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Red Sox Brand Takes Hit In Trying October

On Tuesday, new Sox GM Ben Cherington announced that starting pitcher John Lackey, one of the players said to have drank beer in the clubhouse during games, will undergo Tommy John elbow surgery and miss the 2012 season. (AP)

New Sox GM Ben Cherington announced that starting pitcher John Lackey, one of the players said to have drank beer in the clubhouse during games, will undergo Tommy John elbow surgery and miss the 2012 season. (AP)

BOSTON — Despite missing the playoffs, the Red Sox are having a busy October. The team has a new general manager and is looking to replace now-former manager Terry Francona. All this follows a late-season slide and off-field controversy, and leaves questions about a tarnished Sox brand.

Which came first, the fried chicken or the historic, season-ending egg? It’s still up for debate, but since The Boston Globe first reported that some Red Sox starting pitchers drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games, the two events have become intertwined. New GM Ben Cherington says he won’t let the clubhouse drinking controversy define the team.

“I don’t believe that anybody — player, coach, front office, any of you — should be judged on one moment, one episode, one piece of behavior,” Cherington said. “We need to judge people on the body of work.”

The problem is that the Red Sox’ “body of work” also includes blowing a nine-game lead in the American League Wild Card race. Glenn Stout, the author of “Fenway 1912,” says the Red Sox late-season stumbling was reminiscent of the team’s decades as loveable losers, but the image of highly paid athletes drinking beer during games takes fans’ frustrations beyond disappointment.

“There’s just this incredible loyalty to the brand and I don’t think any player could destroy that.”
– Chris Cakebread,
BU advertising professor

“There’s a real betrayal because the difference now than from the past [is] it’s not just like, ‘Oh, you know we spent $10 on a ticket,’ ” Stout said. “‘No, we spent $500 to take the family to Fenway Park and we feel like we were ripped off.’ ”

Kristen Kuliga owns K Sports & Entertainment. The agency’s clients include Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. Kuliga says sports scandals not only impact teams’ images, they affect players’ marketability.

“A lot of companies don’t want to take that risk and be associated with an athlete that has done something,” Kuliga said. “With the Red Sox, however, if I were Popeye’s, I would want to jump all over doing an endorsement.”

Clay Buchholz is one of the players who drank beer during games. In a recent interview with the WEEI Sports Radio Network, the pitcher said he and his teammates recognize that the team’s popularity translates into scrutiny few other franchises experience.

“We’re under a microscope for, everybody says eight months out of the year, but it’s really 12 months out of the year, so… it is what it is,” Buchholz said.

The Red Sox may be used to operating in the spotlight, but Chris Cakebread, a professor of advertising at Boston University’s College of Communication, says the team’s response to the controversy has added to the negative publicity.

“Communications grade is an F because they have absolutely no consistent response,” Cakebread said. “They clearly have not gone and followed the prescribed formula of how they would deal with a negative situation.”

But Cakebread says the Red Sox’ image is simply too strong to be seriously damaged by the occasional polarizing player or controversial incident.

“You’ve had Roger Clemens. You’ve had Manny Ramirez. You’ve got these clowns in the clubhouse drinking beer. They’re individual exceptions to this unbelievably strong sports brand,” he said. “So there’s just this incredible loyalty to the brand and I don’t think any player could destroy that.”

The Red Sox have sold out more than 700 consecutive home games, a Major League Baseball record. Cakebread says the true test of the team’s image is always at the box office.

“It will be fascinating to see in December whether there’s any kind of decline in ticket sales,” he said.

En route to ending the 86-year championship drought, the 2004 Red Sox, also fondly known as “The Idiots,” drank shots of Jack Daniel’s before several postseason games. For winners, a nearly forgotten footnote. For losers, a potential PR nightmare.

Doug Tribou is a reporter and producer for WBUR’s Only A Game, which is heard every Saturday at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.

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