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For unlucky ones, Sox out of sight

It was an announcement that barely got anyone's attention. A couple of weeks back, the Red Sox and NESN declared the end of their Friday night relationship with Channel 38, committing all locally televised Red Sox games to pay cable.

This means no free television access to the Red Sox in 2006, except for a handful of games that will be carried nationally on the Fox network.

For the last three years, people without cable in this market have been able to watch the Red Sox on Channel 38 on Friday nights. Twenty-eight games per year. For free. Now if you don't have cable, you don't have the Red Sox -- except for that random Fox game once a month.

It's unfortunate. It's also elitist, classist, and probably greedy, too. The Sox are putting all their games on NESN because it means more money for the organization. Unfortunately, it takes the team away from some loyal fans who don't have the cash for cable.

We tend to think we live in a world in which everybody has cable television and personal computer access. Well, it's not everybody. In the Boston market, 6-7 percent of homes do not have cable television. The majority of those households make less than $50,000 per year.

Folks without cable? You know who they are. Probably your elderly aunt in Cohasset, the one who still has a rotary phone. She loves the Red Sox. Recently, she's loved them on Friday nights when she can watch for free. It's the same in a lot of hospitals, shelters, and religious residences. Not everybody has cable.

According to Scarborough Research, there are 589,635 adults in the Boston market (Eastern Massachusetts from the Cape to Southern New Hampshire and as far west as Worcester) without cable or satellite television. More than 20 percent of the non-cable population is nonwhite and 51.8 percent is made up of households earning less than $50,000. Nineteen percent of the non-cable/satellite people are over 65.

Eileen O'Brien, director of the Elders Living at Home Program at Boston Medical Center, said, ''I know people who really look forward to that Friday night game. One of my neighbors is a man who's 75 years old and that's the only way he gets to watch the Red Sox. He won't be able to see any games.

''This is obviously cutting off some of the people who are their oldest and most dedicated fans. We tend to think that everybody has cable but if your fixed income is 500 bucks a month, that's still out of your reach. And some of those people, in some ways, need the Red Sox more than anybody."

Tom Werner, one of the Red Sox owners -- and the man who oversees the television arm of the organization -- said, ''We don't want to exclude people who can't afford cable, but we don't want to give free tickets to people, either. We have to balance that concern. Ninety-five percent of people in Boston have cable."

According to Werner, the decision was made by NESN president Sean McGrail.

McGrail pointed out that 30 professional teams, including the Bruins and Celtics, air their games exclusively on cable. He said it was a necessary move in order to put high-definition quality into the entire market.

''The vast majority of people subscribe to cable," said McGrail. ''I think most people who are fans of sports do subscribe to cable or satellite television."

What about Sox fans who can't afford cable?

''It's a tiny fraction," said McGrail.

Any consideration for them?

''I think I answered that," he said. ''The vast majority do."

Both McGrail and Werner said the move was financially motivated. The additional income is believed to be in the vicinity of $4 million per year, but neither executive would comment on that figure. Werner said, ''You could say it's a sizable difference."

(Disclosure time: The New York Times Co., which owns the Boston Globe, owns 17 percent of the Red Sox, which includes NESN.)

Julio Marenghi, president and general manager of Channel 38, said, ''We were prepared to make a sizable increase in our rights offering, but NESN declined, as they were looking to do this completely on their air. The Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, and Mets are major markets, but those teams still have broadcast relationships with local television stations in their respective markets."

The Dodgers recently signed a deal that will bring 56 games per year to cableless fans for the next eight seasons. The Yankees offer 20 games on free television, the Mets 25, and the Cubs at least 50. Responding to McGrail's claim that 30 other professional teams are available only on cable, Marenghi said, ''Most of them can't find a [free TV] broadcast home. The Bruins and Celtics can't get local television to take their teams."

Congressman Ed Markey (D-Malden), the ranking Democrat on the Telecommunications Subcommittee, said, ''The Red Sox have a special relationship with Boston. I feel there should be a certain number of games each year that are on broadcast television to ensure that everyone can see their special team, and I have communicated that to the Red Sox."

Surprisingly, Mayor Thomas M. Menino had no comment. His office was contacted by the Globe last Monday, with a followup call Thursday.

Reminded that this decision might have a significant impact in minority communities, Werner said, ''We have outreach programs. We want to bring more Hispanics and African-Americans to Fenway Park. And remember, there are still a handful of [Fox] games over the air."

NESN started broadcasting the Red Sox in 1984, gradually increasing the number of games each year. Now the message is clear: You want to watch the Red Sox on television, you have to pay.

''I don't want you to portray me as insensitive," Werner continued. ''I am sensitive. But this is a business decision. And in our desire to remain competitive, we support Sean's decision. We think it's the right thing to do. We'll review the decision in a few years and see if it makes sense."

It's a little lame for Werner to pin this whole thing on McGrail. The move is simply too big for the NESN president to make alone. This goes all the way to the top: John W. Henry.

Financially, it probably does make sense for the Red Sox to pull the plug on free television access for fans. But it's a loss. It's more erosion from the ''Hi, neighbor, have a 'Gansett" days, when your dad mowed the lawn Saturday morning, then sat in front of the television to watch the Red Sox. For free.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is

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