How the Red Sox thrive in quaint Fenway

Image: Fenway Park
The Red Sox began their streak of consecutive sellouts on May 15, 2003 and broke the Cleveland Indians' mark, set from June 12, 1995 to April 2, 2001 at Jacobs Field.Adam Hunger / Reuters

Painted on a wall within Fenway Park's executive offices are sentences from John Updike's famous New Yorker piece about Red Sox star Ted
Williams. In it, his home field is memorably described as a "lyric little bandbox of a ballpark."

Down the hallway sits Sam Kennedy, executive vice president/chief sales and marketing officer, and other Red Sox executives. They are in charge of figuring out novel ways to draw revenue from the bandbox.

"What if we could sell fans the opportunity to watch batting practice?" says Kennedy, giving an example of an idea that was approved during “Revenue Thursdays,” the bimonthly powwow where all ideas are welcome. Since 2007, fans have watched the visiting team take pre-game swings from the center field warning track. A group of 20 can field balls and enjoy other perks for $10,000 ($12,000 if the New York Yankees are in town).

Of course, certain concepts are shot down. A seating section in the sky – hoisted by a crane on Van Ness Street, one of five roads which border the field – was nixed.

"Ownership thought it wasn't the right look and feel for Fenway Park," Kennedy explains.

The Red Sox have enjoyed two world championships since 2004. But to continue their on-field success in a sport with no salary cap, they ceaselessly struggle to boost income in the majors’ third-smallest – and oldest – park.

Their archrival, the Yankees, possess 18 luxury suites at today’s Yankee Stadium – in 2009, they’ll nearly triple that number in their new park. Newsday estimated the Yankees could derive close to $300 million next year just in ticket and suite sales, an unprecedented number. To compare, Forbes reported that Red Sox revenue in 2007 from all sources was $263 million.

Kennedy knows Fenway can’t match the sort of income thrown off by a new Yankee Stadium, but the franchise can keep scrapping for more. "We have to continue to be creative," he says.

One way is through Fenway Enterprises. Started in 2003, the group aims to utilize the facility 365 days a year. More than 150,000 visitors tour Fenway year-round at $12 for each adult. Concerts have been introduced (Neil Diamond played there in August) and in a few years Fenway Enterprises hopes to land the NHL's Winter Classic and host a Bruins' game.

Since John Henry, Tom Werner, Larry Lucchino and others in the ownership group bid $700 million for the Red Sox, Fenway Park and an 80 percent stake in New England Sports Network – an offer approved by Major League Baseball in 2002 – more than $100 million has been poured into Fenway. Its seating capacity has jumped about 10 percent, with a few hundred more seats down the right field line contemplated for 2009.

Where netting once hung on the Green Monster, there are now 269 seats and a number of standing room spots (which could be the best deal in baseball: for $30, a countertop is supplied for beer, there’s no upper-deck overhang blocking one’s view and the position is perfect for batting-practice homers).

"There was some resistance to taking off the net. It had been there so long," said Lucchino, the team’s president and CEO who helped build Camden Yards in Baltimore and PETCO Park in San Diego. "Once they saw we didn't just jam in every seat, it's become one of the most desirable seats.”

Despite the increased capacity (the park holds about 37,400 for night games and 36,984 for day games) and a major-league-high average ticket price of $48 a seat, Fenway just set a record on Monday for most consecutive sellouts with 456.

Corporate sponsors have flocked to 4 Yawkey Way. Whereas there were fewer than three dozen when Lucchino and company took over, now it’s close to 100. There are the obvious in-park ones – the right-field roof deck is sponsored by Budweiser, for instance – along with others such as Beth Israel, the official hospital of the franchise.

The value of the Red Sox – officially owned by New England Sports Ventures – has leapt over the past six years. At the season’s start, Forbes estimated the franchise to be worth $816 million, the third-highest in baseball.

Of course, the Red Sox championship runs have been a boon.

"From a revenue perspective, it's invaluable," said Kennedy. "We're on national television 20 times a year because of the team. We can build the Red Sox brand." Forbes pegged the 2004 playoff run as $30 million in additional revenue.

When changes to the tradition-rich ballpark are proposed, fans complain, but they keep flocking to Fenway in record numbers anyway once the alterations are finished.

The Red Sox plan three more years of improvements – including a new center field scoreboard in 2009 – before letting Fenway rest. The stadium will be 100 years old in 2012.

"We call it (Fenway) The Little Engine That Could," said Lucchino. "The highest compliment we can receive from fans is it looks different but it feels like the same old Fenway.”