Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Marlins Deserve New City, Not Ballpark
The Florida Marlins take advantage of every opportunity to remind their fans that
the team will be moving to a beautiful new stadium for the 2012 season. The jumbotron displays of each player feature a computer-generated replica of what the stadium will look like once completed. The left-field wall implores fans to secure their season tickets for next season (I guess all hope for selling tickets this year is lost). The team's website features an entire page dedicated to the new park, complete with a countdown timer and a webcam that updates pictures of the under-construction ballpark every fifteen minutes.
This isn't the first time the Marlins have taken advantage of ballpark-related opportunities before. The deal to build the new ballpark between the team and the city of Miami is considered the most team-friendly agreement in the storied (and economically disastrous) history of publicly-financed sports venues. The city (i.e. taxpayers) is on the hook for about $500 million of the $634 million stadium, and most residents are not thrilled about that fact (so disgruntled are Miami residents that 88% voted to oust former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez, who engineered the stadium deal). Making matters worse, the city does not have all of the funds that it pledged towards the project. Thus, it was forced to take out over $400 million in loans which (according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports), by the time they've been paid off, will have cost the city billions of dollars. It's as if Dr. Evil was elected Mayor, and immediately decided, "Why waste millions when you can waste *pinky to mouth*...billions?"
In Alvarez's defense, it's not like Marlins owner Jeffery Loria comes out of this whole ordeal looking like a saint, either. Loria and his head crony, son-in-law and team president (nepotistic, much?) David Samson cried poverty when approached by city officials about contributing a larger share of the stadium's cost. However, Deadspin's leak of the team's financial records indicated an operating income of nearly $38 million in 2008. Loria kept the team's payroll at a bare minimum for much of the past five years, and apparently pocketed revenue-sharing income (funds generated by other MLB teams and intended to allow small-market teams to stay competitive via increased payrolls), rather than re-investing it in the on-field product. Passan also reported that in 2008 and 2009, Loria, whom Samson claimed "did not put a dollar in his pocket", even paid a corporation, the Double Play Company, a management fee to help oversee the team's operations. Double Play's CEO? Jeffery Loria. Double Play's president? David Samson. The duo collected millions of dollars in salary over the two years. In the words of Lloyd Christmas, of Dumb and Dumber fame, what was all that "no dollar in his pocket" talk? Makes it somewhat hard to believe that the team was really as poor as its' owner claimed, doesn't it? However, by then, the stadium deal had already been completed, and there was nothing anyone could do. The city had asked to see the Marlins' financials during negotiations, but were rebuffed each time. Easy to see why, huh?
Of the many things that Miami needs to spend tax revenue on, a new home for the Marlins is pretty far down the list. Trust me, I've lived there for the past year. But aside from the fact that the community's money could be better spent elsewhere, this little nugget remains: Nobody (outside of the team's owner, president, and the couple hundred diehards who "fill" Sun Life Stadium for Marlins games) believes the new ballpark will do much good. The history of publicly-financed stadiums is littered with promises of increased attendance and, consequently, increased revenue for the team (presumably to spend on its payroll...we'll get to that in a minute). Reality, however, suggests that a new stadium simply delays, rather than fixes, attendance problems. Traditionally, a new stadium will increase attendance and revenues for the first few years after the facility opens. However, writes Tim Elfrink in this in-depth piece, once the novelty of the new digs wears off, attendance usually falls back to somewhere near the number being reached in the old stadium. Examples can be found in Washington, Cincinatti, and Pittsburgh. In five years, the Marlins new ballpark is far more likely to be a multi-billion dollar albatross rather than the beacon of hope that Loria Samson claim it will be.
If the pattern of initially increased attendance followed by a return to old-stadium levels repeats itself, the new stadium will be considered an even bigger mistake than it currently is. The Marlins have consistently been cellar dwellers when it comes to attendance, attracting about half as many fans as the average National League team over the past five seasons, according to Baseball Almanac. The paltry turn-out has been attributed (by Loria and Samson) to the inadequacy of the Marlins' current home, Sun Life Stadium. Common excuses include the immense South Florida heat, rain-delays, and the fact that the stadium was designed for football. The "It's too hot" argument might fly on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, but it doesn't explain why a breezy Monday night affair with the current wild-card-leading Brewers drew only 12,404 (if we're counting actual people the number was more like 2,000) to a stadium that holds over 36,000 (particularly when you consider that the night's promotion included $5 bullpen box seats). The whole rain delay argument is flawed, too, as the Marlins have only had a handful of rain-outs the past few years. And the fact that Sun Life Stadium is designed for football does not mean that the place lacks great sightlines, especially when you're sitting between the first and third-base dugouts. Ticket prices for Marlins games are incredibly affordable, as well. The team practically tries to give tickets away, offering infield box seats for $7.90 and $7.10 often. A cursory search through Stubhub reveals a slew of $4 tickets available for next Monday's matchup with the Angels. If a budget-strapped college student (cough, cough...me) or any baseball fan were so inclined, he could easily buy such a ticket, and simply walk over to the more expensive seats and sit wherever he pleased. Cavernous stadium or not, enjoying a Major League Baseball game is fairly easy to do when you're sitting in the fifth row.
Still, the Marlins have failed season after season to attract a respectable number from metro Miami's 5.5 million residents. And it's not because we don't like the stadium. The real culprit, you ask? Apathy. We don't care. About the Marlins. About the flaws of Sun Life Stadium. About sports in general (the Dolphins and superstar-laden Heat have had trouble getting fans to their seats in time for the start of games). Still, those teams at least sell a large percentage of their tickets. The Marlins? Not so much.
What's the solution, then? Well, it's too late to rectify the situation. The deal is done (in the immortal words of Samson, when asked if the team would be open to contributing more of its own money to the project, "A deal is a deal"), and the ballpark is nearly complete.
Ideally, the city would've let Loria follow through on his multiple threats to move the team. A number of cities, including Portland and San Antonio, courted Loria and the Marlins. Nobody would've blamed him for relocating a competitive team which the South Florida community has consistently failed to support. Instead, Alvarez and the other numbskulls running the city government approved a stadium deal that nobody liked for a team that nobody (in Miami) wants. But hey, at least now the Marlins' sparsely attended games will be played in a beautiful, rain-delay-proof, air-conditioned gem of a stadium! Anytime you can burn billions of public dollars on the comfort of a couple hundred people, you have to do it, right?