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Views from above

Sox owners: Economy is affecting team

By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / February 19, 2009
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - The biggest and perhaps most surprising sign that the economic downturn is affecting even the Red Sox comes from a single fact. Tickets remain to nine games in April and May at Fenway Park. Though that might not be the case once the news is out that tickets are available, the fact the sellout streak is in jeopardy signals something different is afoot.

And while the economy didn't cause the Red Sox to shy away from making overtures to the tune of $170 million or so to Mark Teixeira this offseason, even a big-market club like Boston will see changes, even if some are subtle.

"I don't think that we were really anticipating [six months ago] the kind of serious economic downturn that has taken place," president and CEO Larry Lucchino said yesterday. "But once it began to hit in September, October, we began to plan for it and try to anticipate how it was going to affect the business side, how it was going to affect the baseball market, salaries and all of that. It has affected us, to be sure. We deal with it every day."

Though the Yankees seem to be immune after an offseason in which they "spent like the US Congress," as Lucchino quipped, the rest of baseball has been contemplating cutbacks, mostly in player salaries. Players like Bobby Abreu, Manny Ramírez, and Jason Varitek have been affected financially from a pullback in long-term, big-money deals.

It was a great time to get a one-year contract. But not much else.

Still, before the Sox reduced contracts to Brad Penny- and John Smoltz- and Rocco Baldelli-sized deals, limited in both money and length, they attempted to negotiate one that would have represented the biggest outlay of cash in the eight-year tenure of the current ownership - to Teixeira.

So how does that jibe with the economic forecast?

"I think it starts from one essential fact: that there is a commitment to winning," Lucchino said. "It is the foundation on which John [Henry], Tom [Werner], and our entire ownership group has built this franchise. That commitment to winning occasionally requires that you reach into the free agent market and try to acquire the best available pitching talent or position player talent in that year's market. We thought that if we could still justify that in light of the expectations we had for the revenue of the franchise, [we] saw it as an important effort at least to improve this team for our fan base."

Teixeira ultimately signed with the Yankees, who spent nearly $425 million on three players. Such extravagant spending, mostly curtailed outside the Bronx, is one reason the Sox owners came out in support of a version of a salary cap yesterday.

"I think there are 29 teams that exist within a certain band, then there has been in the last several years one outlier that has been much higher," Lucchino said. "So the outliers both at the top and the bottom will be most severely affected by a payroll zone, which I think is a better term than a salary cap, a payroll zone where all teams would have to be somewhere within a payroll zone."

Lucchino said it is "as inevitable as tomorrow that there will be some kind of system like that in baseball. Just not as imminent as tomorrow."

So pay attention, Yankees and Marlins.

For now, Lucchino and Henry and Werner will leave those issues to the labor negotiators. Instead, they will work on coping with the economic realities and the short-term future of the franchise.

That's one reason the Sox' business department has been working with corporate sponsors to keep them around. Which is to say they're not all still there. Asked how the economy had affected the team other than in player salaries, Lucchino began talking about how the "level of corporate support for the team had been challenged." He was interrupted by Henry, who emphasized that those lost had been replaced.

But there's clearly a reason the team is working to "offer greater value," as Lucchino said, to sponsors.

"I'm not overly optimistic," Henry said about the economy in general. "You just can't ignore the realities of what is going on worldwide. This isn't just a US problem, this is a worldwide problem. The effect that it's going to have on major league sports in the United States has not yet been seen; 2010 is probably going to look a lot different than 2008."

There might just be a few empty seats at Fenway Park. Then again, that could happen this season. As for that sellout streak, Henry said, "It's going to be tested this year. No doubt about it. To keep this streak alive, it will not be easy."

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com.

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