Fenway still growing enough green for Red Sox

A week ago, the Red Sox officially committed to staying put in Fenway Park, confirming what most had known all along.

Perhaps if the Red Sox could have found a way to finance a replacement for Fenway, now 93 years old, they would have. However, after spending some $700 million for the franchise (along with Fenway itself and the New England Sports Network), the Red Sox ownership doesn't have the resources to privately build a new ballpark, the cost of which, given land and labor costs in Boston, would probably equal if not surpass what it paid for the franchise itself.

In the last 10 years, the only two new sports facilities in New England Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, home of the NFL's Patriots; and the TD Bank North Garden, which hosts the NHL's Bruins and NBA's Celtics were built almost entirely with private funding.

If they had chosen to replace Fenway, the Red Sox might have gotten infrastructure help and tax assistance from city and state entities, but little else. Thus, Fenway it is.

Naturally, the news was greeted wildly by traditionalists and tree huggers who can't let go of Fenway's charm and who find a way to gloss over its many imperfections. Where they see history and tradition, others see poor access, inadequate parking, obstructed views and cramped seating.

True, the new ownership has, at great expense, made significant upgrades that benefit players and fans. This year alone, the players will get an expanded clubhouse and weight room facilities and a batting cage of their own stationed right behind the dugout. Fans, meanwhile, get wider concourses and soon, more seating.

But the biggest negative associated with a long stay at Fenway remains the bottom line.

"We didn't make simply an aesthetic or sentimental decision [to remain at Fenway]," club CEO Larry Lucchino said. "We made a decision that had a substantial business component to it, as well. If we didn't think we couldn't expand or improve it while preserving and protecting Fenway, we would not have made the long-term commitment."

The Red Sox have set club attendance records in each of the last five seasons and have a sellout streak that dates back to May 15, 2003, the longest such active streak in the game.

Those numbers have been achieved in the face of yearly price increases to the point that the best box seats now go for $80 and $85. And of course, even with an expansion of the seating capacity in a five-year span, this ownership group will have upped seating by almost 20 percent Fenway remains the smallest ballpark in the majors.

Never mind the Wall, or Pesky's Pole or The Triangle. The more pressing question is: Can the Red Sox continue to make Fenway financially viable?

"Fenway, as it is now, already provides enough revenue to field competitive teams," principal owner John Henry said. "To keep pace, we need to continue to make improvements to Fenway, both in enhancing the fan experience and in strengthening revenues."

Indeed, the Red Sox' 2005 payroll of approximately $130 million ranks them second in baseball, behind only the Yankees. But there's more than a $75 million gap between the Sox and Yankees, a significant distance between rivals fighting for the same division title and pennant.

Increasingly, the Sox are looking for creative ways to find new revenue streams. This will mark the third straight year they've hosted two concerts in the ballpark; this year's headliners will be the Rolling Stones.

Additionally, the Sox are floating the notion of hosting a college hockey tournament, to be held at the ballpark each winter. Public skating might be offered. The ballpark can also be rented for weddings and other events.

Tours of the ballpark are also enormously popular. Last year, more than 110,000 visitors got a behind-the-scenes look, at a cost of $10 each, generating more than $1 million in revenue.

In a very real way, then, the ballpark though outmoded in some ways is part of the franchise's appeal and it's possible that the team's enormous popularity is inexorably linked to its home.

"The tradeoff with a new, bigger ballpark," Lucchino cautions, "is that you're sacrificing Fenway's history, idiosyncrasies, intimacy and charm. Those things are important to the bottom line, too. We think [those factors] will secure popularity for the club in good years and, heaven forbid, bad years.

"We looked at the decision [to give that up] and said 'No, thank you.' "

Fenway's capacity, now at 35,095, will grow to just over 39,000 for 2007. The limited seating, while financially restrictive, serves as an inducement for fans who feel compelled to snap up tickets when they're first offered, not wanting to be shut out.

But even the increased capacity pales in comparison with Yankee Stadium, which seats some 57,000. And Fenway's luxury suites, constructed in 1989, pale in comparison with the number available at the many new ballparks built since Camden Yards began the modern stadium era just over a decade ago.

Plans call for the demolition of the 406 Club an ill-conceived, enclosed theater that never caught on with ticket buyers or businesses and the installation of a pavilion level featuring amenities associated with club seating.

"We will be announcing the particulars of new seating very shortly," Henry said. "This is a process, but make no mistake, there is only so much we can do to increase revenues at the ballpark. Therefore, we must be very active in trying to increase revenues outside the ballpark."

Already, great strides have been made. Thanks to an aggressive sales team, the club has greatly enhanced in-park signage and corporate sponsorships. If there's a way the profits can be enhanced, chances are, it has already been implemented.

No matter how successful they are in maximizing Fenway's earning potential, however, the Red Sox acknowledge they will never pull even with the Yankees.

"We haven't had a facility equal to the Yankees' in terms of size ever, and we don't expect one moving forward," Lucchino said. "They are in a market unlike any other. The fact that they may have a new ballpark [in the next few years] is not something we're worried about. It's been an uphill fight against the Yankees for a long time, by virtue of the gigantic disparity in the size of the markets. But that doesn't preclude being competitive with them [on the field]."

A more efficient payroll will help. Six free agents Johnny Damon, Alan Embree, Mike Timlin, Tim Wakefield, Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller are in the final year of their contracts, and younger (read: less expensive) prospects might be positioned to replace them.

In each of the past two seasons, the team has unsuccessfully attempted to unburden itself from Manny Ramirez's gargantuan contract. It likely will continue to do so until the outfielder's deal expires in 2008.

In the meantime, the Red Sox see what John Updike famously labeled a "lyric little ballpark" as more of a help than a hindrance.

"We think of Fenway Park as 'The Little Engine that Could,' " Lucchino said. "It keeps generating revenue. It keeps fans connected. It keeps the franchise popular and beloved. It will be up against bigger, newer models in New York and other places. But we have a lot of faith this engine will generate revenue and the constancy of revenue."

Sean McAdam of The Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.