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Eye for talent

Red Sox chairman Tom Werner talks the business of sports and entertainment

By Chris Jenkins

Having started as an entry-level research analyst for ABC, Tom Werner’s ability to spot gifted entertainers propelled him to the top of the television industry. With his partner, Marcy Carsey, Werner helped create such popular series as The Cosby Show, Roseanne and That ’70s Show, among several others.

Then he tried to replicate his success in sports — and was at first humbled by his stint as the principal owner of baseball’s San Diego Padres, which he describes as a “disaster” that included the now-notorious idea to invite Roseanne Barr to sing the national anthem at a game.

“I know what it’s like to be considered bright,” Werner said, in his recent keynote speech at the College of Business Administration’s annual Business Leaders Forum. “I know what it’s like to be considered a bum.”

Undeterred, Werner has made the most of his second shot at sports ownership. Now chairman of the Boston Red Sox, Werner has watched a team that often was described as “cursed” win two World Series. And he’s trying his hand at international soccer, as chairman of the iconic Liverpool Football Club in the English Premier League.

Through it all, he has maintained what he calls an “enduring respect for the audience” — or, in the case of sports, the fans.

“I feel that leaders must embrace change, and even be disruptive, because consumers have so many options these days that unless you are an innovator, I think that you fall behind,” Werner told a capacity crowd in the Alumni Memorial Union ballroom.

Afterward, Werner answered a few questions from Marquette Business Update.

Marquette Business: You’ve had success in entertainment and sports, two distinctly different fields. Have you identified any common principles that apply to success in both worlds?

Tom Werner: “I think that the common ingredient is that you have to have respect for your audience, or your fans, using a sports context. You’re competing with all forms of entertainment, and attention, and the only way to be successful is to deliver a product that is worthy of someone’s time.”

MUBiz: Sports success is obviously measured in win-loss records or championships. Television success is measured by ratings. Is there a danger in just looking at the bottom line? What else should be taken into account by people in management positions?

TW: “I look at the bottom line because I think that it’s important to run a self-sustaining business. How you deploy your money is the next question. I think a good executive hopefully deploys his money so that the product is an excellent one. Fans don’t care about how much money a team is making. They just care about how successful it is. But as I said in my speech, it’s a virtuous circle. The more revenue you can garner, the easier it is to improve the product. The Red Sox make a lot of money, but they’ve never asked the city or the state to invest a nickel in Fenway Park.”

MUBiz: There are big personalities — and it’s probably fair to say, big egos — in both television and sports. How do you manage those types of personalities?

TW: “I’ve spent all my life working with talent. And sometimes talent has big egos because they’re the best at what they do. I think part of what I do is I respect talent. I’m good, I think, at spotting it. And I feel like when I’m working with superlative performers or athletes, that it’s a big thrill. Because they’re at the top of their game.”

MUBiz: When your group took over the Red Sox, what would you say the culture was like, and how did you see it change? What things did you do to help it change?

TW: “I think we did a bunch of things, but I’ll just be specific on one thing. The previous management did not allow the fan to step on the field at Fenway Park. And I think we had an idea that first season to allow parents to throw a ball to their children after one of the games. And the pent-up demand was such that I think 20,000 people stood in line to throw a ball to their kid. And so one of the things that I think we did as an example is we made Fenway Park more accessible.”

MUBiz: What can a business that loses a talented employee learn from the Red Sox example of remaining competitive?

TW: “Every athlete has a beginning, middle and end of his career. You continually need to have a blend of rookies who are coming up, who are hungry, players who know their role, and established stars. But I think it’s important to take advantage of all three of those categories in order to have a successful team. Because unlike basketball, where one or two superstars can change the fortunes of a club, in baseball, you can only be a starting pitcher once a week, you can only bat three or four times a game. The concept of team is very important in baseball.”

MUBiz: In acquiring Liverpool, your group had to learn an entirely new business in a short amount of time. The Premier League model is vastly different from the way American sports leagues function. What was that preparation like? How did you learn that business model?

TW: “Unfortunately, we made some expensive mistakes. But I think that we’re better owners today than we were a year ago, and maybe we’ll be better next year than we are today. It’s a steep learning curve, for sure.”

MUBiz: In the forum, you spoke about the need you see for Major League Baseball to find ways to speed up its games. Baseball games can last well over three hours, while soccer matches take about two hours — perhaps making them better suited to today’s reduced attention spans. Does baseball need to change to retain younger fans?

TW: “I think that we have to be mindful of the entertainment choices that people have. I think that anything you can do to speed up a game would be positive, because people’s attention span is not what it was 20 years ago.”