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Red Sox CMO: Harper, Machado, Trout mega-deals show MLB is healthy

Daniel Roberts

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Angels and their star slugger Mike Trout agreed to an eye-popping contract extension: 12 years, $430 million.

Just three weeks earlier, Bryce Harper got $330 million from the Phillies. One week before that, the San Diego Padres gave Manny Machado $300 million.

Too much money?

Do these mega-deals even make sense anymore, when Major League Baseball attendance dropped precipitously last year? A recent Bloomberg feature questions the long-held MLB practice of rewarding players with giant sums when, all too often, they’ve already peaked.

But Adam Grossman, chief marketing officer of the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Sports Management, thinks these “historic” contracts reflect the financial health of the sport. And the Red Sox have their own star who is likely about to get a mega-deal: Mookie Betts, who becomes a free agent at the end of this season unless the Red Sox sign him to an extension.

“You see that the stars are literally starting to come out,” Grossman told Yahoo Finance in an interview this week at the IEG World sports sponsorship conference in Chicago. “What that means for baseball is that there is amazing interest, because they could never make the salaries that they have without the fan interest. So I think in many ways, it’s healthy.”

Grossman is well aware of the recent chatter about pro baseball’s future.

“There’s a lot of narrative about baseball, and ‘baseball is dying.’ I don’t believe it,” he says. “I think there are a lot of signs to be pointed to that say the health of the game is quite strong.”

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim outfielder Mike Trout (27) is welcomed at the dugout by Boston Red Sox's J.D. Martinez (28) after his solo home run during the third inning of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, Tuesday, July 17, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Red Sox woo young fans

Major League Baseball has made clear (see Yahoo Finance’s 2017 interview with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred) that attracting young fans to the sport is a league-wide top priority. To that effort, the Red Sox in the last few years have launched new programs with $9 standing-room tickets for high school and college students, as well as a “Kid Nation” program with free tickets for some children.

“The game is only as strong as the next generation,” Grossman says. “It’s not just about ticket prices, but also what we’re doing inside the park with new technology: we’ve got virtual reality dugouts, we’ve got augmented reality executions now. Because even though we’re a 100-year-old brand and have a historic park, we need to continue to push the boundaries and continue to evolve and innovate to try and hook kids wherever they are.”

As the tech at ballparks has evolved, betting is rapidly evolving as well. After the U.S. Supreme Court last May struck down the federal ban against sports betting, individual states have moved to legalize sports betting, and pro leagues have acted quickly: MLB, NBA, NHL, and MLS have all made betting partnerships with MGM.

The Red Sox are on board, and Grossman says the team has particular comfort with betting because Fenway Sports Management also owns the Liverpool Football Club. “We are very much in support of what the commissioner is doing, as we feel like it is an amazing opportunity for fan engagement,” Grossman says. “Betting is interesting, it’s a long season, 162 games. We’ve seen it because we own Liverpool Football Club in England and to see how betting has taken that to a new level in terms of engagement from fans, it’s been a more accepted practice there, and we’ve seen that. So we have our eyes open to what will happen in Massachusetts and we’ll take our cues from the legislation.”

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance and hosts the Sportsbook podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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