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Pitching to the Red Sox Nation

Just about a year ago, passersby noticed a strange sight at the ice cream factory of Brigham's, a venerable chain of scoop shops founded in 1914. Even though it was a Saturday, the Arlington, Mass., factory was still going strong. Why the buzz of weekend activity? A stunning, come-from-behind playoff victory by the Boston Red Sox over the New York Yankees had sparked a wave of celebration among the millions of fans known collectively as Red Sox Nation -- and they couldn't get enough of Brigham's "Reverse the Curse" ice cream.

New Englanders, it seems, viewed the vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered peanuts, introduced at the beginning of the 2004 baseball season, as a good-luck charm. The Red Sox, after all, hadn't won a World Series in 86 years, a drought almost universally attributed to the "curse" that came from selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

After shipping 16,000 quarts, with a retail price of $3.99, the day after the Sox beat the Yankees, Brigham's pushed out another 25,000 quarts on the weekend. They even sent one to the Baseball of Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

ANOTHER CHARGE? True to dramatic form, the Red Sox battled back into the playoffs on Sunday -- the last day of the 2005 regular season -- and begin their postseason series against the Chicago White Sox today, Oct. 4. But even if the team manages to earn another World Series title, they will be hard-pressed to create the same hoopla as last year, when they finally broke the Curse of the Bambino. The defeat of the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, after the improbable comeback against the dreaded Yankees in the American League Championship Series, sparked a tremendous celebration for fans -- and an unprecedented economic boom for the entrepreneurs of Red Sox Nation.

Now, like the team itself, this group is looking for a way to repeat its success of a year ago. Local businesses catering to fans in the Fenway Park area are playing up their Sox connections, memorabilia and T-shirt vendors have tweaked last year's slogans in hopes of enticing the diehards once again, and fan Web sites are building readership and targeting new advertisers.

It makes good financial sense. Businesses in the ballpark's vicinity got a huge boost from the extra playoff games last year, and across New England and beyond, sales of Red Sox memorabilia skyrocketed through the winter holidays.

BRIEF EXCITEMENT. Major League Baseball's official cap maker, New Era Cap Company in Buffalo, N.Y., was one of last year's big winners. Sales of Red Sox hats, always among the bestselling, were dead in the water as the Yankees took a 3-0 game lead in the ALCS. But as the Red Sox mounted their historic four-game comeback, orders started to build.

By the time the Sox were crowned champions, New Era was cranking out a huge line of caps for fans. But it's the specific championship cap worn by Red Sox players in the locker room after defeating the Cardinals that became New Era's top seller of all time. Usually, sales of the World Series victor's cap peter out quickly, and supplies run out in a week. But the Red Sox cap continued building sales for months -- selling 400,000 in December.

"It was just unbelievable compared to other years," says Todd Sokolowski, fan-business unit director at New Era. "We were able to chase this through the holidays and even into January."

But maintaining sales from a once-in-a-lifetime sporting event is no easy feat. New Era's Sokolowski doesn't see any way to repeat. "It's really a short time frame when people stay excited," he says. "Maybe for the 10th anniversary we'll get a boost again."

"OVERWHELMING" BOOST. The excitement and crush of out-of-town celebrity visitors gave a boost to the Hotel Commonwealth, the only luxury hotel near Fenway Park. Opened in May, 2003, the 150-room hotel was the stay of choice for playoff-bound tourists. Guests received chocolate baseballs upon check-in and found Red Sox yearbooks and a "Fenway Mix" of nuts in their rooms.

The hotel has sustained the bump in business by filling out its first two floors with retail space and a new restaurant following the World Series -- an expansion that has found success, in part, because of the publicity and exposure from last year's championship run.

At the Boston Billiard Club, around the corner from Fenway, private-function bookings jumped 25% in the fourth quarter, but the renewed interest in the team carried over to 2005 as well. Booking during this summer's games were double the previous year's level. The pool hall experienced an "overwhelming amount of new patrons because of the energy and excitement of last year's playoff season," and has kept the momentum going with ticket giveaways and $2 draft beers during games, says special-events coordinator Danielle Garofalo.

NO GIVEN. After experiencing booms of their own, online retailers such as Yankee-Hater rushed out "The Curse is Busted" T-shirts, while offered "Wait 'til THIS year" shirts. Red Sox Connection now sells "1918's behind us" bumper stickers, and Yankee-Hater hawks "Yankees Choked" shirts.

Even though merchandise sales have faltered from last year's peak, fan-oriented news sites are finding a persistent gain in readership. More than two million people have visited Fenway Nation so far this year, already exceeding 2004's total, with more to come as the Red Sox play the White Sox this week, says Editor-in-Chief Ernie Paicopolos. He's planning to crank up ad rates for next season, asking $1,500 for a banner at the top of the site's home page. "When they [the Red Sox] win or are even involved in a key series, our hits go up," says Paicopolos, who runs the site of commentary, links, and photos. "In the postseason, we do very well."

Of course, fans didn't buy or flock to absolutely anything linked to the Red Sox. Allan James Wood, author of Babe Ruth and the 1918 Red Sox, was hoping to see more action on his Web site, since that prior world championship drew more attention due to the 2004 victory. But Wood didn't see online sales of his book jump. "I was kind of hoping it would," he says.

GOING NUTS AGAIN. Like other businesses riding the Bosox coattails, Brigham's has had to adapt this year. The ice cream maker knew no one was going to buy a flavor called "Reverse the Curse" once the curse had been licked. The original was created by a Sox fan in Plymouth, Mass., who won a 90th anniversary contest to design a new flavor.

So the company held another contest to choose a new name. Fans voted online, overlooking "Sox Rock" and "Believe It," and instead selected "Curse Reversed!" for the concoction of vanilla ice cream with chocolate-covered peanuts, chocolate-covered caramel cups, and swirls of fudge sauce. Like the defending World Series champions, Brigham's is hoping for sweet success once again.


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