Sox Likely to Stay in Fenway

If Fenway Park reaches its 100th birthday, send a thank-you note to Governor John Rowland of Connecticut. Last fall Rowland enticed the Patriots to leave Foxboro with promises of a $375 million, football-only stadium in downtown Hartford. Since each NFL club plays only eight home games per season, Pats’ owner Robert Kraft will receive an up-front subsidy of more than $1.5 million per game over the 30 years of his lease.

(ed. note: A little premature on this one!)

The Patriots’ move ends speculation that they and the Sox could share a site in or near downtown Boston, either in side-by-side facilities or as cotenants of a multipurpose domed stadium. But it hasn’t silenced John Harrington’s insistence that the Sox need a new park to remain competitive.

Harrington’s laments are nothing new. A Sporting News survey once described the Red Sox' situation: "Realize they must do something because of small park in cramped quarters with poor parking facilities. Hopeful that city will take lead in building new stadium. Could become serious but isn't now." TSN noted that the Sox "must fill their park almost to capacity merely to break even. Since many of the seats are not choice locations, it is tough to sell every ticket except for a blue-ribbon game."

Sound familiar? These comments appeared in the issue of April 6, 1963.

In 1969, GM Dick O'Connell told a Boston baseball writers’ dinner that the Red Sox and Patriots needed a new multipurpose stadium -- and warned that the City of Boston and Commonwealth of Massachusetts must foot the bill. "I'm convinced that private capital can't do it," said O'Connell, who added, "What we have here in Boston is not a healthy situation for the city." Despite O'Connell's warning, Boston didn't even sneeze when, in 1971, the Patriots built their own facility in Foxboro.

By the time the Sullivan family was forced to sell the Patriots, though the Foxboro stadium was a major liability. It had been built on the cheap and in the middle of nowhere. For the next decade a series of politicians and developers proposed new stadia for the Patriots in or near downtown Boston. The cost estimates for these proposals were so high, though, that only the most optimistic boosters could consider them feasible without the Sox’ participation.

To their credit, the Red Sox resisted all proposals for a multipurpose stadium. Simple geometry shows that baseball and football don't belong in the same structure. Football requires a rectangular field 120 yards long, while a baseball park is built around the 90-degree angle of fair territory, with a circular bulge behind the plate. To accommodate both, multipurpose stadia are typically circular structures with thousands of seats behind the outfield walls and stands which recede far from the diamond down the foul lines. Fenway fans would riot.

If the multipurpose-stadium option is removed, though, the Red Sox are left with three alternatives: a new park as part of a multifunction stadium/convention center development; a new stand-alone park; or remaining in an upgraded Fenway. The Patriots’ move to Hartford eliminates the first (and least expensive) of these choices, leaving the Sox to choose between staying put or building their own new park.

This decision may come down to economics: can a new park pay for itself? The Patriots’ example suggests that the Sox can’t expect much help from state and local government. JRY Corp., which owns the Sox and Fenway Park, has no other assets to commit to such a project. And on the other side of the ledger, replacing Fenway may not yield a financial windfall for the Sox.

Since Baltimore’s Camden Yards revolutionized baseball stadium design, every new park has been smaller than its predecessor. Teams have learned that smaller facilities can mean higher attendance as well as higher ticket prices, because fans who fear potential sellouts don’t wait until the day of the game to buy their tickets. Having bought their tickets in advance, such fans are less likely to be distracted by other events, or deterred by bad weather or a losing streak -- and even if they don’t go, the team already has their money.

The Sox, of course, boast MLB’s smallest park and highest ticket prices. As a large-market team with a rabid fan base, the Sox could sell 50,000 seats for games against the Yankees or Orioles. But since they don’t have 50,000 seats to sell, they increase revenues by raising ticket prices, often charging three or four times the cost of similar seats in Minnesota or Cincinnati. As a result, despite Fenway’s size the Sox’ gross from home games regularly ranks in the top quarter of all MLB teams. A new stadium wouldn’t generate enough extra attendance revenue to pay Jose Offerman’s salary, let alone the construction costs.

The Sox could use more luxury boxes, but these (as well as additional seating) can be added to Fenway for a fraction of the cost of a new stadium. With the government unwilling to build a new park and the Sox unable to finance one themselves, Fenway Park may become the first major league stadium to celebrate its centennial.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the March 1999 issue of Boston Baseball.

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