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If it's a sellout, why are all those seats empty?

A sign painted on the wall decorates the concourse at Fenway Park in Boston, Mass. The Red Sox continue to extend their record-long streak of Fenway Park sellouts, even though there are many empty seats as the team struggles.

Sarah Gardner: OK, enough about jobs for now. Let's take a break and go to the ballpark. Fenway Park, in particular. As baseball fans know, the Boston Red Sox have had a disaster of a season. After trading some of their star players last month, they've lost eight of their last nine games. And frankly, most Boston fans have kind of given up. But somehow Fenway Park still sells out. Tonight is on track to be the 783rd sellout in a row, a record not just in baseball -- but in all major league sports. Which raises the question: what's a sellout streak worth, anyway?

Curt Nickisch reports from WBUR in Boston.


Curt Nickisch: Boston opened the season with the third-highest payroll in baseball -- $173 million. But now the Red Sox are barely out of last place in their division.

Jeff Werner: It’s gotten so bad so quickly in so many ways.

Sox fan Jeff Werner says the only bright spot is that after seven years on the waiting list, he’s finally been offered a ticket package. It’s die-hard fans like him that keep the home sellout record going.

Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College, says that’s worth something.

Andrew Zimbalist: The sellout streak creates a sensation, an image of -- this is a hot ticket, this is a place you want to be. Aren’t you a lucky person to have one of the scarce tickets to a Red Sox game?

That increased demand help keeps sales strong. When the Cleveland Indians sellout streak ended at 455 games, attendance crashed. But the enduring Red Sox sellouts have come under fire. There were rows of open seats at the last home game. 

Sam Kennedy is a team executive.

Sam Kennedy: We understand that the literal sense of the word, people may assume there’s not one ticket to be had. But that’s not the case.

The Red Sox call it a sellout even if somebody bought a ticket but doesn’t show up. And the team counts tickets it donates to charity, even if they go unused. Many fans say the streak is dubious. And Andrew Zimbalist, the sports economist, wonders if it has outlived its value.

Zimbalist: I imagine that the ownership of the Red Sox would not be at all disappointed if they were able to announce that the sellout streak had ended.

After all, he says, the Red Sox have one of the smallest ballparks in major league baseball. All they have to do is sign some exciting new players in the offseason and it shouldn’t be that hard to fill the stands again. 

In Boston, I’m Curt Nickisch for Marketplace.

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