Friday, November 25, 2005

Blame the Fans, I think not.

In the last few days since Marlins President, David Samson announced the fire sale of its best and highest paid players as well as the team's intentions to search for another market to relocate to, the south Florida fans have taken a real beating in the media. Statements like "Florida fans are front runners who don't support their team." and "Winning sells in every market except South Florida." have been filling the columns of the newspapers and the radio airwaves.

But I want to do something original in this debate. I want to look at FACTS.

In 2002 the Marlins had a season attendance of 813,118 that works out to an average of 10,038 per game. By 2005 the team's season attendance had soared to 1,823,388 an average of 22,792 per game. In four short seasons the Marlins experienced an attendance boom of 124%.

But because the first number was so low, even with the rapid increase, the Marlins still had the 28th highest attendance out of 30 in Major league baseball.

But why was attendance so low in 2002? Let's take a look at the brief history of the Florida Marlins and see why they were playing catch up.

The Marlins were established in 1993. The next season was shortened by a strike in which the World Series wasn't even played. Attendance across all of Major League Baseball was down for several seasons after that.

In June of 1997, Marlins owner, H. Wayne Huizenga, announced he was selling the team, claiming that it was an unprofitable venture. Though a subsequent analysis by the New York Times proved that while the Marlins themselves may have lost money, they created a net positive revenue situation for Huizenga's entire portfolio that includes the stadium the Marlins play in.

By selling the team, Huizenga was able to eliminate the expense side of his Marlins ledger and keep the revenue indefinitely since the Marlins would continue to be a tenant in his building. That day in June 1997, a cloud of uncertainty came over the franchise that still persists.

After winning the World Series in 1997, the team was systematically dismantled and fans predictably stayed away in droves.

In 1999 John Henry (today the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox) purchased the Marlins from Huizenga announcing that if he couldn’t get public funds to build a new stadium for the team, that he’d fund it himself. Later that same year, Major League Baseball yanked the 2000 All-Star Game from South Florida.

John Henry’s time as owner of the Marlins was marked by dark statements about the future of the franchise if a new stadium was not built for the club. Of course he never followed through on his promise to privately finance it. On the field the Marlins were miserable and never posted a winning season during Henry’s ownership. The best players were routinely traded away for minor league prospects.

In 2001 MLB owners voted 28-2 to contract two ball clubs. The Florida Marlins were on the short list to be contracted.

Just prior to the 2002 season, the Marlins were sold to Jeffrey Loria and the franchise seemed to be in a shambles. The concession stands even ran out of hotdogs on opening day and the man who played Billy the Marlin, the team’s mascot, was fired in a cost cutting measure. Several players with big contracts were traded away during and after that season and it seemed that this was what baseball fans in South Florida were going to be subjected to until the Marlins met their ultimate fate.

Ironically, the collective bargaining process the ruined the 1994 season saved the Marlins from contraction when the process began again in 2002. The players gave in to several demands from the owners including a revenue sharing plan among clubs but held firm that there would be no contraction.

In 2003 almost every move that Loria’s team made in 2002 paid off. The Marlins were the hottest team in baseball for the last four months of the season. They captured the wildcard spot and went on to defeat the Giants, Cubs and Yankees en route to their 2nd World championship in the club’s short life.

It seemed impossible for the team to move or be contracted after this accomplishment. There seemed to be a lot of momentum being generated for the Marlins to finally have a building of there own, where enough revenues could be generated to make the Marlins competitive over the long term.

But as the news in recent days indicates, the stadium proposals that have surfaced to date are all dead. Jeffrey Loria, through club President David Samson, claims that he has invested significant amounts of his personal wealth to make the Marlins competitive but that he can no longer shoulder the losses and the from here on in, the team’s payroll will reflect it’s actual revenues and thus the team’s second fire sale in less than 10 years has begun.

The fans that were abused by previous ownership groups were coming back as evidenced by the numbers above. It’s just that they didn’t come back fast enough. The sad fact is that Loria’s plan to rebuild the confidence of the fans was working, he just ran out of money before it succeeded.

By the way, this year the Cleveland Indians almost did the same exact thing the Marlins did in 2003. They were the hottest team in the second half of the season and were alive in the playoff race until the last week of the season. The Indians play in beautiful Jacobs Field and drew a total of 309 more fans per game than the Marlins who were hot and cold all year long.

In this soap opera, south Florida’s baseball fans have been the victims not the culprits.

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