It’s a beautiful spring afternoon in Boston, and all is right in Fenway Park, home of the reigning World Series champs. The Red Sox, looking to complete a four-game sweep of the Kansas City Royals, enjoy a comfortable 11-3 lead in the sixth inning. The team has hit two grand slams, much to the delight of the 413th consecutive sellout crowd at Fenway.
In a few hours, the Celtics take the court in Game Two of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. It’s a good time to be a Boston sports fan. It’s also good to be Mike Dee ’85.
Somewhere deep inside the oldest ballpark in Major League Baseball, Dee shuffles between his office and the suites overlooking the field.
As chief operating officer of one of baseball’s most storied franchises and president of Fenway Sports Group, Dee is constantly on the move. One minute he is meeting with corporate clients, the next minute he is working on the logistics of hosting “37,000 houseguests” at Fenway. Next he is spending quality family time with his wife of 12 years, Karen, and their two boys, Spencer, 8, and Tommy, 6.
But today Dee finds time to talk baseball. “Unbeliev-able. It’s rare to hit two grand slams in one game, and now we have to bring in our All-Star closer (Jonathan Papelbon),” he says after the Royals reduce Boston’s lead to 11-8.
The Red Sox close out the victory, something they have been doing a lot of on the field in recent years. Those in the world of sports business know the Sox also have a pretty decent closer in the front office.
GETTING THE CALL
Dee’s path to the front office in Beantown was atypical. He spent 10 years after college in Florida and his native Baltimore working for a small Los Angeles-based private-equity firm, gaining experience in commodities and learning under “a great mentor who taught me a lot.” But soon baseball came calling, in the form of Larry Lucchino.
Dee became friendly with Lucchino in Baltimore, where Lucchino was president and chief executive officer of the Orioles. In 1994, Lucchino moved west to lead the front office of the San Diego Padres.
“Larry called me and said, ‘How’d you like to work in baseball?’” Dee recalls. “So I took the nontraditional route into sports. Most of the time, you’re an intern and you work your way up. It was unique and unorthodox, but I’ve been fortunate. Larry is a terrific teacher and mentor, the best CEO in baseball.”
Dee served as a vice president with the Padres until 2002, helping to oversee the planning of PETCO Park, San Diego’s new downtown ballpark. He also experienced the thrill of the World Series in 1998, although the Padres fell to the New York Yankees in four games.
But soon Dee was off to Boston, along with Lucchino, to tackle new challenges in the business of baseball. Dee calls it the best professional decision he ever made.
It’s not exactly the story you might have predicted for the wide-eyed guy who first set foot on Franklin & Marshall’s campus in the early 1980s. “I grew up in a sheltered environment in Baltimore, and it was eye-opening when I got to F&M,” recalls Dee, a government major. “I met so many people from different backgrounds and cultures. The academic side of F&M is paramount, but the process of socialization is what forms you. It was a big building block. F&M allowed me to grow my social skills and understand people.
“You’re not just selecting a school for four years, you’re forming relationships that will last a long time,” says Dee, who keeps in touch with his basketball teammates and fraternity brothers. “It’s a different campus today. Things under President Fry have moved in an extraordinary direction. If someone told me about all the changes to come 20 years ago, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
Nor would Dee have believed his own career would take him to the top of the sports business world.
THE BUSINESS OF WINNING
The decision to take a job with the Boston Red Sox might seem like a no-brainer to baseball fans, but it wasn’t for Dee. “In 2002, these were not your Red Sox of 2008,” he says of the team that has captured two world championships since 2004. When Dee arrived, the team was still mired in the depths of the “Curse of the Bambino,” a superstition that the sale of Babe Ruth by the Sox to the Yankees in 1919 was responsible for the failure of the Sox to win a World Series after 1918.
“When I got to Boston, everyone talked about the curse,” Dee says. “I am not superstitious, so my reaction was ‘what curse?’”
Dee got his first dose of “curseology” in 2003, when he attended Game 7 of the American League Championship Series (ALCS) between the Sox and the Yankees. Sitting next to Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge, Dee watched as the Red Sox blew a 4-0 lead and lost on Aaron Boone’s game winning home run in the 11th inning.
“I walked out of Yankee Stadium that night saying ‘OK, we’re cursed.’”
It wouldn’t take long for a shot at redemption. The Red Sox defeated the Yankees the next year in dramatic fashion, the first team ever to recover from a 3-0 game deficit to win the ALCS. They advanced to the World Series, where they swept the St. Louis Cardinals for their first championship in 86 years.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime celebration for the fans of Red Sox Nation,” Dee says. “That one moment can’t be replicated. You had 86 years of frustration eradicated in 11 days. It was like a master cleansing for Boston and New England. I have vivid images of the victory parade, of people holding up pictures of their grandparents saying, ‘This is for them.’ To this day, I get chills just talking about it.”
But what would the victory mean for business? Dee worried about a post-championship letdown now that fans could “die in peace.”
“Very quickly the next season, we realized we were part of a special place in the fabric of New England and not in jeopardy,” he says. “Even though we went from Avis to Hertz in one day, we wanted to make sure we didn’t change. We weren’t second to the Yankees or anyone anymore, but we made sure to return each call, answer our messages, and not change a thing we did. But the microscope gets thicker when you win.”
Part of that philosophy meant making a commitment to keeping Fenway Park, which will become America’s first professional sports facility to reach 100 years of age in 2012. “It’s a magical place,” Dee says. “It’s well-constructed, and still has its original seating bowl. It’s stood the test of time through harsh winters and hot summers.”
Fenway has the smallest seating capacity in the major leagues. The challenge was to maximize revenue without destroying history. In 2003, the front office did so by putting seats above the fabled Green Monster, the 37-foot left-field wall. “Do you put 800 bleacher seats or 274 barstools up there?” Dee remembers asking at that time. “We chose the latter, and, in retrospect, this was a significant project that demonstrated to many that Fenway Park could be saved for future generations of Red Sox fans.”
Dee also spearheads an effort to improve the neighborhood around Fenway, which hasn’t changed much despite economic growth in other areas of Boston. “We’re taking a proactive role, because you can’t have a great ballpark without a great neighborhood,” Dee says.
The Red Sox have tapped into revenue opportunities outside baseball in recent years. In 2004, Dee and the Sox launched Fenway Sports Group (FSG), a marketing subsidiary of New England Sports Ventures that creates new businesses and partnerships.
“The Red Sox are like a cruise ship, and FSG is like a speed boat,” Dee says. “The Red Sox are an institution known throughout the world, with a passionate fan base. FSG is a four-year-old fledgling startup, a spin off of the Red Sox. It’s involved in cool stuff, everything from NASCAR to collegiate sports, digital media and corporate consulting.”
That’s right, NASCAR. The Red Sox are 50-50 partners with Roush Racing, one of NASCAR’s premier racing teams, under the banner of Roush Fenway Racing. “We’re trying to bring two great sports franchises together,” Dee says. “NASCAR has a great base in New England. We think there’s a tremendous opportunity to convert new fans. A lot of us weren’t NASCAR fans, and now we are.”
The unlikely partnership represents the evolving landscape of professional sports. “You’re seeing franchises expand their business footprint,” Dee says. “Because Fenway is so small, we’re challenged to diversify outside of baseball. The Yankees are building their own ballpark, which will create new revenue. So how do you build revenue given that we play in Major Leagues Baseball’s smallest ballpark?
The answer is diversification. Dee works with partners across the country to create new business opportunities. “We’ll see FSGs grow as time goes on, more corporate partnerships,” says Dee, who also has worked on long-term marketing deals with Boston College athletics and the Deutsche Bank Championship, an annual PGA tournament in Norton, Mass.
And you never know whom you might run into on the business trail. During a significant NASCAR deal with Citi, Dee crossed paths with a fellow F&M graduate. “The dealmaker on the other side of the table was Richard Yaffa ’87, who owns the agency that represents Citi,” says Dee. “I didn’t know Rich at F&M, but we discovered in the midst of the negotiation our link to Lancaster. It’s an interesting example of F&M alums doing business together in the world of sports.”
It was just another unpredictable twist in the life of one of Boston’s busiest people. “I can go to a NASCAR race in Alabama, then be back at Fenway 12 hours later to meet with real estate executives talking about the future of the neighborhood that surrounds Fenway Park,” he says. “There are never valleys in terms of excitement, always peaks.”