will make it possible to lure and/or keep multiple stars and not just one or two.

The Reds made a pair of big splashes recently in re-signing stars Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips to long-term extensions. Votto agreed on Wednesday, April 4 to a 10-year, $225 million extension with the Reds that will take him through the 2023 season. That’s the fourth-largest contract ever signed by a Major League Baseball player, behind only the $272 million deal Alex Rodriguez signed with the New York Yankees after the 2007 season, the $252 million deal Rodriguez signed with the Texas Rangers after the 2000 season, and the $240 million deal Albert Pujols signed with the Anaheim Angels last winter.

Technically, Votto will be making A-Rod and Pujols-sized money — the deal won’t kick in until 2014 because Votto, the 2010 National League MVP, was already playing under the terms of his current contract, which pays him $26 million through 2013. So he’s guaranteed $251 million over the next 12 seasons.

The Reds weren’t done spending. Just six days later, on Tuesday, April 10, the Reds signed second baseman Brandon Phillips to a six-year extension worth $72.5 million.

The contracts are eye-popping, but the most notable thing about the extensions is how they are structured. Both Votto and Phillips will take “pay cuts” in the first couple seasons of their new deals before making the really big bucks beginning in 2016 — which, not coincidentally, is the final season of the Reds’ current TV deal with Fox Sports Ohio.

According to CBSSports.com, Votto will make $17 million in the last year of his previous deal in 2013 before earning $12 million in 2014, and $14 million in 2015. He’ll make $20 million in 2016, $22 million in 2017, and $25 million each season from 2018 through 2023.

Phillips is due to make $12.5 million this year in the final season of his current contract. According to the Associated Press, he’ll make $10 million in 2013 and will earn an extra million each subsequent season through 2017.

The Reds didn’t say where that money would come from, but expressed plenty of confidence that the team’s revenues will increase just as Votto and Phillips get their raises.

“We’ve done some preliminary projections with payroll and revenue and I think they feel very confident there will be [the money],” Reds general manager Walt Jocketty told reporters at a press conference announcing Votto’s deal.

“We have thought long and hard about this,” owner Bob Castellini said at the same press conference. “What we’re doing will not be to the financial detriment of the makeup of our team in the future.”

According to The Cincinnati Enquirer, the Reds receive just $10 million per year in TV rights, but the Reds should cash in big-time now that local TV rights are skyrocketing for teams in markets of all sizes. The Angels’ new deal with Fox Sports is reportedly worth $2.5 billion over the next 17 years while the San Diego Padres will reportedly receive $1.4 billion over the next 20 years under the terms of their new Fox Sports deal.

A similarly sized deal will provide the Reds the type of financial boom Great American Ballpark didn’t. Like many teams, the Reds built new parks around the turn of the century believing the influx of luxury suites would allow them to keep pace with baseball’s big spenders and compete for playoff berths. But the Reds’ NL Central title in 2010 — and their first playoff berth since 1995 — came long after Griffey and young stars such as Adam Dunn, Scott Williamson, Ryan Dempster and Jose Guillen had been traded to free payroll.

With Votto and Phillips locked up long-term and the Reds positioned to compete in an annually wide-open NL Central, the team can now hope Great American Ballpark becomes a more popular place for fans. The Reds opened Great American Ballpark by welcoming more than 2.3 million fans in 2003 but haven’t topped that figure in the last seven seasons. However, the Reds have enjoyed an increase in attendance in each of the last two seasons since bottoming out at just under 1.75 million fans in 2009. They welcomed 2,213,588 fans last season and opened this season with consecutive crowds of more than 41,000 April 5-7.