Much has been made of the erosion of the Red Sox TV ratings, and seeming erosion of interest. There have been many theories suggested: the team lacks superstars, fans never bought into "run prevention" and "bridge years," the playoff runs of the Celtics and Bruins have stolen some of the spotlight, "Pink Hats" have taken over Fenway, tickets are too expensive, baseball itself is in decline. The reality is that the heightened levels of interest over the naughties were never sustainable.The Red Sox are victims of their own success both on the field bringing an elusive World Series to Boston and off the field with their universally praise renovation of Fenway and in marketing the team and leveraging the brand in every way possible.
On the field the current era which began with the Henry, Werner, Lucchino group ending almost seven decades of mostly myopic Yawkee stewardship in 2002. Unquestionably this has been the longest run of sustained success in the history of the franchise. Every other great Red Sox run of success has ended after a brief period either due to the teams failure to replace aging stars (1903-4, 1946-50, 1986-1991) or has been systematically dismantled due to penuriousness and incompetence (1912-1918, 1975-1979). This team has never been this consistently successful in its history. Even this year the team is currently 5.5 out of the Wild Card, and 7 behind the Yankees. They are still arguably the 3rd best team in baseball. If they miss the playoffs that is more a reflection of imbalanced divisions, leagues, and schedules.Going into this year the postseason had started to feel like a birthright given that they had only missed the playoffs once in the last seven years. After a while a 162 game regular season can feel irrelevant if the post-season is an inevitability. Many fans have a wait until August or October attitude at this point. The only real incentive to watch over the past few years was to see if we could finish ahead of the Yankees in the Division. That prospect isn't exactly going to move the needle at this point.
Inevitably such prolonged success throughout the history of the game has lead to apathy from fans. When fans expect their team to contend every year they become content and take success for granted, call it the "Braves Phenomenon." Yes Boston is an infinitely better sports town than Atlanta but the history of the game is littered with other examples. If you go all the way back to the 1890's one of the earliest dynasties in the history of the game were the old Baltimore Orioles of the National League. They won 4 Pennants and along with the Boston Braves dominated the decade. By the end of the decade their attendance had fallen to the point that the team effectively merged with the Brooklyn Dodgers with all of their stars going north. and by 1899 the team ceased to exist. The Red Sox will never stoop to that level, and Boston fans will never be the apathetic bandwagon jumpers that Atlanta fans are, but the fever pitch (bad pun, worse movie) of 2003-8 is likely a thing of the past.
The team’s successes off the field have also sewn the seeds of the current malaise. From 2002 to the present the new owners have renovated Fenway every off-season and have modernized and transformed the lyric little bandbox. In contrast the only changes by the Yawkee regime after rebuilding the park in the 1930's were getting rid of the ads on the Monster in 1947 (after Ted Williams complained they distracted him at the plate), the video board in CF in the mid 1970's (designed by my grandfather), and the horribly ill-conceived 600 club in 1989 which altered wind patterns and knocked down flyballs to center. All throughout the naughties if you went to a game in April the first question everyone asked was "how does the park look" or some variation thereof. Now that the renovations are by and large complete it feels like the end of December when you have already received your Christmas gifts and are bored of all you new toys.
Celebrities are often advised to take "public vacations" where they do not release new movies or albums for a time so they are not overexposed and the public does not tire of them. In the last few years the Red Sox in their marketing of the team have definitely overexposed themselves. This might bring the casual fans and Pink Hats to the park which is the goal of every sport property in the world; reach out to casual fans and try to make them real fans. Conversely this has alienated the hardcore fans. Murph and Sully are not leaving their triple decker in February to hold a sign on Truck Day, or watch Johnny Damon get a shave. Two days a week NESN has a 90 minute pregame show in addition to the 60 minute post-game show. That is 2:30 of shoulder programming, almost as long as the game! Every Opening Day is a theatrical production, and they club feels the need to out do themselves every year. I am sure most of the people who read this blog would just assume they line up on the baselines, announce the players, and play a baseball game. Where the team is failing is turning the casual fans and Pink Hats into real fans as anyone who has been to Fenway this year or listens to Toucher and Rich can attest.
If the Red Sox really want to address these issues most of them are fixable. Get rid of the alternate jerseys and "Hanging Sox" hats that look like cheap knockoffs one would buy at a gas station. Do the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, or Cardinals have this crap? The team must also lower the ticket prices. This might be inevitable anyway. Demand is already softening and if the sellout streak does not end this year is surely will next April. Families and blue collar fans are tapped out after filling the park at these astronomical prices for so long. The only people who can afford tickets, especially in a recession, are young childless singles with disposable income who are essentially your Pink Hats; people who get tickets from work that may or may not actually care about the game; and rich people who stare at you when you try and heckle an opponent, yell, or try and/or start a chant. These are not the kind of people who typical add to the atmosphere at the park. This also makes your product less exciting and appealing on TV.
They can also bring Neil Diamond back for Opening Day next year and have a sniper shoot him in the face. I seriously think most of the Pink Hats come to Fenway just to sing "Sweet Caroline." Instead of a $90 ticket, just download it for $0.99 and leave us alone! Even if we don't shoot Neil and let decades of alcohol abuse run its course, they have to pull the plug. Hell they could play Nickelback in the middle of the 8th and I would take it at this point. Tell Jerry Remy to stop pimping his website, restaurant, RI massage parlor, or anybody else who gives him a check.
After doing so much to reach out to casual fans they need to get back to basics and gear their game presentation and TV broadcasts more to the real fans. The Red Sox may never achieve the levels of interest of the past few years unless the team really bottoms out on the field for a prolonged period and the old angst comes back. At the end of the day just get back to basics and don't take the core fans for granted.