Business Field Is In Play for Red Sox

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

DENVER, Oct. 26 -- Back in the early 1990s when he was running the Baltimore Orioles, Larry Lucchino would analyze the Boston Red Sox from afar. He had heard late Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams, a native of Hartford, Conn., discuss the romance of New England's baseball team. Lucchino said to his top public relations specialist, Charles Steinberg, how great he thought the Red Sox franchise could be.

"I remember saying, 'What are you talking about?' " Steinberg said. "It's almost full every night. It's a great, great franchise. How much bigger could it be?"

But as Lucchino said, "This was a unique opportunity."

Lucchino and Steinberg now find themselves with the Red Sox at the apex of the franchise's 106-year existence. The on-field success is obvious. With Game 3 of the World Series on tap Saturday night, the Red Sox lead the Colorado Rockies two games to none. Should they win two of the next five, they will be champions for the second time in four years. The pain of 1967, '78, '86 and '03 will become even more distant.

Off the field, the Red Sox have turned a beloved regional franchise into an international marketing juggernaut. Late in 2001, when Lucchino joined with commodities giant John Henry and television producer Tom Werner in a group that purchased the team, Forbes magazine estimated the club's value at $339 million. This year, the magazine estimates the Red Sox are worth $724 million. In 2006, they brought in $234 million in revenue. Among baseball's 30 franchises, only the rival New York Yankees generate more money.

They play at Fenway Park, a beloved facility that is the smallest in baseball but has been sold out for 388 consecutive regular season games. They own 80 percent of the New England Sports Network, which broadcasts their games. And on Saturday night, one of the most buzzed-about international stars in the game, Japanese right-hander Daisuke Matsuzaka, will try to pitch the Red Sox a step closer to the World Series title, a combination of athletic prowess and marketing genius that has people across the Pacific wearing dark blue hats emblazoned with a red 'B.'

"They've gone from a regional franchise to beyond a national franchise to a franchise that really has a global reach," said David Carter, the executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "The ballpark itself is small, but they have identified how to build their notoriety, how to continue to build brand equity. They're doing it with their reach through the media, with NESN, and their reach abroad, by winning and bringing in international talent."

All that brings them to the point where, even with Colorado agog over the Rockies' first trip to the World Series, it would hardly be surprising to see pockets of Red Sox supporters at Coors Field. Boston led the majors in road attendance this season, drawing an average of 38,641 fans away from Fenway, moving ahead of the Yankees' road draw.

"There are New England refugees everywhere," Lucchino, who serves as the club's president and chief executive, said Friday in a telephone interview. "You don't have to have a New England tie. The story line of the franchise is so appealing, there are other people who sign onto it."

The Henry-Werner-Lucchino group bought the Red Sox from the trust of the Yawkey family, which had owned the team since 1933. The new ownership group embraced the franchise's history, dismissing the idea of moving to a new ballpark, instead vowing to improve Fenway.

They also found a fan base defined by the club's failure to win a World Series since 1918.

"We found a market in tremendous suspense," said Steinberg, now the club's vice president of public affairs. "That's an unusual feeling. You might find enthusiasm. You might find apathy. You might find antipathy. But you don't usually find suspense like this."

The suspense ended when the club finally won the 2004 World Series. The phenomenon, though, has continued. It's likely that next year the club will pass the Cleveland Indians' record of 455 consecutive sellouts.

"The most important ingredient in our success has been the fans and sponsors providing us with resources to build these teams," Henry said in an e-mail Friday. He pointed out that because of MLB's revenue-sharing guidelines, the Red Sox will send some $73 million to other teams. "Still, we are able to have a large enough payroll and capable enough leadership from Larry, [General Manager] Theo [Epstein] and Tito [Manager Terry Francona] to contend year to year."

Which, then, brings the inevitable comparison to the Yankees. The acquisition of Matsuzaka, in which the Red Sox outbid other interested teams by spending $51.1 million for the right to negotiate with the Japanese star, is an oft-used example of a move the Yankees would make. Lucchino, though, said baseball was just part of the decision.

"We want to be a catalyst in the growth of Major League Baseball around the world," he said. "And we also want to expand the brand of the Red Sox to make it a more popular and recognizable brand around the world."

That, in part, generates a perception, even among some Boston fans, that the Red Sox are the new Yankees.

"They won, and they have a tremendous amount of money, so there's kind of a whole New York image where you buy rings," said Randy Booth, who runs "Over the Monster," one of countless blogs dedicated to the Red Sox. "The underdog label is definitely gone."

Lucchino scoffs at the notion that somehow Boston, the seventh-largest media market, has become New York, "the largest sports market and media market in the Western world -- by a long shot."

Besides, the Red Sox -- underdogs no more -- are quite comfortable with their new niche.

"We don't want to be the new Yankees," Lucchino said. "We aren't the new Yankees. We just aren't your grandfather's Red Sox."

Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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