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Baseball 2021 | The risk

The Red Sox believe better days are ahead. But how much longer will fans ride the roller-coaster of highs and lows?

It's a safe bet that the fans returning to Fenway Park won't be as quiet as last season's cardboard cutouts if the team drops to last place in the AL East.
It's a safe bet that the fans returning to Fenway Park won't be as quiet as last season's cardboard cutouts if the team drops to last place in the AL East.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

When the concept of “winning cures everything” is essentially the last strand keeping the Red Sox connected to their fans, the 2021 team is left in a perilous spot.

“They’ve got a lot of unhappy, heartbroken, disillusioned, frustrated fans,” said Gabrielle Starr, a 27-year-old lifelong Red Sox fan and founder of the popular “Girl at the Game” blog and podcast.

“And it goes beyond that, because with the pandemic, you’ve got people who already are unhappy with your franchise to begin with, then they got trapped in their house for a year, couldn’t go to anything, couldn’t do anything, a lot of them lost their jobs, and you’re not really seeing a lot of effort from the Red Sox to ameliorate that.

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“That’s all that people here want, it’s to just feel like the Red Sox care about them at all, and it has felt over the last couple of years like they don’t. I get that it’s a business, but when you are one of the richest franchises in all of pro sports, you can afford to give a crap about your fans. You can. It seems like they can do both, but they are choosing not to,” she said.

The Red Sox are not blind to the succession of miscues that led to the dismissal of president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski before the end of the disappointing 2019 season, or to the Alex Cora scandal, or to the departure of talent ranging from Brock Holt, Andrew Benintendi, David Price, and Jackie Bradley Jr. to the generationally talented Mookie Betts.

Thanks to a season-to-season roller-coaster ride for much of the last two decades, there’s a sense of deja vu to their most recent plight that gives the Red Sox more faith than fans like Starr that better days lie ahead.

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“We’ve been at places before where the success we’ve had has been a little bit all over the map,” said Adam Grossman, Red Sox executive vice president and chief marketing officer. “We’ve had some really incredible seasons where expectations were high coming in and we’ve had low expectations where we ended up on duck boats in October.

“We don’t know going into the season. But we do feel like as the pandemic hopefully draws to a close, as we get more fans back into Fenway and they can see the caliber of baseball and the potential we have, we really are excited and feel like we’re well-positioned to continue where we’ve historically been. We’re not daunted, by any means,” he said.

‘I get that it’s a business, but when you are one of the richest franchises in all of pro sports, you can afford to give a crap about your fans. You can. It seems like they can do both, but they are choosing not to.”’

Gabrielle Starr, Red Sox fan and podcast host

The Red Sox prefer not to launch promotional campaigns in the offseason or even in spring training. They tend to wait and see what develops organically, be it the 2004 “idiots,” the 2013 beards, or the 2018 “do damage” crew. Given the relative anonymity of the 2021 players, the challenge in front of the Red Sox’ marketing crew is formidable.

The club, Grossman said, is working hard to churn out content, on broadcast media and over social platforms, that will reignite interest and lower barriers between players and fans. Miking up players and providing photos and videos for players to post on social media are major areas of focus, as is livestreaming as much content as possible.

With Red Sox principal owner (and Globe owner) John Henry opting out, for now, of any public statements about the franchise’s direction, the team is leaning on its leadership trio of club president/CEO Sam Kennedy, chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, and manager Cora to provide meaning and context.

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“This team has had a lot of stunningly high highs, they’ve also had some ridiculously embarrassingly low lows,” said Starr. “It’s not good for anyone’s health and it’s not good for your franchise if every other year you’re winning the World Series or alienating your entire fan base. You’ve got to find that middle ground.”

The damage from 2019 and especially before the 2020 season with the trade of Betts has left a residue that will require energy to remove.

“The feel of 2021 is very different from 2020 on the field and in the front office,” Grossman said. “And I think that energy will translate into the fan base.”

When fans are again allowed at full capacity, Fenway Park’s allure and Boston’s summer tourism status should make attendance the least of the club’s concerns — unlike NESN ratings, which dropped more than 50 percent last year from 2019.

Dropoffs in performance over the last two decades in cities including Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, and Baltimore resulted in attendance reductions. Some rebounded with improved play, as in Philadelphia, but some lingered.

MLB’s overall attendance has been declining since a 2007 peak. Besides experimenting with rule changes meant to speed up the game and inject more action, MLB is trying “to capture unique opportunities to bring more exposure to our players and appeal to the younger Gen Z and diverse audience,” said Barbara McHugh, MLB’s senior vice president of marketing.

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With Gen Z (born after 1997) fan allegiance and viewing habits down across all sports, MLB’s quest to remain relevant remains an almost urgent priority. A Sports Business Journal survey from 2016 showed the average age of an MLB national broadcast viewer to be 57 years old (4 years older than a decade earlier) and 15 years older than an NBA fan, 8 years older than an NHL fan, 7 years older than an NFL fan.

Diversity is no less of a problem. A Morning Consult survey from a year ago showed MLB as having the second-whitest fan base at 60 percent, 1 percent behind the NHL. The Red Sox were tied for second among the 30 teams with a 67 percent white fan base.

Starr has barely aged out of Gen Z but still very much sits in the sweet spot that not only MLB but the Red Sox want to reach. She’s more than ready to embrace a winning team again. But her wounded feelings and skeptical perspective make it plain that winning won’t solve everything.

“The Mookie thing — they really actually lost a lot of fans,” Starr said. “I think to some level they know; I’m not sure how much they care. It’s the ‘you’ve got to break a couple eggs to make an omelette’ kind of thing, but there are people who legit said, including people in my own life, ‘I will never forgive them for this.’ This is Babe Ruth 2.0 to them.

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“People say winning will erase all that pain. People tell me when Chaim Bloom wins a World Series, you’ll forget all that. I won’t. I’ll be thrilled, but the way it had to happen was still really painful to experience.”

There's no amount of marketing that can make up for the hurt some Red Sox fans feel about losing Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.
There's no amount of marketing that can make up for the hurt some Red Sox fans feel about losing Mookie Betts to the Dodgers.Tom Pennington/Getty

Red Sox season preview


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.