Sox ailing on airwaves, too

TV, radio ratings down sharply, threatening profits, as team’s on-field frustrations mount

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By D.C. Denison and Alexandria McMahon
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2010

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A lackluster season is taking its toll on the Boston Red Sox — on and off the field.

TV and radio ratings have fallen dramatically this season, along with many of the team’s marquee names. As the injured list has grown and the Sox have settled into third place in the American League East, more listeners and viewers seem to be finding other ways to spend a few hours on a summer evening.

The shrinking audiences could affect business — for the team as well as for other companies that have long relied on Red Sox fervor to drive revenues.

After a six-year run as the baseball franchise with the highest rated local telecasts in the country, Boston has tumbled to the fifth spot. Ratings for Red Sox games on NESN in the first half of the season fell almost 36 percent from the same period last year, according to an analysis of Nielsen Media Research data by the SportsBusiness Journal.

Ratings for Red Sox games broadcast on WEEI-AM were down 16.5 percent, to 107,500 listeners. Listenership among 25- to 54-year-old males was down even more — by 28 percent.

Both television and radio ratings were hurt early in the season by the playoff runs of the Bruins, whose games air on NESN, and the Celtics, whose games air on WEEI-AM. Those games caused Red Sox broadcasts to be bumped to alternate outlets.

Still, that is not the whole story, some fans say.

“I wish it wasn’t true, but we have some fair-weather friends in Boston,’’ said John Fiore, 59, a Dorchester writer and filmmaker who considers himself a big fan. “When you are not winning a game, they may be shying away at times and watching a movie instead.’’

Or as Jenna Porter of Cambridge put it: “I have other things to do other than sitting down and watching television.’’

To be sure, attendance at Fenway Park is still the envy of the major leagues. Earlier this month, the team celebrated its 600th straight sellout. Forbes magazine estimated that the Red Sox franchise was worth $870 million, second in value only to the New York Yankees.

But the drop in viewership could have a significant impact on the team’s finances. New England Sports Ventures, which owns the Red Sox, also owns 80 percent of NESN, which means that the team’s revenues are affected by any changes in advertising rates based on viewership. (The Globe’s parent company, The New York Times Co., owns 16.6 percent of New England Sports Ventures.)

In a statement, Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry characterized the season as “challenging on several fronts’’ citing “an unusual number of injuries.’’

“We still expect to make a very strong run for the postseason,’’ he said. “No one is giving up on the season here.’’

Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College in Northampton who is frequently hired as a consultant by sports businesses, said the declines in ratings are a fluke.

“There’s always going to be an ebb and flow to these things,’’ he said.

Zimbalist said the playoff runs of the Celtics and the Bruins caused the team to lose a lot of casual viewers as baseball games were moved to hard-to-find stations. The injury-plagued start to this season also dampened fan interest, he said.

“The team also lacks a superhero star,’’ Zimbalist added. “If the decline carries into next year, it may be a cause for concern, but I don’t think we’re in danger of seeing Comcast dropping NESN.’’

Megan Shreeve, 25, a Cambridge nanny, said she has not been watching the Red Sox much this season, but she expects to tune in eventually. “My favorite lineup is sort of not around. . . . They are all in rehab,’’ she said.

Bobby Kenney, 53, an actor, said: “I am not a fair-weather friend. . . . Good or bad I am going to watch them.’’

John Fisher, a former sports industry executive who is now a marketing instructor at Babson College in Wellesley, said that since the Red Sox have won two championships, the value of the Red Sox brand has moved from being “expectation-driven’’ to “continuation driven,’’ which he said is harder to keep up, because it’s difficult to maintain that level of excitement.

Still, “the Boston Red Sox are as close to an iconic sports brand as you can get,’’ he said. “You see Red Sox caps in airports all over the world. That’s not in danger of going away.’’

The team also continues to command the screens in the city’s sports bars. Peter Colton, owner of The Four’s, a sports bar and restaurant on Canal Street, said that during the season the vast majority of the 44 video screens in his establishment are tuned to the Red Sox.

“It’s summer and this is still a baseball town,’’ he said, “so the Sox are still the main attraction.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at

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