Are the Celtics the No. 2 team in town? Have they vaulted over the Red Sox?
This may not sound like a big deal to some of you, but it is. I can’t remember a time when the Red Sox were not first or second in the market.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in recent days. The argument is relatively meaningless and totally subjective, but lately I’ve found myself wondering if the upstart 2017-18 Celtics are more popular and relevant than the 117-year-old baseball team that just completed back-to-back, first-place, 93-win seasons.
Everybody knows the Patriots are No. 1 in the region today. It’s not even close. But the Red Sox have been a safe No. 2 since they ceded their perch at the top sometime after they Sweet Carolined The Shark in 2004.
I know everybody is down on baseball these days and the sport richly deserves its beating with games that are too long and stars that are too bland. The 2017 Red Sox remain flat in this region after another postseason flop and their choice to play and behave in the image of self-appointed leader David Price.
But I can’t think of another time when the Sox trailed two teams in our market.
Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins owned Boston in the early 1970s, just as the Larry Bird Celtics claimed the largest slice of the pie in the 1980s. Patriots fans today worship at the feet of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. But ours has been a baseball town for more than a century and the Red Sox traditionally never go out of season or out of style. In 2003 and 2004, even at a time when the Patriots were winning three Super Bowls in four years, the Sox were still No. 1.
Now with the Patriots solidified as kings, the Celtics are pushing the Red Sox down to the bronze-medal platform (sorry, Bruins fans, but the Spoked-B’s are a distant fourth at this hour). Winning 16 straight games behind the electric Kyrie Irving — and boosted by rising stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum and star coach Brad Stevens — the Celtics at this moment are a bigger deal than the Red Sox.
I don’t say this lightly. I am a baseball guy. It’s a little unfair to measure in November because the Sox are between seasons. But which team do you hear people talking about? And didn’t we used to have more baseball talk around here in December?
There’s no science. A New England sports survey conducted by Channel Media & Marketing Research in August showed that the Sox were still second in local popularity, significantly ahead of the Bruins and Celtics. But that was before Kyrie took the floor. That was before 16 straight. That was before the Celtics became the biggest story in the NBA.
“Lucky the Leprechaun may well have temporarily overtaken Wally’s bullpen cart on Boston’s sports highway,’’ said Richard Johnson, curator of The Sports Museum of New England.
Sports talk radio sets much of the agenda in 2017, so I spoke with a couple of guys who take calls on sports for four hours a day. What do they say? Celtics or Red Sox?
“It’s the Celtics, absolutely,’’ said Michael Felger, cohost of “Felger and Mazz” on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “Hearts and minds. The Celtics have got the passion of the fans. When we talk about the Red Sox, it gets going, but it’s the same 20 older gentlemen that call us. I feel that the Celtics talk is much louder, much younger, much bigger. Brady, Belichick, and Gronk are always first, but the next biggest thing wasn’t even close last summer. It was the Celtic offseason, and it’s really bled into their season,’’
“Celtics, no question,’’ said Gerry Callahan, cohost of WEEI’s morning drive “Kirk and Callahan.” “The win streak generated a lot of excitement. I don’t sense a lot of interest in the Red Sox. The Hot Stove ain’t cooking. Red Sox offseason is dead right now and that hasn’t always been the case. We used to talk Red Sox year-round. I’m surprised. I thought with 93 wins and finishing first and with Betts and Benintendi, there would be more interest.’’
Television ratings are informative. The Red Sox are still slightly higher than the Celtics, but the trends are not good for Boston baseball. The Sox were down 12 percent in 2017. As of Friday, Celtics ratings are up 165 percent from last year. Hope Tom Werner is paying attention.
“It’s not a competition,’’ said Celtics co-owner Steve Pagliuca. “All the owners in this town are actually quite close. I just think that the NBA is a global game now. It’s fast-moving and it’s popular in all markets.’’
Bob Ryan, the de facto commissioner of basketball for many years, resists any notion that the Celtics are bigger than the Red Sox.
“I find it difficult to believe it would ever happen,’’ said the basketball Hall of Famer. “I know the Celtics are capturing imaginations, but I don’t have a sense of them ahead of the Red Sox yet. It’s possible I’m underestimating this. There is an entirely new generation of sports fans and it could be swaying the balance in a way I don’t anticipate. But that would shock me.’’
I am shocked no more. It looks to me as if Lucky has pushed Wally into the breakdown lane.