The Major League Baseball Team That’s Made Fans—and an Entire Metro Area—Feel Like Suckers

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What with soaring ticket prices and $7 beers, many sports fans complain that their local teams take advantage of them. But no one has it worse than baseball fans in South Florida.

The Miami Marlins have “disgraced baseball.” Team owner Jeffrey Loria has been described as “the most hated man” in the game today by prominent members of the media—and much, much worse by fans. And the entire team became “the butt of jokes around the country,” to put it mildly, after trading nearly all of its best players toward the end of last season.

Lots of sports franchises make questionable roster moves. But what has Marlins’ management done to bring about a level of hatred and distrust usually saved only for owners who overtly snub fans by physically moving franchises out of town, a la Walter O’Malley?

Well, in the case against Loria, trading away most of the Marlins’ tap talent is only the tip of the iceberg. The Miami Herald gave a rundown of the team’s recent dispiriting history. Loria purchased the Marlins in 2002, and the team surprisingly beat the Yankees in the World Series the following year. Even so, attendance lagged for years, and the Marlins eventually cut spending dramatically. “Only in 2006, after Loria slashed payroll to the lowest in baseball, did the team begin posting healthy operating profits — $110 million through 2009,” the Herald report states.

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It was during this period that Loria convinced local politicians that “the only way the Marlins could afford to stay in South Florida” would be to build a new stadium, largely paid for by the public. According to an op-ed in the Sun-Sentinel, the stadium, which opened last year, will cost the public $2.4 billion over the course of 40 years.

Perhaps that would be money well spent (or not totally wasted) if the Marlins put decent teams on the field, and if fans supported the team by packing the stadium. Neither is likely to be the case anytime soon. Not after the Marlins dumped more than $50 million in salaries and the number of season ticket holders dropped from 12,000 to 5,000 in a heartbeat.

Even with fewer tickets sold, the Marlins will be in a better position financially, thanks to lower overhead (player salaries), lucrative revenue-sharing and TV broadcasting deals, and the fact that taxpayers are covering most of the costs of the new stadium. It’s believed that Loria personally collects millions annually in “management fees” as well. “Loria’s a profit maximizing person and we shouldn’t presume that he is looking out for the city,” Victor Matheson, a College of the Holy Cross economist who studies stadium financing, told Businessweek:

“He’s looking out for himself, and the way he does that is by extracting as many dollars as he can from fans, from taxpayers, and from the league in general.”

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Such an approach is smart when the goal is pure profits. The problem is that sports isn’t supposed to be strictly about maximizing profits. Certainly, the public’s financing of the stadium wasn’t pitched mainly as a way to help a rich team owner get richer.

And so South Florida is left with a subpar team, a mostly-empty ballpark, decades of debt, and a feeling it is “in bed with the baseball equivalent of a Ponzi schemer,” as Herald columnist Dan Le Batard put it:

There is nothing these people who work in the fun-and-game business can say or do now that won’t result in shaking torches and pitchforks. Stay in hiding, and you are an immoral, greedy coward. Come out in the open to explain yourself, conveniently at the exact time that you need your wallets/fools/customers again, and you become a piñata with every syllable

The folks in warm-weather locales such as Florida and southern California are often accused of being fair-weather fans, ignoring their teams until waking up one day and realizing they’re in the playoffs. Now, though, people aren’t just ignoring the Marlins. Many fans (or former fans) openly loath the team—or at least team ownership—and they’re calling for a boycott of Marlins Park until Loria sells the team.

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This year, Major League Baseball teams all over the country are trying to attract fans with $4 beers, free kids meals, and a wide range of ticket-and-concessions packages. The Miami Marlins also host a spectrum of deals, including half-priced tickets on Tuesdays, free kids meals on Wednesdays, and free admissions for seniors 55 and over on Thursdays.

These promotions are often announced as a way to “thank fans” for their support. The teams could instead thank fans by being honest, upfront, and consistent in their approach to putting competitive teams on the field. Or just by having owners pay in full for the costs of building new stadiums. But that probably wouldn’t be good for business.