It was 2002. Tom Werner and his partners had just purchased the Boston Red Sox.
“This was the oldest club in the majors, and we played at the oldest stadium in the country – Fenway Park,” Tom recalls in Peter Guber‘s Tell to Win. “There was immediate pressure that Fenway Park had outlived its usefulness and needed to be torn down. After all, it was built in 1912, it was cramped… People were saying, ‘You need to tear down the park.’ And of course, we’re in the business to make a profit, and we’d paid $380 million for this franchise.”
Building a new stadium would mean vastly more revenue, not only ticket sales, but merchandise, food, advertising, and high priced suites. And, the new owners would also be able to sell the corporate naming rights to a new stadium. At the time, Coca Cola had just paid $161 million to name the new Houston Astros stadium Minute Maid Park.
“The pressure was compounded by the general trend among sports franchise owners to move major clubs out of aging urban stadiums and into state-of-the-art entertainment palaces,” Tom remembers. There was even precedent in Boston: the legendary Boston Garden, home of the Bruins and Celtics, had been razed and replaced by the uber-successful Fleet Center in the heart of the city.
Still, it was a difficult decision. Many diehard Red Sox fans told Tom if he destroyed Fenway, he would be destroying part of their life story. “One of the things that binds people in Boston to Fenway are the stories retold of family experiences. My grandfather took me to my first game in Fenway Park, and my father and I went to games in Fenway Park,” Tom said.
Fenway was no ordinary baseball park. It was home of the Green Monster, the fabled 37-foot high wall in left field. It was where Babe Ruth had pitched before being traded to the hated New York Yankees, triggering the “Curse of the Bambino” (Babe’s nickname) which had supposedly prevented the Red Sox from winning the World Series for 80+ years, which was ongoing at the time Tom and his partners purchased the team. Fenway was where in the last inning of his last game Ted Williams had hit a home run.
“It must have been a hard call,” said Peter.
“You can’t imagine,” Tom recalls.
On Father’s Day that year, the Red Sox were playing out of town, so the team invited fans to come to ballpark and play catch with their sons and daughters.
“We had to stop at 25,000 people! They had never been on the field at Fenway Park. They were so happy,” Tom recalls. “They touched the Green Monster like it was the Wailing Wall. They picked up little pieces of sod and put them in their pockets as if it were moon dust!
“And that’s when it hit me that Fenway was a true icon not just for the Red Sox but for all of Boston. It would have been sacrilege to tear it down!”
The decision was made not to destroy the storied old park, but to rebuild it.
“I learned that if we tore the stadium down, the essence of our original story, which had endured for a hundred years, would die with it. We’d have to start all over, the new story could never have the value, breadth, or depth of the old one,” Tom remarked. “The ballpark is by far the most valuable element of the Red Sox story, because it will survive all of us – as long as we tend it well. My job, I realized, was to protect and refuel the flame of Fenway to insure our core story was never ending.
The renovation was designed to heighten – not simply preserve – Fenway’s destination appeal. It was done in a way that fans could participate in the story of Fenway’s transformation. “For the first time, we added seats above the Green Monster,” said Tom.
The new owners closed off the street in front of the ballpark two hours before game time and created a carnival atmosphere – Yawkey Way. “Now people come to Fenway Park two hours earlier in anticipation of the next story, and not only is that great for their experience, but we’re selling concessions to fans two hours earlier!”
Another addition? Tom introduced a T-shirt that read, “Everyone can have a bad century.”
“It wasn’t about nostalgia, it was about creating a destination, so that if the team lost, which we do from time to time, then people would still feel like they had a special experience.”
So, what does Fenway’s renovation have to do with you and me?
“The challenge of directing new iterations of the Fenway story is not that different from the challenge facing any teller of a large and well-established product or organizational story,” Peter observes. “We live at such a pace right now that even the strongest story has to change to endure.
In business, with our brand, with our organization, and with our teams, we need to preserve the essence of our story while finding ways to tell it into the future. Making it a never ending story.
“You’ve got to protect the essential elements while constantly adapting to change,” Tom says. “That requires a sure touch, but also a light touch.
“In Boston, Fenway Park is the enduring star. Managers and fans come and go, players get traded in and out, but this ballpark is like the flame that keeps the story alive.”
Reflection: Reflect on a time when I participated or led an effort to re-energize an existing organization, product or service? How did I weave together elements from the past and the envisioned future?
Action: What action could I take to help create a “never ending story”?