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New Season for Sox Owners

Vivek Rao

With Opening Day on the books and the 2002 edition of the Boston Red Sox settling in on Landsdowne Street, it is safe to say that the new ownership’s honeymoon with the local media and the general public is now officially over. It is time for John Henry and his associates, the latest possessors of one of the most enigmatic franchises in professional sports, to get down to business and address some pressing issues facing the organization.

Over recent years, it was hardly a secret that the team was up for sale. John Harrington, overseer of the Yawkey trust that held a majority share of the club, received several competitive offers this past offseason, most notably from Henry, then the owner of the Florida Marlins, and from Boston area businessman Joe O’Donnell. Though O’Donnell’s bid reportedly exceeded all others by approximately $40 million, Harrington determined Henry’s group to have sound financial backing, and despite concerns raised by the Massachusetts Attorney General, Major League Baseball approved the sale.

Over the last few months, as the baseball team made preparations for the new season, the usually cynical and critical Boston media took it easy on the new owners. The very same writers who once ripped former Red Sox manager Jimy Williams’ speech patterns during his first week in town painted a relatively rosy picture of the group of men who had put up $660 million, a new record for the purchase of a professional baseball team. The majority of fans, too, shared a generally optimistic outlook, believing that the sale of the team and a fresh mindset among ownership would pave the way for the championship that has eluded the Red Sox since 1918. Now that the season has begun, however, this red carpet welcome should quickly disappear, as both media and fans alike should expect the new owners to deal with several key issues, both on the field and off.

Perhaps the biggest luxury in the hands of any Red Sox owner is the loyalty of the fans. Few teams in professional sports history -- the Chicago Cubs are probably the only other analogous case -- have experienced as futile a stretch while maintaining such a strong fan base. Every summer, without fail, Fenway Park draws sellout after sellout, and the team is the talk of local newspapers and radio stations. Though the Patriots won the Super Bowl this year, the average Bostonian can probably name more players from the Red Sox than from any other team in town.

Given the widespread loyalty among fans, the Sox ownership in recent years has used rising ticket prices as a tool for increasing revenue. Unlike other cities where fans may react to such price hikes by not attending games, the Red Sox continue to attract high attendance day after day. But that is not to say that the now absurdly expensive tickets do not take their toll on the average fan; the new owners must realize that this trend cannot possibly serve as a permanent way of increasing revenue.

Instead, the best solution would seem to be building a new stadium. A number of plans have been discussed over the last few years, from renovating the existing stadium to building a completely modern waterfront facility. While “Save Fenway” advocates may oppose razing the ballpark, and it certainly deserves to remain standing as an historic monument, it is quite clear that it has become an impediment to strengthening the team’s revenue and therefore giving management an increased budget with which to attract top-notch free agents. In addition to providing between ten and twenty thousand additional seats, which could potentially raise revenue while eliminating the need for ticket price hikes, a new stadium would allow the sale of private seat licenses or box seats which are currently too minor a feature of antiquated Fenway. Following in the lead of teams like the Indians and Orioles, two small-market teams that parlayed new stadiums into higher payrolls and better records, the Red Sox, who have the benefit of a larger market, could eliminate their current disadvantage to revenue giants like the Yankees, Mets, and Dodgers.

The most concrete plan for a stadium so far has been to build a “new Fenway,” loaded with modern amenities and situated a couple of blocks from the old stadium. The plan was first proposed by Harrington and his associates, but it could be embraced by Henry as well. However, the entire stadium situation is laden with politics and interest groups, from local residents fearing their daily lives will be disrupted to businesses reluctant to be uprooted and politicians responding to the opinions of their constituents. The new owners must determine whether they are willing to put up the money to build a privately-financed modern stadium, and if that is out of the question, they will need to find some way of gaining state funding in a way that is suitable to all parties involved. Henry and his colleagues should take a page from Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who craftily managed politics and finances, successfully building the new CMGI Field slated to open this fall.

If indeed the new ownership manages to level off ticket prices, build a new stadium, and maintain a candid and open rapport with the media and fans -- a problem that kept the previous administration alienated from the public -- they will no doubt turn the Red Sox into an organization that can compete not only from a baseball standpoint but also where profitability is concerned. Until that time, however, they cannot afford to be complacent, for they have plenty of work to do. It wouldn’t hurt if they could get Pedro’s arm healthy, either.