Cropped BHI

Drive for new stadium revenues may oust a tradition
Are the Red Sox pitching a sausage shut-out?

 

from NewsLink, Vol. 5, No. 4, Summer 2001

 

For 20 years, Helen Paters and her family have been selling soft drinks, hot dogs and sausages in front of Fenway Park. Along with other pushcart vendors, Paters is a fixture among Boston Red Sox fans milling around before home games at Fenway. Like the fabled Red Sox, who draw fans from around the country, Pater's pushcart is a hit. “People even come from out of state, from Texas, Connecticut, California,” she remarks greeting friends. “I've known these people for 15 years.”

The motley ensemble of street vendors has long been a part of the pre-game texture that's distinguished Fenway Park from other stadiums across the nations. The scent of grilled sausage, onions and peppers wafts past stands that sell baseball caps and memorabilia. And then, of course, there's the Peanut Man, Nicholas “Nicky” Jacobs whose family has been hawking hot, brown-bagged peanuts for 89 years. Buying a hot dog or a bag of peanuts is as much a part of the experience as what takes place in the shadow of the Green Monster in left field.

But these days, morale – and sales – are low. Where vendors once dotted the perimeter of Fenway Park, they are now relegated to a small strip on Yawkey Way, far from the turnstiles where thousands of fans enter each game. And Red Sox management likes it that way.

If the Red Sox have their way, the sausage vendors will fade into history, right along with the 1986 World Series. Observers suggest that this move is part of a larger drive to build the team a new stadium. Any new facility, whether in Fenway, Suffolk Downs or the South Boston, will most likely have more in-stadium concession stands from which the Red Sox can derive revenue. And that spells the end of a way of life for the handful of peanut sellers and the diminishing of an old ballpark experience for thousands of fans.

On December 4, 1998, lawyers for the Red Sox presented a two-page request to Boston's Commissioner of Public Works, Joe Casazza. In the letter, Red Sox management withdrew consent for the issuance of city licenses to the street vendors outside Fenway Park.

A 1905 city ordinance requires that any vendor seeking to sell his wares on a public property must first obtain the permission of owners of abutting private property. Only then will the city of Boston grant a permit.

The Red Sox said their reversal was made “in the interest of public health and safety,” citing traffic problems and sanitary conditions. But some, like Paters, don't buy this rationalization. “For 20 years there wasn't a problem, now there is?” she protests.

The Red Sox were only partly successful in limiting the pushcarts. That same December, after taking a public relations whipping, the Sox struck a deal with Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino that allowed vendors to operate in a cordoned off section of Yawkey Way.

With the sale of the Red Sox imminent and with plans for a new Fenway floating about in the political winds, some pushcart owners are reluctant to talk. But some do: “There's a lot of money involved,” says Paters. “We're taking away sales [from Red Sox concessions], no question.”

And that interferes with the Red Sox master plan. The Red Sox blueprint for a new ballpark, made public in May 1999, calls for 44,130 seats, 100 luxury boxes, two extra decks of seating and additional room for concession stands.

While it may seem like small change, the vendors are depriving the Red Sox of an important stream of what is called “local revenue.” This revenue – derived from concessions and luxury seats, among other items – is the largest component of most baseball clubs' revenue. As of 1999, the Red Sox ranked eighth among the majors in “local revenue.”

Squelching competition from pushcart vendors outside the park smacks of a calculated move to increase revenues. And certainly increased revenues are something the Red Sox must have, with the price tag on the new Fenway Park currently set at $545 million, $130 million of which is to be financed with taxpayer dollars. Pushcart competition is just what management doesn't need as it tries to project profits commensurate with front-end costs.

“The modern stadium doubles as a shopping mall complete with food courts whose operation serves to minimize the neighborhood economic impact,” writes the well-known sports economist Robert A. Baade of Lake Forest College. “The fact that souvenir venders are prohibited from operating too close to some new stadiums in the U.S. is one overt manifestation of excessive team influence and a lack of citizenship.”

While Red Sox fans are superlatively loyal to the home team, paying the highest ticket prices in professional baseball ($24.05 for an average ticket) and setting attendance records year after year, they also are paying some of the highest concession prices. According to a November 1998 survey of 94 professional sport venues by the Sports Business Journal, concessions at Fenway are the highest, on average. Management anticipates that loyal fans attracted to a long-sought-after new baseball park will spend even more at the concession stands. But for that to happen, fans will have to spend less elsewhere, and that means less for the pushcart vendors who've become part of the Fenway tradition. Pushcart lawyer Glen Hannington calls that “a variable money can't buy.”

But the Red Sox are clearly looking to remain competitive and that means paying to keep its star players, as well as finance a new stadium. A July 2000 report by the independent members of the Commissioner's Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics (of which Red Sox President John Harrington is a member) observes that in a majority of major league baseball markets, the cost of trying to be competitive is escalated ticket and concession prices. Another cost appears to be driving a few stalwart entrepreneurs into extinction.


Intern Georgia Pellegrini contributed to this report.

 

NewsLink is the quarterly newsletter of the Beacon Hill Institute for Public Policy Research at Suffolk University. 1996-2002. All rights reserved.

 

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