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It's a brand-new ballgame

Owners -- and world title -- make the Sox a cultural phenomenon

NEW YORK -- The question isn't who has called, but who has not?

Since 11:40 p.m. on Oct. 27, the moment Doug Mientkiewicz closed his glove on a World Series championship, the Red Sox' public relations staff has answered the phone to find on the other end: "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Barbara Walters, "MTV Cribs," "Celebrity Poker," the Food Network, the Travel Channel, People magazine, Time magazine, Vanity Fair, "The Late Show with David Letterman," "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," "Jimmy Kimmel Live," "Live with Regis and Kelly," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," Men's Fitness, Men's Health, Men's Journal, Maxim, Glamour, "The Charlie Rose Show," GQ, "ABC World News Tonight," "Nightline," "ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos," the "Today" show, "Good Morning America," Nick Jr. Magazine, "BBC Extra Time," US Business Review, Fortune magazine, Forbes magazine, "ESPN Sunday Night Football," CNBC's "Kudlow and Cramer," Comedy Central's "Last Laugh 2004," CMO Caribbean Male Magazine, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, "Entertainment Tonight," "The Oprah Winfrey Show," The Golf Channel, the Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo.

"And," said Glenn Geffner, the team's vice president for media relations, "the list goes on and on."

The 105th Red Sox season begins tonight at Yankee Stadium, and the team you will see opposing the Yankees is not your father's Red Sox. That "B" is no longer just the logo of a baseball team. It is a cultural phenomenon emblematic of community and capitalism, the two blended seamlessly and seemingly without limits by an enterprising ownership and a willing fan base.

"They've created a brand," said Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College and author of "Baseball and Billions: A Probing Look Inside the Big Business of Our National Pastime." "They had a lot to start with. Boston is a great baseball town. But they've exploited it. They've created a sense of community around the Red Sox, taking full advantage of the fulcrum of baseball."

On the precipice of another season, it seems a proper time to take stock of what the Red Sox have become.

Staggering popularity
Oh, yeah. Playboy and Penthouse called as well.

"They both asked for Theo [Epstein]," Geffner said. "Not to pose. To talk."

The 31-year-old general manager declined.

At the annual Hot Stove, Cool Music event at the Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue Jan. 9, Epstein joined pitchers Bronson Arroyo and Lenny DiNardo and ESPN's Peter Gammons to raise money for the Jimmy Fund. Arroyo sang and strummed covers of Stone Temple Pilots' "Plush" and Bush's "Machinehead," but it was Epstein who was money that night.

A woman bid $22,000 for four tickets to sit next to Epstein at a game this season. So benumbed by the bidding war, Epstein accepted the second-place bid, as well, raising $21,000 more for cancer research.

The appeal to those check-writing fans was Epstein, but the secondary reality is that it's next to impossible to buy a ticket to watch this team.

On Opening Day 2002, the first game under the current ownership, the Red Sox' season-ticket base was 15,061. There was no waiting list. Now, the team has capped its season-ticket base at 20,680 and compiled a waiting list 4,000 deep. The wait figures to be a long one.

Despite the crushing end to the 2003 season, courtesy of Aaron Booone, all but about 40 season ticket-holders renewed for 2004. The exact renewal rate was 99.8 percent. In the wake of the World Series win, 99.2 percent renewed.

"One year in San Diego was 85 percent," said Mike Dee, the Sox' chief operating officer, who arrived via the San Diego Padres. "That was off the charts. Most teams would tell you anything over 80 is good news."

It wasn't just at Fenway that the fans showed up to see the Sox. In 2004, they ranked fourth in Major League Baseball in road attendance, one of the better measures of a team's popularity. At 36,002, Boston trailed only the Yankees (40,847), Cubs (37,100), and Giants (36,190).

No team was a bigger draw in Florida this spring than the Sox, who led the Grapefruit League in road attendance at an average of 7,591. One day in March, following a dandy piece of glove work by Kevin Youkilis, a "Yooouuukk" bellow rose from Fort Lauderdale Stadium, home of the Baltimore Orioles.

"They say `Red Sox Nation,' " Youkilis said. "It's really a nation of Red Sox fans."

At home in Fort Myers, the Sox sold out all 16 spring training games for the first time and set a total attendance record of 124,023. In fact, 2,533 fans showed up simply to watch their inaugural workout Feb. 22. Back at Fenway, the Sox will enter the season with 145 consecutive sellouts, third-best all-time in major league baseball history.

These days, even when no one is in the seats, people are in the park. Fenway hosted eight weddings in 2004, and eight more already are scheduled for 2005. Want to host your own night in the 406 Club in the dead of winter? It's yours for up to six hours for $5,000 or less.

Read all about it
That kind of multipurpose use existed under the previous ownership but the operation wasn't streamlined, the profit not what it could be. The present Sox ownership arrived in Boston in winter 2002 to find a company called Gourmet Caterers booking all events for the 406 Club, then named the 600 Club.

"We said, `Why would we entrust our food company, Aramark [to do that job]?' " Dee said. "We love them, but I don't want them renting out space. We made that change and created an in-house department."

Just last Thursday, the club announced a partnership with iParty, a leading party retailer. The company will market and execute smaller functions for up to 20 people in common spaces such as Fenway club lounges, Dee said.

Outside the park merchandise never has sold better than it did late last season. The Sox, perennially in a battle with the Cubs for second place in total baseball merchandise sold, passed Chicago's lovable losers for 2004, falling shy of only the Yankees, Dee said.

Tomorrow, at least 10 Red Sox will read the Top Ten List on Letterman's show. On Wednesday, "Fever Pitch," the Farrelly Brothers movie starring Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon, will debut in Boston. Johnny Damon, Trot Nixon, Jason Varitek, and Mike Timlin all have speaking roles in the movie.

In addition, 25 Sox-based books, by Geffner's count, have been released since the conclusion of last season or will be released in the coming weeks and months.

"The only overwhelming aspect of all of this is the amount of books being released over a short period," said Sox principal owner John W. Henry. "I haven't seen `Fever Pitch' yet but I am greatly looking forward to it."

He might be less enthused about the release of Johnny Damon's book, "Idiot: Beating The Curse and Enjoying the Game of Life." The book hits shelves tomorrow, and Damon, on an offday for the team, will visit with Regis and Kelly in the morning, then sign books at the Barnes & Noble in Rockefeller Center.

In the book, Damon details how he cheated on his ex-wife and mother of his twin children. When David Wells's book, "Perfect I'm Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball" came out in 2003, revealing that the then-Yankee had pitched a perfect game "half drunk," the Yankees fined him $100,000. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman claimed the book "did tarnish the Yankee image." Might Damon's do the same to the Red Sox's identity?

"Johnny Damon's been a terrific member of the Red Sox," said CEO Larry Lucchino, who has not yet read the book. "He has been on the field, in the clubhouse. He has been a leader, enormously popular, generous with his time. We are pleased he has been a member of the Sox since we have been here.

"I'm not going to comment on his domestic life. That's outside the scope of what I think I . . . I'm not going to presume something's going to bother me. I hope it will be fair and accurate and not cause us harm."

Assessing an empire
Sox chairman Tom Werner is a member of "The Commissioner's Initiative: Major League Baseball in the 21st Century," a quality-control task force charged with safeguarding baseball's best interests and making recommendations for enhancing the game. A couple of years back, Werner found himself talking with Irv Rein, a fellow committee member and professor of communications at Northwestern University.

"He said that part of the value of the Boston Red Sox from an economic standpoint is the value of having this 80-year quest that would continue, and that the value of the team would diminish if we actually did win the World Series," Werner said. "I laughed. He said, `That's an intangible aspect and that's part of the Boston Red Sox.' I said to him, `You know what, I look forward to the day when we can test your proposition.' "

Forbes, which publishes team valuations about this time each year, pegged the Sox at $230 million in 1998, $256 million in 1999, $284 million in 2000, $339 million in 2001, $426 million in 2002, $488 million in 2003, and $533 million in 2004. The 2004 figure ranked second to the Yankees ($832 million).

No one knows, Zimbalist said, exactly how much a franchise is worth until it's sold. But the Smith College economist ranks the world's richest sports franchises as follows.

"Probably the highest in the NFL, the Redskins and the Cowboys, probably are both over $1 billion," Zimbalist said. "Probably the highest value in baseball, the Yankees, are close to $1 billion, $900 million. Outside of the US, Manchester United is close to $1 billion."

The Sox?

"They're not at the top," Zimbalist said. "Remember, the $700 million price [in December 2001] included 80 percent of NESN. I'm talking clubs alone, not clubs plus media attachments. I think NESN probably was in the neighborhood of $250 million-$300 million at the time of the sale. A good chunk, probably $50 million, was Fenway. The team itself was about $400 million.

"If you sold that package today, I think it would be close to $1 billion."

Henry was asked about the $700 million purchase price, which back in 2002 was more than double the most ever paid for a baseball team.

"I thought it was a big price," he said. "I knew with Larry as CEO, with Tom and me working together, and with the kind of partnership group we had assembled that we would be successful. Still, our expectations have been exceeded."

How, then, did the value of the team soar an estimated $200 million-$300 million in three years?

"Basically, they've done everything exactly right," said Zimbalist. "It's an absolutely remarkable story. They've changed the corporate culture of the Sox. They've extended themselves into the community. They've opened up Fenway to the community.

"The whole notion that you work for the Red Sox, you work in baseball, the other people need to look up to you, you're better than them, that whole notion is gone."

This, of course, began at the top, with Henry, Lucchino, and Werner. Lucchino instituted a kangaroo court within the front office. Employees who dismiss a fan inquiry quickly or thoughtlessly, for instance, might be fined $5 or $10, money that is pooled for office parties.

"We are big believers in micro-marketing," Lucchino said. "Most people worry mass. We worry micro, being responsive to people."

The Sox long have appealed to people of all walks of life, though the emergence of the female fan in recent years is a clear sign of brand-strengthening. At one souvenir stand on the opening day of camp this spring, the pink, green, and yellow Sox hats sold out, many bought by women, according to the stand's vendor.

"The Red Sox had an enormously broad demographic to begin with -- children, boys and girls, senior citizens," Lucchino said. "But we have tried to focus a bit on women."

The media attention surely helps. Jason Varitek was on the cover of the most recent ESPN the Magazine. Varitek and Keith Foulke also appeared on the cover of Time magazine the day before the presidential election. Damon and Derek Jeter share the cover of Sports Illustrated's baseball preview issue.

The requests continue
"I have regular e-mail correspondence with a sports columnist in India who got caught up in the story of the Red Sox and writes about us with some regularity," Geffner said.

The media presence at the April 11 home opener vs. the Yankees, the day the Sox unfurl the World Series banner and receive their rings, "will be significantly larger than the Division Series," Geffner said. "It will not be as large as the ALCS because without the benefit of any seat kills, we simply cannot accommodate many people who would like to be here."

Geffner averages a couple of hundred e-mails a day, plus phone calls and voice-mails, requesting press credentials, player interviews, or player participation in something.

"If I did nothing but answer my phone, respond to voice-mails, and respond to e-mails, I could work 18 hours a day and not keep up," Geffner said. "Clearly, the number of requests is at an all-time high and the variety of media outlets looking to work with the Red Sox is staggering."

Lucchino emphasized that point. He finds upside in the Sox brand appearing in nontraditional places such as Bravo's "Queer Eye."

"I do think it can be a very positive thing for your franchise to have new and different media outlets clamoring for your players, for your story, for your history," Lucchino said.

No request this winter was more humbling than the invitation to visit the White House March 2. President Bush welcomed each player. Upon reaching David Ortiz, Bush addressed the Sox' designated hitter as "Senor Octubre."

"How the hell he know that?" Ortiz said later.

How could he not?

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