CHICAGO — The departure of Eduardo Rodriguez to free agency “leaves a hole that absolutely has to be filled,” Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said at the baseball owners meetings last week.
Before that hole and others are filled, Kennedy and Red Sox chairman Tom Werner spoke in an interview about the financial health and challenges facing both the team and Major League Baseball.
Kennedy said the specter of the Dec. 1 collective bargaining agreement deadline that could throw the hot stove season into a deep freeze was not slowing down the team’s efforts to beef up the roster.
Besides starting pitching, Kennedy pointed to better defense and more offense as areas Chaim Bloom and the baseball operations staff are working on.
Trade talks have picked up, with the club continuing to look at the free agent market as well as working on contract extensions with young players such as Rafael Devers.
Kennedy said the prospect of getting at least one deal done before Dec. 1 is very much a possibility.
“I would say absolutely yes,” said Kennedy. “It just depends on the evaluation of the deal, if it fits with what we’re trying to do long-term. I think we’ve shown a willingness and an ability to achieve a very difficult goal, which is winning in the short term but also building for the long term.”
While it’s “business as usual” for the front office during an unsettled time on the labor front, Werner expressed the hope that the business of baseball would not have to shut down if the owners impose a lockout on the players as soon as Dec. 2.
“Many deals get resolved at the last minute,” said Werner. “We’ve offered a number of proposals that are constructive and we hope that there will be a resolution in the next couple of weeks.
“[Red Sox principal owner] John [Henry] is on the labor policy committee, so he’s closer to it than we are, but anecdotally, I can say that it’s just in everybody’s best interest to not have a work stoppage. So, hopefully we’ll figure out a solution.”
(Henry also owns the Globe.)
Baseball’s economic health coming out of what was hopefully the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic last year was very much part of the discussions in Chicago. Commissioner Rob Manfred said previously that the industry lost more than $3 billion in 2020 when attendance was virtually nil.
“The industry was absolutely decimated by the pandemic,” said Kennedy. “Our primary sources of revenue comes from gate, which affects sponsorship, which affects ticketing, it affects everything. The industry has pulled together and there’s a sense that we’re in a really, really strong position to recover but we’re not there yet.
“It will take us a while to get back to pre-COVID levels, especially because we’re still in COVID.”
As more and more entertainment consumers (i.e. baseball fans) cut their cable cords and turn to digital streaming options, MLB finds itself with a concern on the regional sports network front.
Sinclair Broadcasting Corporation’s Diamond Sports RSN business includes 14 MLB markets, in addition to NBA and NHL markets. Those RSNs, which account for a substantial portion of MLB’s revenue, are carrying extensive debt worth more than their market cap, which will make servicing that debt a steep challenge. Here in New England, there is not a local impact, with the Red Sox and Bruins on NESN, the Celtics with NBC Sports Boston, and the Patriots, like every NFL team, broadcast on national network deals.
“There are challenges in the industry, but I take the view that the product of baseball is such a strong product, it’s on six months a year,” said Werner. “I saw some statistics that 50 percent of people who subscribe to cable are doing it for their love of sports.
“We’ll just have to sort it out. The customer will figure out a way to watch his or her sporting events. It’s up to distributors and content owners to figure out a way to get it to them in the most frictionless way possible.”
Werner pointed to the decline of cable viewers, citing his own son as someone “who is interested in getting sports content but doesn’t want to pay $100 a month for a bundle. We have to find those people and find a product they’re willing to pay for. It’s up to teams to come to a local solution with the help of MLB. We’re not there yet.”
Kennedy said, “Here, locally, we are in a very strong position with NESN,” but the Red Sox, along with every team, will have to come up with creative solutions.
“You’ve seen how powerful MLB.TV is; they’ve done an amazing job,” said Kennedy. “So we’re thinking about ways, locally, how to potentially achieve that. We haven’t come to any conclusion but we know we need to be available to Red Sox fans anytime, anywhere.”