- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

A lot has changed for the Red Sox since they last visited the District in 1971. After excruciatingly close World Series losses in 1975 and 1986, Boston has finally broken out of its championship drought by capturing two of the last five titles.

The Red Sox also return for a three-game series with the last-place Nationals as arguably the most popular team in baseball, if not all of professional sports.

“Winning the World Series [in 2004] just lit it on fire,” said Jeff Gooding, senior vice president of the Chicago-based sports marketing firm rEvolution. “Continuing to be good has helped to keep that burning.”

Although Boston is known as a passionate baseball town, it hasn’t always been this trendy to like the Red Sox. As recently as 1998, the team ranked in the bottom half of the American League in attendance.

Fenway Park is iconic but also keeps the team from selling as many tickets as other clubs. Built in 1912, it is the oldest stadium in baseball and, even after multiple renovations and expansions, features one of the smallest seating capacities (39,928).

But lately that has actually played into the Red Sox’s favor thanks to the limited supply of seats and exponentially increasing demand.

“Less is more - always keep them wanting more,” said Bill Sutton, the associate director of the DeVos Sports Business Management program at the University of Central Florida.

And considering the vast area that comprises Boston’s fan base - about a half-dozen states - there is even more competition for the small number of available seats.

“They cover that whole northeast section from Providence up,” Gooding said. “That’s part of what feeds into Red Sox Nation - that huge number of people that grab onto Boston sports.”

The last time the Red Sox did not play before a sellout crowd at home was May 14, 2003, a string of 504 straight games. Before the Yankees moved into their pricey new stadium this spring, Fenway Park also featured the highest average ticket price for 11 years in a row.

As a result, Boston fans turn out in droves on the road to support their team.

“With Fenway being so small, normal fans can’t get tickets,” Gooding said. “So they go to out-of-town locations where they can get tickets and make a little bit of a vacation out of it.”

Usually that means invading the stadiums of losing teams in smaller markets. Baltimore, Oakland, Texas and Kansas City all finished with a losing record and in the bottom nine in payroll and attendance. But when the Red Sox were in town, they drew 44 percent more fans.

Nationals reliever Julian Tavarez enjoyed the benefits of the rabid fan base when he played for the Red Sox from 2006 to 2008.

“It helped a lot because everywhere you go you see your fans,” he said. “It’s a great feeling.”

The Red Sox have been among the top three teams in road attendance each of the past four years, highlighted by 2008’s league-leading 84.1 percent-filled stadium capacity away from home.

Oftentimes the number of fans cheering on the Red Sox will outnumber those rooting for the home team. For example, a visit from Boston last season boosted Baltimore’s attendance by 62 percent - the overwhelming majority of whom sported Red Sox gear.

“When we play Boston, it’s more Boston fans than Baltimore [ones],” Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora said. “You hear only, ‘Let’s go Red Sox.’ ”

Boston, which is first in the AL East with a 42-27 record, also gets more television exposure than the rest of the league.

In addition to scoring the highest local-television ratings in baseball on the New England Sports Network, the Red Sox appeared on ESPN 29 times during the 2008 regular season and spring training. No one else had more games on the network during that period.

“ESPN has become the super station for the Yankees and the Red Sox - particularly the Red Sox,” Gooding said.

A number of other factors has helped Boston’s popularity reach new heights. The signings of Japanese stars Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima extended the fan base across the Pacific Ocean. As Sutton pointed out, the team also has key players from the Dominican Republic, Canada and Puerto Rico in addition to the United States. Innovations like seats on top of the Green Monster also have enabled the Red Sox to maximize their profits in a small stadium, Gooding said.

Having a likable group of players with inspiring stories has helped, too. Reigning AL MVP Dustin Pedroia, listed at 5-foot-7, appeals to the regular guy, while left-handed starter Jon Lester battled back from cancer to win the clinching game of the 2007 World Series and throw a no-hitter last year.

With the team’s unrivaled success on and off the field, there is no indication the enthusiasm of Red Sox fans will subside anytime soon.

“They’re everywhere,” Gooding said. “Wherever we go in this country, there are Red Sox people. They wear it loud and proud all the time.”

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