The New York Times’ Investment in Fenway Sports Group: A Look Back

If you are a baseball fan, you probably know that the Boston Red Sox ended their 86-year drought and won the World Series in 2004, breaking the so-called Curse of the Bambino. You may also know that some of the players and coaches who contributed to that historic feat were Johnny Damon, Terry Francona, Pedro Martínez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Curt Schilling, and Jason Varitek. But did you know that one of the recipients of the coveted World Series ring was Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the former publisher of The New York Times and chairman of The New York Times Company? How did Sulzberger get a ring? The answer lies in the business dealings of The Times Company, which once owned a minority stake in Fenway Sports Group, the owner of the Red Sox. In this blog post, we will explore how and why The Times Company got involved in the baseball business, and what happened to its investment over time.

The Times Company’s interest in Fenway Sports Group

The Times Company’s involvement with Fenway Sports Group dates back to 2001, when it joined a group led by John W. Henry, a hedge fund manager and sports enthusiast, to bid for the Red Sox, Fenway Park, and 80 percent of the New England Sports Network (NESN), a regional cable network that broadcasts Red Sox and Boston Bruins games. The group won the bidding with an offer of $660 million, which was then a record price for a Major League Baseball franchise. The Times Company’s share of the deal was 17.75 percent, which cost about $75 million. The main reason for its investment was not to have a say in the baseball operations, but to leverage NESN as a platform for advertising and cross-promotion with its other media properties, especially The Boston Globe, which it had acquired in 1993. As Janet L. Robinson, then the senior vice president for newspaper operations at The Times Company, said at the time: “We see this as an opportunity to create Globe-branded sports programming that will appeal to both readers and advertisers in New England.” The Times Company also saw Fenway Sports Group as a potential partner for expanding its digital presence and reach. In 2002, The Times Company and Fenway Sports Group launched SportsPlus, a subscription-based online service that offered exclusive content and analysis from The Globe’s sports writers and NESN’s on-air talent. The service was later discontinued in 2005.

The Times Company’s return on investment

The Times Company’s investment in Fenway Sports Group turned out to be a profitable one, as the Red Sox became one of the most successful and valuable teams in baseball. Under Henry’s ownership and leadership, the Red Sox won four World Series titles (in 2004, 2007, 2013, and 2018), renovated and modernized Fenway Park, increased their fan base and revenue streams, and diversified their portfolio by acquiring other sports assets such as Liverpool F.C., a soccer club in England. The Times Company also benefited from its association with Fenway Sports Group by receiving World Series rings for its executives after each championship. Sulzberger received his first ring in 2004, along with other top executives such as Robinson and Martin A. Nisenholtz, then the senior vice president for digital operations. Sulzberger donated his ring to the Museum at The Times, where it is displayed as an artifact of The Times’s history. However, The Times Company’s involvement with Fenway Sports Group also raised some questions about potential conflicts of interest and editorial independence. Some critics wondered whether The Times and The Globe could cover the Red Sox objectively and fairly while having a financial stake in their performance. Some readers also complained about perceived favoritism or bias in The Times’s coverage of baseball, especially when it came to the rivalry between the Red Sox and the New York Yankees.

The Times Company’s exit from Fenway Sports Group

In 2010, amid financial challenges and strategic shifts, The Times Company began to sell its stake in Fenway Sports Group. It sold 1.15 percent of its shares for $45 million to Henry F. McCance, a venture capitalist and Red Sox fan. In 2011, it sold another 8.3 percent for $117 million to three investment groups: Summerfield Capital Management

Final Thoughts: The New York Times’ Investment in Fenway Sports Group

The New York Times’ investment in Fenway Sports Group was a calculated move to leverage the media conglomerate’s reach and branding power. By owning a stake in NESN and partnering with Fenway Sports Group, The Times Company aimed to expand its audience and revenue streams while promoting its journalistic content and values. However, the investment also posed some ethical and editorial challenges, as The Times and The Globe had to balance their business interests with their journalistic mission. The fact that Sulzberger received a World Series ring for his role in the investment, while symbolic and prestigious, also raised questions about the appearance of conflict of interest and bias. Overall, The Times Company’s exit from Fenway Sports Group was a logical and necessary step to focus on its core business and adapt to the changing media landscape. The Red Sox’s success and value may have benefited The Times Company’s bottom line, but it was not essential to its survival or credibility as a news organization. As media companies continue to navigate the challenges of the digital age, they will have to weigh the benefits and risks of diversification and strategic alliances, and ensure that their editorial independence and integrity remain intact.