Interview: Boston Red Sox COO Mike Dee

By Constantine von Hoffman

In your wildest dreams, you hope for half of this level of brand loyalty. For 86 consecutive years, the Boston Red Sox failed in the one thing they were supposed to do: win a World Series. Yet, after eight-and-a-half decades of futility that transformed the brand promise from The Best Team in Baseball to How Will They Fail This Time?, the Sox were more popular than ever; not only did they sell out every single home game in 2004, they were a big draw on the road as well.

Then, last year, it finally happened: The Sox made believers out of their most skeptical fans. Afterward, Mike Dee, who is in charge of marketing for the team, found himself riding the wave of excitement and made the most out of a once-in-a-lifetime marketing moment.

CMO: Congrats on being a part of the first winning Red Sox management team since Woodrow Wilson was president. What part were you responsible for?

Dee: Well, most of the business units report to me, and I work closely with others here on our marketing messages and corporate sponsorship marketing. Baseball teams don’t have a big advertising budget, so we rely on corporate sponsors not only to create sponsorship revenue but also to carry our brand into the marketplace. We spend a lot of time on that.

What are the difficulties of having such deep brand loyalty?

Virtually all the consequences are extremely positive. I think that it encourages us to try to do better, though. I think we recognize that we operate the Red Sox, but as our owner John Henry has said, “We’re the stewards of this franchise. The real owners are the people of New England, the fans, the Red Sox Nation.” So that’s what holds us to a higher standard.

I think that we have a tremendous respect for the tradition and the insight that our fans provide. I think that, hopefully, we’ve been able to build some capital with our fans over the last couple of years that demonstrates, putting the World Series aside, if we hadn’t won the World Series I think that our fans prior to last October were saying, “These guys are doing the right thing. They’re putting a competitive team on the field. They’re making Fenway a better place. They’re active in the community and making a difference in the community in a way that the Red Sox haven’t performed in the past.”

Could you have asked for a better job?

No. Seeing the passion, the loyalty and the commitment that people in New England and beyond have for the Red Sox, no matter how you prepare for it, you’re stunned at the depth and level of the fanaticism. Winning made an already amazing brand, and amazing franchise, even more valuable and more beloved.

Can a sport be run as a business?

If there’s a difference between the Red Sox and other businesses, it’s that we view virtually everything we do as marketing, including how to make it easier for fans to get out of their seats, use the restroom, get a hot dog and get back without missing half an inning. We also have focus groups called “Tell it to the Red Sox” where we invite fans who have offered constructive, sometimes critical, commentary on the way that we do things. We invite them in and throw out a variety of questions to discuss.

It can’t be too hard to encourage the fans to give you their opinions.

Fan feedback…well, there’s never a shortage of it. We were trying to figure out when to present our World Series rings to the players. Our fans said, “How can you not take advantage of the opportunity to give these rings out in front of the Yankees?” So that’s what we’re doing. You have to be sensitive to those opinions because, as somebody said to me the other day, “Hey, this is more than baseball; it’s the Red Sox.”

From a marketing perspective, how was this off-season different from other off-seasons?

We were somewhat unprepared. We were so superstitious about not jinxing ourselves that we chose to not focus on business-related opportunities until after that final out was made. But, immediately we saw unprecedented levels of inbound phone activity for tickets. We saw new prospective corporate sponsors come out of the woodwork and want to be involved with the club. I guess the basic way this has been different from any other off-season is that there really was no off-season. The bridge between 2004 and 2005 was a very short one. I think that that’s a challenge, frankly, for the baseball side of the organization. I know [General Manager and Senior Vice President] Theo Epstein is focused on it. [Manager] Terry Francona is focused on it. How do you celebrate and respect what’s happened? So I think the baseball guys are trying to draw the line between celebrating what took place, but also saying OK, new season. So to a certain degree we’re doing that on the business side as well, taking spring training as sort of the launching pad for ’05, beginning to refer to ’04 in more of a past tense than a present tense.

The Sox were already the most expensive ticket in baseball, and you increased ticket prices over the off-season. What was the response to it from the fans?

I will tell you that the reaction was relatively benign. This year, I believe, 50 percent of our seats went up $2 or less. I think that fans recognize that we have a high cost of doing business, that we’re putting the money back into the team, putting the money back into Fenway Park. And when you can make those two critical components of your Red Sox experience better, I think the fans, with some limitation of course, are willing to pay higher prices to support those efforts.

And certainly it seems that this off-season you could have increased prices a lot more without disaffecting the fan base.

I think that’s right. I appreciate you saying that, because it’s true. We did take a long look at it, and there were some voices who said, maybe we should hit it harder. But, from a business point of view, you can’t overreact, you have to take a longer-term view and make that fit with your strategic plan over a five to ten year period.

What did winning the Series do for the Red Sox brand?

This juggernaut that is the Red Sox, from a pure marketing perspective, is trading on an all-time high. With the last two months of last season—I think the team played close to .700 ball—and then the playoffs culminating in the comeback over the Yankees, well, Hollywood couldn’t have written it any better.

How does it feel knowing that you can walk into pretty much any bar in New England and never have to pay for a drink again?

I don’t know, I haven’t taken advantage of that yet. We used to sit around and say before this past year, “Can you imagine what it’s going to be like if we are able to win the World Series here?” And I can tell you now, after it’s happened, it’s been even a bigger sensation than we anticipated. Beginning with the parade. That’s kind of when it hit home for me. I think I was in shock for three days. When you’re standing in front of 3 million people, some of whom are holding up signs that read, “My mom can now rest in peace,” with a picture of the mother who is deceased wearing a Red Sox hat—the emotional cord that this hit was this unique and special.

In a short answer to your question, it feels pretty good.

From CMO magazine (a publication of CXO Media, Inc.), April 2005

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