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Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Fenway Park set for soccer match

Associated Press

BOSTON -- It's just past noon, and fans are lining up along Yawkey Way to get into Fenway Park. First pitch is seven hours away, but that's not really an issue because this Boston Red Sox game, like the 597 before it, is sold out.

These fans are waiting to tour the ballpark, paying $12 apiece to see the Green Monster without Ted Williams or Yaz or even Daniel Nava patrolling the grass in front. In all, almost 350,000 people will pass through the turnstiles this year without seeing a baseball game.

The oldest ballpark in the major leagues, Fenway is approaching its 100th birthday with what could be its busiest year ever, starting on New Year's Day with the NHL Winter Classic and continuing on Wednesday night with "Football at Fenway," a soccer match between European clubs Glasgow Celtic and Sporting Lisbon.

"We think Fenway Park is a great place to go in the summer with the kids," said Sam Kennedy, the Red Sox executive vice president and chief operating officer. "We're in the business of selling the brand of baseball, but the soccer crowd is an opportunity for 30,000 new people to experience Fenway Park."

Officials from the soccer clubs exchanged jerseys on Tuesday night and posed for pictures with the 2004 and '07 World Series trophies. Behind them, a soccer pitch was laid out over the baseball diamond, with the goals along the third-base line and in front of the baseball bullpens in right field; sod had been placed over the infield dirt and where the pitcher's mound would be.

"For me, personally, it's a dream to be at Fenway Park," said Celtic commercial director Adrian Filby, who in a thick Scottish accent rattled off references to Teddy Ballgame and the Curse of the Bambino. "I've been telling them all about Fenway. These guys get it. When they walked in they could see the history of the park. They could see how special this place is."

Sporting football director Francisco Costa said he knew little about baseball before arriving in Boston.

"It's impressive," he said. "You feel some kind of magic here."

Since the ownership group led by John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino bought the team in 2002, the Red Sox have given Fenway a total makeover, putting seats atop the Green Monster, turning Yawkey Way into a plaza on game days and modernizing the ballpark in hundreds of other ways from waterproofing to wheelchair accessibility.

During that span, the ballclub has also won two World Series and reached the playoffs in all but two seasons while selling out every game since May 15, 2003 -- a record streak that reached 600 on Sunday.

The success on and off the field left them looking for other ways to expand their business. And they quickly realized that the most underutilized asset they had was the "lyric little bandbox of a ballpark" that was christened the same week in 1912 that the Titanic sank.

"Immediately after we got here, we recognized that there was this great facility sitting here year-round that we controlled and operated," said Kennedy, who also serves as president of the business spinoff Fenway Sports Group. "We have the luxury of looking at new opportunities because our core business is so strong. But we never take our focus away from the core business."

They have held concerts, starting with Bruce Springsteen in 2003 and also including groups like The Rolling Stones and, next month, Aerosmith. They have brought in their minor league affiliates for a "Futures at Fenway" date, hosted the Cape Cod League All-Star Game and turned the field over to the local colleges in the Baseball Beanpot.

Things took off with the Winter Classic, which used Fenway as a picturesque backdrop for the outdoor game between the Boston Bruins and the Philadelphia Flyers. The Red Sox added a college hockey game between archrivals Boston College and Boston University -- the two most recent NCAA champions; the rink was also opened up for public skating and rented out to local teams.

"Pulling off that event gave us the courage to talk about other non-baseball events," Kennedy said recently over lunch in a restaurant that has been built inside the ballpark's walls.

This year's Red Sox schedule left Fenway empty for most of July, including a 10-game West Coast road trip that the ballclub began on Monday night in Oakland. Kennedy spent much of the spring trying to woo top European soccer teams to Boston, hoping to capitalize on an anticipated World Cup bump in interest.

He eventually landed Sporting and Celtic for the 19th soccer game played on the Fenway field -- the first since Pele brought Brazil's Santos in 1968 to play the Boston Beacons of the North American Soccer League.

More than 30,000 tickets have been sold for Wednesday night's match, helped by the strong draw from the Portuguese community around New England. Corporate sponsorships have also been strong, Kennedy said.

"It was a big risk: Soccer is not Bruce Springsteen; it's not the Winter Classic," he said. "From an artistic perspective, obviously a sellout crowd would be great. But not everything needs to be a sellout to be a success."