Red Sox fans are not at all happy, and the team knows it.
Well before the Red Sox traded away one of the best players in Major League Baseball, fans had begun to tune out, either by turning off NESN or not filling the seats at Fenway Park toward the end of last year’s 84-win, playoff-whiff of a season.
But when they shipped outfielder Mookie Betts to the Dodgers along with pitcher David Price — a former MVP and a former Cy Young winner who helped lift Boston to the 2018 World Series championship – they compounded the already steep degree of difficulty that faced them in trying to make their fans fall back in love with their team.
So how will the Red Sox market, sell, and woo back an angry and skeptical fan base to a Mookie-less team?
“Sports is in the unique position where if you win, you will be popular, and it really boils down to that – if they made the right call, they’ll look great in a couple of years,” said Erik Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management. “Fans are quick to forgive, but they’re not quick to forget and they’re going to be keeping an eye on this trade and what the result is.”
Red Sox principal owner John Henry, who also owns the Globe, and team president and CEO Sam Kennedy, along with Adam Grossman, the team’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, gathered around a conference table in the executive offices on 4 Jersey St. the day after the trade to offer their calculus on how and why they made the trade, as well as discuss a win-back-the-fans campaign they acknowledge will not be won any time soon.
“From a human perspective, [the trade] was very, very difficult and we knew there was going to be a strong negative reaction – we anticipated that,” said Kennedy, who said he’s heard plenty of strong negative reaction to the trade from his children, family, friends, season-ticket owners, and business partners. “It’s great, because you want to hear from your constituents and you want to be able to explain why we couldn’t talk about this for a long time, because we weren’t sure what was going to happen.”
Outside of Betts and Price’s images being scrubbed from the Red Sox website’s ticketing ads, the details of a marketing plan are still fuzzy. One was in the works before the trade, given the reality of what happened in 2019 and over the offseason. Kennedy said last fall that attendance over 79 games at Fenway Park last season was down 0.7 percent, while NESN ratings dropped 23 percent.
The day after the Betts trade, Kennedy said overall ticket sales were behind last year’s pace by more than 15 percent, and that the renewal rate of season-ticket holders was down from the usual percentage in the high 80s to the low 80s.
Kennedy said nobody has asked for a refund – “I think you underestimate our fans,” said Henry at the suggestion – and that the team will not roll back the ticket price increase, another idea that amused Henry.
“As a result of making trades?” he asked.
There will be plenty of promotional items, theme nights, and activities for fans, but the club will not deviate from focusing its promotional efforts on its players.
“In 19 years here, we’ve been very consistent in recognizing that the thing that sells tickets and drives interest in the Boston Red Sox is a competitive team – our fans enjoy young players, they enjoy homegrown players, they enjoy a collection of free agents – we’re going to market the heck out of this team the way we always do,” Kennedy said.
Prepare for plenty of ads featuring young talents like Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, with plenty of Jackie Bradley Jr., J.D. Martinez, Chris Sale, and Eduardo Rodriguez as well.
The wait until the beginning of the season on March 26 could be a long one.
“I think the organization has to weather the storm,” said Shawn McBride, executive vice president for sports at Ketchum, a global public relations firm. “They have to get to Opening Day, when this will at last be able to be dialed down. Then see how they’re playing. If the team is likable and they’re playing an exciting brand of baseball, that could be the best elixir.”
The storm blew strong from the start, and it has yet to push out to sea. On Twitter, the Red Sox had their ratio – the buzzword for when a tweet receives considerably more replies than likes or retweets – handed to them.
The official 33-word tweet announcing the trade generated nearly 2,000 largely negative replies and fewer than a thousand retweets. Of the statements the team tweeted from chairman Tom Werner, Kennedy, Bloom, and Henry, the principal owner received the harshest ratio — 1,100 to 241 — with many replies laced with salty language.
Kennedy said that he “absolutely” believes the 2020 team is a playoff-caliber squad and while it got much harder by trading away Betts and Price, he said “in no way are we waving the white flag.”
“We’ve got to get these players to come together and perform at a higher level than they did last year,” Kennedy said. “That will be the path forward – probably less talk from us, except to be accountable to this deal we made, be accountable for other major decisions that we make but we’ll let the team go out and speak for themselves as we go into spring training and as we get beyond what was a tough, tough decision.”
Both Henry and Kennedy wanted to alter, by almost 180 degrees, the prevailing and understandable perception that the Betts trade was made for purely financial reasons. It’s a line of reasoning that was launched last September by Henry himself when he told reporters “This year we need to be under the [competitive balance tax].”
Henry downplayed the notion that financial tailwinds steered the trade.
“You’re hung up on CBT,” Henry said. “You see this and I think the media, too, to some extent, ever since we mentioned that clubs have a tendency to get below CBT once in a while. It’s surprising that anyone would think we would outspend every other team in baseball every single year. To me, that’s a little surprising. Clubs have to make difficult decisions, and one of the biggest decisions they have to make is, ‘Do we potentially let a great player walk away for very little compensation?’ That’s one of the decisions that you have to make irrespective of CBT – it has nothing to do with CBT.”
The Red Sox are a subsidiary of Fenway Sports Group, a global conglomerate that includes the Liverpool FC soccer team and has grown into a $6.6 billion enterprise, ranked recently by Forbes as the third-largest sports group in the world.
The perception the Red Sox, or FSG, could afford to keep Betts, sign everyone, and pay all penalties with ease is not valid, said Kennedy.
“First of all, Fenway Sports Group is doing great, it’s a collection of companies that John and [chairman] Tom [Werner] and Mike Gordon and their partners own, but each individual entity truly operates independently,” Kennedy said. “The Red Sox have to make the best decisions for the Red Sox. That’s how we operate and how we’ve operated in 19 years.”
Kennedy said “the characterization of this as a financial move or a payroll slash is misleading,” referring to the club’s track record on spending for talent. The Red Sox led all 29 other MLB teams in payroll the last two seasons, and it has never been lower than the fifth in baseball in this ownership group’s 18 full seasons. The club has also been over the CBT 10 times over the last 17 years.
Henry said the CBT was only “an element,” and not the reason for making the Betts trade.
The notion that the top of the Red Sox corporate ladder bears responsibility for making decisions that put it in the payroll jam is one both Henry and Kennedy were willing to accept.
“In management, we’ve made a lot of bad, wrong decisions in our 19 years here,” Kennedy said.
The return for Betts and Price – outfielder Alex Verdugo, catcher Connor Wong, and infielder Jeter Downs – surprised them, said Henry. Time will tell how the trio pan out, but at this point, few would argue the Red Sox are better this year than last.
“Maybe you and others at this point undervalue the baseball side of the deal — we have balance, and not just this year,” said Henry, who said fans would not need as much time as one might think to accept the return as adequate from a baseball perspective.
“I think [fans] rely upon us for both the short term and the long term to make the right decision for competitiveness – that doesn’t always entail putting this year ahead of other years.”