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Inside baseball
What happens when the biggest newspaper in town owns a financial piece of the biggest story in town?
Ownership matters

How the Henry-Lucchino-Werner partnership makes nice with both the media and the fans

After helping design the revised and expanded playoff format in the ’90s, former Red Sox owner John Harrington emerged as a power player in Major League Baseball. But when it came time to talk to local sportswriters, he was inaccessible. When the gates of John Updike’s lyric little bandbox were flung open each April, two million fans would still stream in over the course of a season — regardless of how little attention went to maintaining the ancient ballpark. Basically, the motto was, "We’re the Red Sox — we don’t have to answer questions."

The Henry-Lucchino-Werner ownership team is warm and fuzzy by comparison. Even before helping Boston claim the ultimate prize last October, the three men (who purchased the Sox for $700 million) won praise for bringing more rigid baseball discipline to the front office — led by local son Theo Epstein — and fostering an array of fan-friendly improvements (including placing seats on the Green Monster and extending Fenway’s game-time perimeter through most of Yawkey Way).

Charles Steinberg, the Sox’ voluble executive vice-president of public affairs, waxes poetic in talking baseball, hailing the sport as a "barrier-breaker and civic unifier." He makes no bones about having reached out to sportswriters for feedback in designing a 2002 tribute to Ted Williams, this year’s Opening Day pre-game ceremony, and other special events, citing the scribes as both keepers of the trust and barometers of the marketplace.

In 2002, when Steinberg reported to Fort Myers, Florida, for the first spring training under the new ownership, he was surprised to learn how reporters were relegated to a trailer with an inoperative bathroom. "Triple-adversarialism" persisted among the media, the organization, and its players. As part of the new management, "We weren’t out to change it — we were out to do it the way we do it," says Steinberg, a veteran of the Baltimore Orioles organization. "And so I told some of the writers in the spring of 2002 that I wanted my legacy to be very simple: indoor plumbing."

Besides better media relations, there was another goal. "Every ownership group vying to buy the Red Sox wanted a new ballpark," Steinberg says. "Only one wanted to keep Fenway. There’s far greater glory in being the boys who saved Fenway."

Although the new ownership gets praise for its accessibility and stewardship of the Sox franchise, one sportswriter — speaking well before Fenway’s left-field foul pole was dedicated to Carlton Fisk — says, "These guys sometimes go a little too far. There’s definitely some licking the finger and sticking it up in the air to see which way the wind blows. On small matters, there’s a lot of ‘how is this going to go over?’ talk." The writer marvels at the institutional change — "from an arrogance and ‘who cares what they think?’ to almost preening for the public at times."

Sox fans, of course, are far more concerned about the high cost of an outing at Fenway — if they can even obtain the highly coveted tickets, most of which are sold by the start of the season. In contrast with the growing omnipresence of the sports media, the experience of actually seeing games at Fenway has become more precious.

Steve Burgard, director of Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, recalls going to almost every home game as a BU grad student, in 1975, by buying day-of-the-game bleacher tickets. Now, with the secondary market typically charging more than $60 for even a bleacher seat, "The Red Sox have, in fact, become a day at Disneyland for a lot of people," he says.

Steinberg calls the question of whether fans are being squeezed "my biggest worry," and he cites how the new ownership cut prices for 1000 upper-bleacher seats, from $18 to $12, in recognition of the concern. "What you’d like to do is stretch your high end [ticket revenue] from people who will spend high sums for value and amenities, so that you can protect the low end," he says. (In April, the team announced plans to introduce 1000 high-price premium seats over the next few years.) Citing concern that the rival Yankees will "open up even more daylight" with a more lucrative new stadium, Steinberg says Sox ownership is constantly looking for ways to increase revenue without detracting from Fenway’s ambiance.

Of course, as the Globe’s Steve Bailey wrote in 2003, "most major league teams would line up for the Sox’s problems," including how the team, with the most pricy tickets in baseball, has sold out almost 200 consecutive home games. And while the annual survey by Forbes magazine shows that the Yankees, with a worth of $950 million, continue to be the sport’s most valuable franchise, the Sox were rated second, with a value of $563 million, a six percent rise from last year.


Although his online Red Sox chats on www.boston.com usually focus on, say, the vagaries of Keith Foulke’s pitching and Mark Bellhorn’s hitting, Boston Globe sportswriter Gordon Edes had something else on his mind one day earlier this season. Amid all the baseball talk, Edes confided, "I’m surprised ... no one’s going to ask me about the cartel?"

A clued-in chatter with the handle "meanjoegreen" was quick on the uptake: "Gordon, what position do you hold in the cartel? How do they influence your work? And how do you and the other companies conspire to carry out the Red Sox agendas?" Without missing a beat, Edes responded, "I’m the go-to guy, the House Man, the guy who waits to see whether there’s white or black smoke coming out of the home offices on Morrissey Boulevard." The sportswriter then changed the subject, writing, "Hey, in all seriousness," and directed the conversation to pitcher David Wells, who was faltering at the time.

The unmentioned target of this sarcasm was Boston Herald sports columnist Howard Bryant, whose April 27 column about the death of former Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson — and how it was covered in the Boston Globe — ominously described "the growing synergistic cartel" linking the Red Sox, the Globe, and the New England Sports Network (NESN), the regional cable station that broadcasts most Sox games.

The common link among the three is the New York Times Company, which owns the Globe and became a minority investor in the Sox when the John Henry–Larry Lucchino–Tom Werner partnership bought the team and 80 percent of NESN in 2002. Ultimately, Bryant wrote, "Such naked consolidation is a little too cozy to be acceptable."

Like a number of other observers, the Herald columnist doesn’t detect a direct cause-and-effect between the corporate owners and the Globe’s coverage, saying, "I don’t know if you’re going to see it trickle down as blatantly as we would all like, just to make the argument easier. I think it’s more subtle." Nor was Bryant’s column flawless; his inclusion in the "cartel" of WEEI, which doesn’t have a business relationship with the Globe, was hard to figure. (Although, given its position as the Sox radio network, WEEI could be considered an affiliate cartel member.) But Bryant’s basic concern — about what happens when a dominant media institution grows steadily larger — is no less reasonable than it was when press critic Ben Bagdikian first published his seminal work, The Media Monopoly, in 1983.

The response from Globe editor Marty Baron and publisher Richard Gilman is that the proof is in the pudding: the paper’s demonstrated willingness to publish tough stories about the Red Sox. The implication is that an institution like the Globe — long considered one of the nation’s 10 best dailies, and home to a top-notch sports section — can effectively guard against the myriad conflicts that come with the turf in an age of unfettered media consolidation.

Still, with steady cutbacks at the Herald in recent years, there’s no guarantee that Boston will always be a two-paper town. Bryant points to the danger of declining media competition, noting that the Globe is "just another conglomerate that needs to be watched, just like the rest. If the situation was reversed and it was the Boston Herald that owned [part of] the Red Sox, the Globe would be having the exact same concern that I have. It’s all about the power."

TV, beer, and rings

The earmarks of a potential "cartel" can be seen on NESN, where Globe sportswriters are exclusively featured on the Boston Globe Pre-Game Report and the twice-weekly Boston Globe Sportsplus chat show. The network also hawks subscriptions and the day’s paper, though not in a particularly heavy-handed way, during game broadcasts. Although Herald writers get regular face time on Fox Sports Net’s New England Sports Tonight, the matter-of-fact pairing on NESN — so prevalent that most Sox fans are probably inured to it — sends a message about the big power in town to ballplayers looking for cues on how to interact with the media. More important, while Globe writers like Edes, Dan Shaughnessy, and Chris Snow are certainly highly knowledgeable, this kind of marketing coup was what motivated the Times Company to partner with the Henry-Lucchino-Werner team in the first place.

The Globe has also been less than forthcoming at times about its newfound interests, editorializing in 2002, for example, in favor of an enclosed free-keg zone on Yawkey Way without disclosing its own stake in the matter. At the time, the Herald’s Cosmo Macero Jr. noted three other occasions when the Globe editorialized on issues that would affect the Sox’ finances without revealing its own financial interest, although Macero says the paper has done a better job with such conflicts since then. (By revealing plans earlier this year to keep the Sox at Fenway Park for the foreseeable future, for example, the new ownership avoided potential conflict between the Globe’s editorial page and a quest by the team to win public funding for a new ballpark.)

And then you have a quartet of Globe and Times execs — Gilman, Globe president Richard Daniels, former New York Times Company president Russ Lewis, and Jim Lessersohn, a Times Company VP (who, like Gilman, has a seat on the Sox’ committee of minority investors) — receiving diamond-encrusted World Series rings during a Red Sox Foundation dinner in April.

Another issue arose last year when the Globe-owned Boston.com acquired www.bostondirtdogs.com, a popular Web site that trumpets Sox news with tabloid-style headlines and barbed humor, mercilessly attacking such favored targets as Shea Hillenbrand and Nomar Garciaparra. Although it’s not exactly news that some bloggers use different reporting standards than newspapers, critics, including Bruce Allen’s www.bostonsportsmediawatch.com, have faulted Boston.com for blurring the line by incorporating Dirt Dogs’s sometimes shoot-from-the-hip approach (mistakenly reporting, for example, that Garciaparra didn’t want a World Series ring from the Red Sox) into what is otherwise a conventional news site. This summer, in an apparent nod to this concern — said to be a sore spot for some Globe sportswriters — Boston.com installed the following disclaimer on Dirt Dogs: "Boston Dirt Dogs is a fan site produced by Boston.com. The Boston Globe newspaper and its Sports Dept. do not oversee the site and have no role in its production. BDD’s content is solely the responsibility of Boston.com." Like Allen’s Web site, Dirt Dogs and Boston.com now also feature a daily round-up of sports stories from various New England newspapers.

Not surprisingly in a small town like Boston, there are a number of other connections between the Sox and the Globe, including the two institutions’ use of the same bank and law firm. Consultant John Sasso who helped to secure a pledge of public funding for a Fenway replacement plan in the late ’90s, was romantically linked with Meg Vaillancourt, who formerly reported on the Sox-business beat for the Globe and now heads the Red Sox Foundation, the charitable arm whose creation was stipulated by the team’s sale. In another such link, Doug Bailey, a former business writer at the Globe, works at Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, which does PR work for the Red Sox.

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Issue Date: July 29 - August 4, 2005
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