Step through the brick arches at Fenway Park and you turn back the clock to an era when men wore fedoras and watched a young, pudgy-faced Babe Ruth hit epic home runs for the Boston Red Sox.
For generations of baseball fans, Fenway has been baseball Mecca. You don’t just watch a baseball game there, you experience it, with sights, sounds and smells unlike any other sporting venue. (If you sit behind home plate you’re close enough to hear the whizzzz of a fastball on its way to the catcher’s mitt.)
Fenway Park turns 100 on April 20, and if you haven’t heard about it yet, you will. Sports Illustrated and USA Today have published special editions. PBS is airing a National Geographic-produced documentary. A Green Monster-green coffee table book just hit the shelves. An official website chronicles Fenway’s history. And that’s just the start.
The Red Sox marketing machine is cranking out a season’s worth of promos, events, and extravaganzas as part of the "Fenway Park 100" campaign. We’re tempted to say it’s a campaign as finely orchestrated as any symphony, but they have that one covered, too: Conductor John Williams and the Boston Pops have recorded "Fanfare to Fenway," a musical tribute. Heavy on the trumpets.
"Our goal is to differentiate the ballpark from all others in sports. We believe Fenway...is an iconic facility that transcends sports," Red Sox senior vice president of Marketing and Brand Development Adam Grossman said during a talk to the Ad Club of Boston on March 27.
The Balancing Act
Grossman, a Cleveland native who started as a Red Sox intern 10 years ago, has adopted the immutable Boston stance that Fenway is a sports cathedral. Quite literally—the mission statement for the Fenway Park 100 campaign calls it a "true baseball cathedral." He also compares it to the world’s finest museums.
"Our goal is that nobody gets used to Fenway, because it’s not a common facility," Grossman said.
But, when it comes to packaging, selling, and—let’s be frank here—profiting from nostalgia and history, how much is too much? How do the Red Sox avoid crossing into foul territory as they simultaneously celebrate and glorify their iconic 1912 ballpark (and invite their fans and sponsors to take part) and leverage it to the hilt as a once-a-century marketing opportunity?
Is it possible to over-romanticize the most classic ballpark in America? We’re pretty sure the answer is yes.
A bigger question for marketers everywhere: Is it possible for authentic and desirable customer experiences to peacefully coexist with a highly profitable, marketing-driven machine? Or does all the effort at pointing out the specialness risk hollowing out the sincerity, leaving behind a Disney World-like shell of an experience that looks great, but loses the soul that made it special?
The marketer in me says this is all great for the Red Sox. Let’s all celebrate the 100th year of a landmark that carries meaning and memories across generations. The team is erecting 100 brass plaques around the stadium highlighting bits of history, a nice touch.
Let’s thank the owners, who’ve kept their promise to preserve Fenway from the wrecking ball, investing nearly $300 million in repairs over the past decade for expanded seating, new ballpark features, and creature comforts. And let’s remember the team’s involvement in local charities and the community. Not to mention the two World Series the Sox have won in the past decade.
Burnishing the Fenway Brand
There’s a business angle to all of this, of course. Burnishing the Fenway Park brand can only boost the long-term value of the franchise. Based on the recent sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion, you’ve got to believe the sky’s the limit for the Red Sox.
Because baseball is faced with the long-term challenge of attracting young fans due to its slow pace and other factors, making the ballpark the star may, in years to come, be an ace in the hole. It's a respectable alternative to the diversions at other ballparks, such as swimming pools in the bleachers and hot dog races between innings.
The fan in me can’t help but acknowledge today’s Fenway isn’t what it used to be (and I don’t mean the old leaky roof, the bad food, or the gruff ushers who used to shoo everyone out of the place quickly after games) and it leaves me with mixed feelings.
It costs a small fortune today to take your family to a game, if you can get your hands on tickets. That shouldn’t be surprising; that’s the nature of big league sports now. Fenway commands a premium. It has one of the smallest seating capacities in the major leagues, ticket prices have skyrocketed, games have been selling out for years, and exclusive clubs and seating sections have separated Everyman from the 1 percent, lending to the air of exclusivity and, yes, spurring more demand for tickets.
The Fenway "experience" that came by default with the price of admission now feels like an embedded surcharge on the high price of tickets. And as far as recollecting that happy Fenway feeling so you can tell stories to future generations? The pressure’s off. Official photographers are there to take your picture and sell you a permanent visual keepsake.
Seeking authentic inspiration
At the Ad Club meeting, Grossman admitted that keeping Fenway accessible, so Everyman can enjoy it, is one of the things that keeps him and other execs up at night.
It’s hard to find any great inspiration for customer engagement on the official Fenway Park 100 website. The site is a mishmash of historical information, photos, videos (albeit expertly produced), and event schedules, but the overall experience lacks cohesion and a sane navigation scheme.
It also swings and misses at the biggest opportunity of all to connect Fenway Park 100 to what it’s all about: fan memories, personal stories, and nostalgia. User-contributed photos, videos, and testimonials from fans young and old should take center stage and drive the effort’s digital content strategy. Old Kodachrome snapshots from the '50s and home movies of family outings to the ballpark, or stories of meeting Dom DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky out in the street after a game are what I’d be after. Memories handed down through the generations, from grandfathers to fathers to grandchildren, available nowhere else.
These rich personal histories carry 10 times the weight of a pile of old bricks. One can only hope this type of stuff surfaces. As for now, a handful of simple fan submissions are buried deep on the Fenway Park 100 site. My advice to the Red Sox: Don’t blow this chance. Make it less about "you" and more about "the fans."
But like it or not, the Red Sox’s brilliant owners have maximized every chance to turn Fenway Park into a money machine, with new restaurants and luxury clubs, guided tours, and pricey "Monster Seats" sold each year to fans lucky enough to win a lottery for the right to purchase them. At the same time, they’ve opened up the venue for charity events, and the team involves retired players in Red Sox events in dignified ways. It is what it is: a well-loved public space in the hands of private owners.
As a fan it’s hard not to feel that in its service to nostalgia, the preservation and celebration of Fenway really just makes it another platform for marketing and promotions from corporate sponsorship packages to discarded seats for your man cave.
At Fenway, fans become players in the Fenway Park game-day pageant, just like the guy walking on stilts outside the park, the peanut-throwing vendors, and the legions who belt out "Sweet Caroline" in unison late in the game without really knowing why they’re doing it.
The chance of serendipity creeping into your personal experiences on a visit there is likely to be overshadowed by a guided, planned experience tied to a profit center: sitting in the Budweiser Right Field Roof Deck or the Coca-Cola Corner Seats. In the economics of today’s Fenway, "customer service," like better food selections and bigger T-shirt kiosks, trumps old-school customer experience.
Maybe then this is the lesson that Fenway Park 100 will teach us: The owners bought a beloved ballpark that just happened to come with a baseball team.