We’re two weeks from Opening Day at Fenway Park on Monday, April 3rd. It certainly doesn’t feel like baseball season in Boston. Temperatures are struggling to get into the upper 30’s after there was a blizzard watch earlier last week. Winter is winning out and not just from a weather standpoint. Boston sports fans are still on a high from the big Super Bowl win. The Patriots offseason has been tremendous with multiple signings and trades highlighted by adding Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore. The Celtics, despite that poor effort this afternoon, are heading into the playoffs as the front runners for the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. They’re a fun team to watch and as we approach the playoffs, they get more and more publicity. Even the Bruins are getting into the picture after their recent surge since Bruce Cassidy has taken over. Nice run by the B’s. And, then there’s the Red Sox…
It would be fair to say that the Red Sox are, at this moment, fourth on the list in terms of the casual fan’s attention in Boston sports. The Patriots are clearly #1 even in their offseason. The timing of the year and good play of the Celtics and Bruins has created some positive buzz. The Red Sox are stuck in the middle of spring training. There’s no big story other than injuries to their pitching staff including David Price. They brought in arguably the best pitcher in the American League in Chris Sale and there has been very little talk about it. They have a top five player in all of baseball in Mookie Betts. Their young core including Andrew Beninitendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Xander Bogaerts is probably the best in all of baseball. Yet, there is no buzz with this team right now.
After two back-to-back last place finishes, the Red Sox popularity clearly decreased. Their ratings were down. There were late season games with empty seats. There wasn’t a lot to get excited about. Last year, that all changed. The Red Sox played very well from start to finish and won the American League East. Their young talent stood out throughout the season and David Ortiz had, perhaps, his best season ever in his final year. All good, right? If you went to the games, it still felt like the crowd was watching a last place team. The focus was more on the entertainment factor than the actual game.
The Red Sox are good again. Yet, they don’t have the same popularity as they did fifteen, ten, or even three years ago. It may never get back to the level it was at in 2004. At that time, the Red Sox were the team in Boston even while the local football team was winning three titles in four years. It meant a lot more to be a Red Sox fan after an 86 year drought. Baseball mattered. The Red Sox went from being a mocked team to a team that won three championships in ten years. And through it all, people seemed to care less and less about the team than they did when they were losers. Interesting how that works, isn’t it?
So, why don’t as many people care? Well, baseball in general is not as appealing as it was for the young fan and it’s the young fan that drives sports popularity. There are less kids playing baseball. More kids are playing soccer and lacrosse. Young fans can relate a lot more to the Patriots as their team has dominated the league for the past fifteen years. They never knew what it was like to watch a losing football team. Baseball doesn’t provide the same instant gratification for most fans as football or even basketball. It’s a long, drawn out game and it’s a 162 game season. At least half of the fans at the games don’t appear to care if the Red Sox win or lose. They’re at the game to enjoy the experience with their family and friends on a nice, spring/summer night. Not to figure out the lefty/righty matchups in the bottom of the 8th.
The true die-hard Red Sox fans are still there and we aren’t going away. We’re still going to watch every game like it’s a playoff game and critique the decisions of the front office and the manager of the team. That’s what we do. The Red Sox are a big part of our lives. It matters. However, for the casual fan, the Red Sox are losing out, not only to the Patriots, but also to the Celtics. Disagree? Go to a Celtics game and observe in the crowd at TD Garden during a Celtics 10-0 run. Then compare that to a game at Fenway when a Red Sox player hits a home run. It’s night and day. At Fenway, there are more fans texting and taking pictures than watching the actual game. Last year, during a game where Dustin Pedroia approached an MLB record for reaching base in consecutive at bats, virtually no one in the crowd knew or cared. But, when “Sweet Caroline” was played during that same game, the crowd was fully invested.
This spring training has been one of the least newsworthy in recent Red Sox memory. The team is very good. They’re going to contend for a World Series. They’re loaded with elite talent including potential young superstars who could be Hall of Fame caliber. The question is, does casual sports fan care? Or, have the Patriots and possibly even the Celtics taken all of their sports experience capacity and there’s no room for more.
Wake up, Red Sox Nation! Next weekend’s forecast is for temperatures to be in the mid-60’s. Spring. Dust off your Sox hat, wash your Sox jacket, and pay attention to a team that may be the next Boston championship team. Yes, there’s actually a very successful team in Boston besides the Patriots that has won multiple titles and is setting themselves up for more.
Opening Day is in 15 Days. Red Sox vs. Pirates. Perhaps when that’s when this hibernation will end. The Red Sox die-hards can only hope…