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On Opening Day, Red Sox CEO Talks Big League Business

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Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino at Fenway Park. (Sarah Bush/WBUR)
Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino at Fenway Park. (Sarah Bush/WBUR)

It's now the true start of spring...if you're talking baseball in Boston. Monday is opening day at Fenway Park. This season will be a little different than last — there'll be a few new players on the field. Off the field, opening day is sold out as usual, but it's the first time ticket prices have been frozen in 14 years.

As part of an occasional series of conversations to gauge the impact of the recession on Massachusetts, WBUR visited Fenway as crews were putting the finishing touches on the ballpark, and spoke in the bleachers to Red Sox CEO and President Larry Lucchino about how deeply the economy is affecting the team.

LARRY LUCCHINO: Certainly, the difficult economic times present challenges to us and to our fans. We've tried to address them as best we can. We froze ticket prices at last year's level, the first time that's happened in 14 years. We froze concession prices. So I think we're taking some steps to try to make it a little easier for people to continue their loyalty to, and attendance at, Red Sox games.

BOB OAKES: Before we came upstairs and out into the stands, we were in the ticket office and I was noticing that, at this moment, there are a lot of games for which there are single-seat tickets or obstructed-view tickets still available. You think the streak of sell-outs is going to continue, or might there be some games this season for which there won't be sell-outs? I know you had expressed some concern along those lines.

LUCCHINO: At this point, it's too early to say. But we are hopeful that we will continue to sell out.

OAKES: Even though you're holding ticket prices steady and concession prices steady this season, it could be a struggle for some people to come see these games. It's gonna be sacrifice to come root for the home team, for some of these folks out here.

LUCCHINO: Well, I think it is. And one of the things we've talked to our day-of-game employees about is to make sure that people have as good an experience as possible, so that they don't feel as though whatever sacrifices they made to come to the ballpark were inappropriate. 

OAKES: How about corporate support? How are you doing filling the boxes?

LUCCHINO: The boxes are not just sold to corporations, the corporations are also part of the advertising portfolio of Fenway Park, and we are lucky in that regard. The Boston business community is loyal and broad, and has stepped up again this year to help us sell the inventory that we have.

OAKES: And have you done that? Are you full up?

LUCCHINO: We are in the process. We continue to sell for the first part of the season.

OAKES: A portion of the team is up for sale. The New York Times, looking to raise money by selling its minority interest. What are you learning from potential buyers about the value of the team?

LUCCHINO: Well, the sale of The New York Times' seventeen-plus percent is being handled by The New York Times, and their investment bankers. So we don't hear day-to-day reports.

OAKES: What do you suspect?

LUCCHINO: That these are somewhat difficult times, and there's probably a smaller pool of  potential purchasers than there might otherwise be.

OAKES: Many businesses in other sectors have had to lay off people. The NFL has had to lay off people. Is the Red Sox front office considering any of that?

LUCCHINO: We are not engaged in wholesale forloughs or cutbacks, and we hope not to have to cut into the muscle in that way.

OAKES: Do you think that the Red Sox, as a major-league sports team, will never really be hit as hard as other sectors of the economy? You know, non-sports, non-entertainment sectors.

LUCCHINO: Sports, and baseball in particular, may be more vulnerable than it has been in the past years. The economics of the game has changed, there's much more business participation in both seats and sponsorships and advertising. We think that we are a little luckier up here — in Boston and New England — because we have such a loyal fan base, such a loyal business community base, but we will be impacted — no one is immune.

OAKES: Does business strategy factor in to baseball strategy? I ask that question for this reason: The Yankees, in the off-season, have signed three top players for something on the order of $400-plus million. The Red Sox have re-upped a bunch of players for way less than that, including eight pretty good players for somewhere around $20 million, but for short-term contracts. Are short-term contracts part of the strategy?

LUCCHINO: We do think that it is important to have some flexibility in your payroll and to have a balanced portfolio, and that necessarily includes some short-term contracts.

OAKES: Lastly, I think I should ask you -- your expectations for the team — will we be competitive? I'm sure you think we will be.

LUCCHINO: This is a very strong team. John Henry, Tom Warner, our entire group came here, we made a couple of fundamental commitments to the fans. And one of them was we would field a team worthy of the fans' support. I think this year's team is worthy of the fans support.

WEB EXTRA: Lucchino on this year's team, and the similarities between the Yankees and Congress.

More Opening Day coverage: Baseball analyst Glenn Stout previews the 2009 season.

This program aired on April 6, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Bob Oakes Twitter Host, Morning Edition
Bob Oakes has been WBUR's Morning Edition anchor since 1992.

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