Sox strike out on open bars
Regulators say they plan to order the Boston Red Sox to stop offering an open bar as part of $1,000-and-up packages for some of Fenway Park’s most coveted seats.
Daniel F. Pokaski, chairman of the Boston Licensing Board, said the team will be told to “cease and desist” the practice but will apparently not face further sanctions, unlike other bars and restaurants that have temporarily lost their licenses for similar infractions of the state’s 25-year ban on happy hours and open bars.
“This is in violation of the (Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission) regulation against open bars,” Pokaski said. “But if they don’t know about it [the regulation] and they don’t have an issue with [ending the practice], then that will be the end of it.”
“The last thing we want to do is anything that runs in the face of Massachusetts law,” he said, adding that the ban on open bars was “a surprise” to team officials.
The Licensing Board scheduled a Wednesday hearing on the matter after learning of the issue from a reporter at CommonWealth magazine and checking out the Sox offer on the team’s website. The Red Sox began removing mentions of the open bars from the team website after being contacted by CommonWealth.
In 1984, the state instituted a ban on reduced-price drinks and open bars at all public drinking establishments following a fatal accident outside a Braintree restaurant. A 20-year-old Weymouth woman was killed after being dragged 35 feet under a car driven by a friend in the parking lot of the restaurant after the victim and friends consumed numerous free beers during a contest in the bar.
The ensuing regulations prohibited free drinks, reduced-price drinks, serving more than two drinks at a time to one person or unlimited drinks for a fixed price at any bar or restaurant. Exemptions were granted for private functions and parties “by invitation only,” but the ABCC has ruled that the exemption does not include parties that are advertised, open to the public, or if tickets are sold.
The Sox were offering all-you-can-drink packages in the highly popular Green Monster sections above the left field wall as well as the recently added right field pavilion and several premium seat sections. The $1,000 “Ultimate Monster Package,” for example, included a Green Monster ticket, a night at the Lenox Hotel, a limo ride to and from the park, an on-field meet-and-greet with players during batting practice and all-you-can eat hot dogs, Cracker Jacks, clam chowder, and other Fenway foods.
The package also offered “admission to a private pregame reception on the Budweiser Right Field Roof Deck with light fare and unlimited beer, wine, soda and alternative beverages” as well as “unlimited in-game private beverage cart complete with bartender and full garnish bar” in the Green Monster seats.
Bumgarner said the team’s server staff is trained to monitor and comply with all liquor laws as well as to spot potential problems. Bumgarner, who said nearly all major league teams offer ticket packages with alcohol included, said the free drinks were a small part of the package but were included because corporate and other high-roller buyers want all-inclusive deals.
“It’s what most companies want, a one-stop price,” he said. “They don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed when they buy a package. . . It’s more attractive to some folks than it is others but we’ve never had problems. They’re extremely popular but not because of the open bar.”
The Sox have had episodic problems with fans’ drinking over the years. In 2005, team officials were called before the licensing board because of an incident involving two fans and then-New York Yankee Gary Sheffield, who was doused with a beer as he attempted to field a ball near the stands in right field during a game.
Licensing board member Michael Connolly said he had concerns then and still does about excessive drinking at Fenway. He said offers of open bars at a venue that size can only exacerbate problems, in addition to being a violation of the license.
“I always try to stay in tune with what’s going on at Fenway because it is such an established entity; just the volume of alcohol they serve would concern anyone,” said Connolly. “Open bar concerns me anywhere. Anytime you have an open bar, the potential to over-serve is much greater than when you don’t. It’s very obvious from where I sit.”
ABCC officials declined comment but referred to the so-called “happy hours” regulations and a series of decision in recent years regarding open bars. Among the decisions were those of four Boston bars cited in 2003 and 2004 for violating the open bar ban. The bars — Matrix, Jose McIntyre’s, Big Easy and White Horse Tavern — had sold tickets to New Year’s Eve celebrations that all included unlimited drinks. All four bars claimed the parties were private but they were cited anyway because they had advertised the events. Each received a license suspension of seven to 10 days, costing them tens of thousands of dollars in business, even though none had been previously cited for similar violations and ceased advertising when ordered.
Pokaski said he is not inclined to suspend the Sox license. Connolly said he views the Sox issue as “radically different” than the other bars because of the seasonal aspect of the license and the sheer size of Fenway, compared to a small bar where all patrons are in the same constricted area. But he said he will reserve judgment until he studies all the decisions and regulations and hears the team’s side.
The Sox and their vendors employ HUB Security Systems to monitor compliance with the state’s liquor laws by fans and employees during games. HUB Security is owned by Arlene Iannella and her husband, former Boston City Councilor and current Suffolk Register of Probate Richard Iannella. Iannella’s sister, Suzanne Iannella, sits on the Boston Licensing Board and is a former commissioner at the ABCC. Arlene and Richard Iannella did not return a call for comment.Suzanne Iannella said in a telephone interview that she recused herself when votes on the Red Sox or Fenway licenses came before the ABCC because of her family connection to HUB Security Systems and she will recuse herself at Wednesday’s licensing board meeting, even though she says she was cleared by the Ethics Commission to participate.
“I suppose if it’s a tie, 1 to 1, I’d vote, but it’s just easier if I don’t have to,” she said.