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May 6, 2013

Bizball

The Marlins' Sinking Attendance

by Maury Brown

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“Nobody loves me, nobody cares,
Nobody picks me peaches and pears.
Nobody offers me candy and Cokes,
Nobody listens and laughs at me jokes.
Nobody helps when I get into a fight,
Nobody does all my homework at night.
Nobody misses me,
Nobody cries,
Nobody thinks I'm a wonderful guy.” –Shel Silverstein, poet and singer/songwriter

Shel Silverstein didn’t write this about the Marlins. For one, he died just a few short years after the club was christened in South Florida. Certainly, the Marlins are loved by some, just not by as many as they could, which is to say the current owners haven’t done themselves any favors. In poll after poll, column after column, Jeffrey Loria is ranked as the worst owner in all of North American professional sports.

Loria is bad for fans, but he treats himself and the partners in the club well. He and club president David Samson were able to bamboozle politicians and taxpayers in Miami-Dade County to the tune of $500 million for a brand-spanking-new ballpark on the former site of the Orange Bowl. They opened up last season in that freshly minted stadium after being the darlings of the 2011 Baseball Winter Meetings, at which they signed SS Jose Reyes to a six-year, $106 million deal, starter Mark Buehrle to a four-year, $58 million contract; and closer Heath Bell to a three-year, $27 million deal with an option for 2015. All told, the Marlins splurged $191 million at the meetings, and it could have been more, as it looked for bit like they were going after Albert Pujols. Imagine that.

In mid-November of last year, the club promptly moved Reyes (2013: $10M, 2014: $16M, 2015: $22M, 2016: $22M, 2017: $22M, 2018: $22M club option with $4M buyout), Josh Johnson (2013: $13.75M), Buehrle (2013: $11M, 2014: $18M, 2015: $19M plus a $4M deferred signing bonus), John Buck (2013: $6M), and Emilio Bonifacio (who is arbitration eligible this year), and $4 million (or potentially more) in cash to the Blue Jays for Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, Adeiny Hechavarria, Jeff Mathis, minor-league pitchers Justin Nicolino and Anthony Desclafani, and minor-league outfielder Jake Marisnick. All told, the Marlins stripped $163.75 million off the books, and the baseball world screamed “fire sale” at a club that at one point was featured on Showtime’s “The Franchise” and had Ozzie Guillen as its manager. Loria had done what Loria had always done before: make rash decisions, all of which soil any chance of creating goodwill in the community. And the Marlins, in their best Stuart Smalley, looked at themselves in the mirror and said, “Doggone it, people like me.”

With that as the backdrop, I made some predictions before the season started on Twitter that weren’t that much of a leap to make. I said the Marlins wouldn’t sell out a single game this season (since Opening Day wasn’t a sellout, chances are good they won’t get one going forward), and added that they would see largest drop in attendance for a second-year ballpark among all MLB stadiums built in the last 25 years.

It’s the latter I want to talk about. I’m sticking with it, and it’s only May. Before fans of the Fish get started with the “it’s a small sample size” argument, look back at how this article started. Even with Groupon deals, a “buy one, get one free,” and, more recently, WellMax Medical Centers Seniors Free Ticket Thursday where all fans 55 years and older could receive complimentary tickets to all Thursday home games, the Subway $5 Ticket Offer where fans could visit their local participating Subway location to receive a Marlins voucher valid for one $5 ticket, and the Pepsi Can $5 Ticket Offer where fans can bring proof of a Pepsi product purchase (minimum 12-ounce can) in the form of a can or receipt, and receive their choice of a $5 ticket in Vista Reserved, Vista Box or Home Run Porch, or a $10 ticket in Legends Silver for any home game in April or May, they’re still on pace to break that record.

Since the 1990s, attendance has been “paid attendance” in Major League Baseball. The announced numbers that show up in the box scores are not how many people actually attend the games, but the number of tickets sold. How the team performed in the previous season, as well as any offseason moves drives season-ticket sales up and down long before the first game is played. It’s why the Marlins are going to see that massive decline in their second year at Marlins Park. It’s also why it’s much worse than the paid attendance numbers show.

Under the Selig tenure, the largest decline in attendance for the second year in a new ballpark was seen by the Tampa Bay Rays (then the Devil Rays), when they went from averaging 30,942 in paid attendance in 1998 to 19,294 in 1999, a decline of 38 percent. The Marlins are currently averaging 18,864. As of May 5 of last season, they were averaging 30,681, down 11,817 from the previous year, or a decline of 39 percent. At this point in the season in 2012, the Marlins had a record of 13-14 (.481), were on a five-game winning streak, and were five games out of first. This season, the team is 9-22 (.290) and nine games out of first. It’s not likely to get better in the standings or attendance.

But, here’s where we get back into how Loria is looking out for himself and probably not too concerned about what the public thinks. First off, that fire sale—it’s not like the players they unloaded are paying dividends in Toronto. As of Sunday, the Blue Jays were 10-23 and 10 1/2 games out of first. The Marlins had a player payroll of $101,628,000 in 2012 compared with $50,526,900 this season, a decrease of more than half from last season (down $51,101,100). With that, the Marlins may actually see profits increase (and yes, if the Marlins are trying to say they aren’t profitable, they probably also have some swamp land in the Everglades they’d like to sell you).

All of which is backward from what quality clubs do. Quality clubs build winners and treat their fans with respect. The Marlins are like a rollercoaster: There are highs and lows, but in the end you feel jerked around and nauseous. I get no sense of long-term, forward thinking. If the logic is that the players they acquired in at the Winter Meetings in Dallas weren’t paying off, then why did you make the moves in the first place? If the idea is to develop players on the cheap, then why have you not been above .500 since 2009, and finished last in 2011 and 2012 (2011 was the year prior to going off in free agency)? In the meantime, you’ve burned the taxpayers and as the gate is showing now, ticked fans off. The Marlins currently rank 28th out of 30 clubs in attendance. Loria, you can thank the woeful Mariners and terrible weather in Cleveland from keeping you out of last.

In the end, the league can’t force Loria out as owner, and given the fact that the guy clearly is only concerned about making money over the long-term health of the club isn’t likely to sell at his earliest convenience. Even if the Marlins see a historic attendance decline, Loria likely won’t care. As long as the profits keep coming in, he’s more than willing to play Ebenezer Scrooge. And no ghosts are likely to make him see the light.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

Related Content:  The Show 2012,  Marlins,  Marlins Park

29 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

dianagram

Revenue-sharing year after year actually is a disincentive for improving one's team. Loria knows that, and is gaming that system perfectly.

May 06, 2013 05:29 AM
rating: 8
 
Terry

Another notch in the Lorian pistol butt (joining Montreal).

May 06, 2013 08:07 AM
rating: 1
 
jfribley

On the other hand, revenue sharing has produced an era of relatively better parity. It's no conciliation for Marlins fans, of course, but revenue sharing has been a tremendous success too.

May 06, 2013 10:43 AM
rating: 2
 
lmarighi

It seems to me that it's a bit unfair to say that revenue sharing is a disincentive, as it seems that Loria is the only one who doesn't care about building a good team. Other low-revenue teams that get revenue sharing seem to be making more of an effort to build a competitive team, even if the results are not always there (I'm thinking of Oakland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay and Cleveland among others).

May 06, 2013 14:23 PM
rating: 4
 
dianagram

A very valid point. I should have stated that the revenue-sharing rules, as currently laid out, do not PENALIZE or PREVENT Loria's behavior.

May 06, 2013 17:21 PM
rating: 3
 
BillJohnson

Your remark about treating the fans with "respect" hits home. Having seen a game there this spring as part of a project to see games in all 30 MLB parks, all I can say about this decline is "Good." It was by FAR the most disrespectful, miserable experience I have ever had at a ballpark (for reasons quite distinct from what was happening on the field), and if they are going to treat other fans the way they did us, then I would suggest it's in the fans' interest to stay away in droves. You have to feel a bit sorry for the players as a result, but they're well paid and can escape in a very few years, which is not true of the Miami taxpayers and the other people Loria has screwed.

May 06, 2013 05:48 AM
rating: 4
 
dianagram

Would you be willing to elaborate on your miserable experience there?

May 06, 2013 07:09 AM
rating: 4
 
BillJohnson

Long story that I would rather not go into in detail here. (Private mail would work.) The short version: they took exception to a camera that I was carrying, never mind that I've taken it into parks all over the country without problems. When I took it back to the car since they wouldn't let it into the park, a malfunctioning elevator made me walk down five stories' worth of stairs on a bad, post-surgery knee. I was in pain for two days from that. They did nothing about it.

Worst treatment I've ever had at a major-league park, and I don't know why they did it. It certainly wasn't a professional photographer's setup, and I am certainly not a professional photographer. Were they afraid I was going to take and publish pictures of protesters or something?

May 06, 2013 07:43 AM
rating: 9
 
Michael
(736)

Considering Cleveland finished 29th in attendance last year, I don't think we can merely blame bad 2013 weather for why they are doing equally poorly so far this season.

May 06, 2013 06:05 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Maury Brown
BP staff

This is fair. I was speaking to April but it's possible that regardless of the weather, it would stack up as such.

May 06, 2013 07:21 AM
 
jrbdmb

"In the end, the league can’t force Loria out as owner."

Why not? Certainly Loria has undermined the Marlins franchise (and community) every bit as much as McCourt did to the Dodgers. It certainly seems like the best interests of baseball would suggest a new owner for the team.

May 06, 2013 09:17 AM
rating: 3
 
amazin_mess

Yeah....I don't get that either. He's the biggest problem MLB has right now.

May 06, 2013 09:39 AM
rating: 1
 
Matt

Why would the league force out Loria? He takes revenue sharing money, but that only inconveniences the owners. They probably see that as a small tax, part of doing business. He successfully willed a publicly financed stadium to happen, which is probably helpful to other owners wanting same. Having Loria own the Marlins sucks for fans, and you could argue it undermines the integrity of the sport. But how does this hurt the league or the owners exactly?

May 06, 2013 10:45 AM
rating: 3
 
faithdies

Terrible attendance numbers affect the league as teams split attendence. IE the Phillies go and play the Marlins in Florida. The Phillies get some of the ticket revenue. If the Marlins are consistently underselling their stadium then teams aren't getting as much money as they could.

May 06, 2013 10:48 AM
rating: 0
 
Matt

I can't imagine the effect is that big, spread among all the teams. And if they undersell, the Marlins can claim they can't afford to pay big salaries, which helps drive down the market for player salaries, making players cheaper for other owners. I suspect if this actually hurt the other owners' bottom line, we would hear about it.

May 06, 2013 11:05 AM
rating: 2
 
faithdies

That only works if other teams follow suit in not paying their players. They don't. At the end of the day, free agent X is going to make the same amount of money no matter how cheap the Marlins are. There are more teams out there willing to overpay then there are Marlin-Equivalents.

Also, I don't think the effect of that reduced ticket revenue is as small as you think.

For example, the phillies play the Marlins 8 times. I believe the monetary split is 60/40% between home/away teams. If the Marlins sold out every game and ONLY charged the average ticket price across MLB(28 bucks) those 8 games would generate 8 million in revenue. That's a split of 4.8 for the Marlins and 3.2 for the Phillies.

BUT the Marlins are only averaging HALF capacity. And it's EARLY, it could drop even lower. The average Miami ticket is 29 bucks. That's 4.7 Millions. That's 2.5 million for the home team and 2.2 million for the away team. A difference of a million dollars.

In conclusion - If the Marlins put up a team competitive and exciting enough to sell out every game they are costing all the other teams in baseball 162 million dollars. Now obviously, selling out every game isn't to be expected but you get the idea. It is certainly costing baseball money.

May 06, 2013 11:47 AM
rating: -1
 
faithdies

Also, I mean the Phillies play the Marlins "8 Times" in Miami. They play them a total of 16 times. So, the Marlins are actually leaching other teams multiple times.

1) By not selling out their stadium they are screwing the away team.
2) They are collecting money from more loyal fanbases by being an away team.
3) They are collecting money from revenue sharing.

May 06, 2013 11:49 AM
rating: -1
 
Dodger300

"If the Marlins sold out every game"

When you try to make a point by starting off in fantasyland, it pretty much completely undermines the point.

May 07, 2013 08:06 AM
rating: 0
 
faithdies

Why? There are teams that sell out close to 100% of their games. I know that they probably wouldn't. But, it's a point of comparison.

May 07, 2013 11:48 AM
rating: 0
 
jrbdmb

"He successfully willed a publicly financed stadium to happen, which is probably helpful to other owners wanting same."

Go tell that to the Dolphins. Their stadium renovation plans are basically DOA due to the public backlash from the Marlins deal. And if the Marlins stadium is already being described as a "public fleecing" and a "white elephant", I don't think that helps other MLB teams asking for public financing of their upcoming stadium projects.

May 06, 2013 12:54 PM
rating: 5
 
Matt

I thought the Marlins new stadium deal was DOA for awhile, and then it happened. Was that a change in public opinion? I don't know.

I can see how a new Dolphins stadium is unfeasible. But in another city, they have to be saying "Geez, even the Marlins got a new stadium. If we don't have one, what does that say about us?" I don't agree with the reasoning, but that is how I imagine they will spin it.

May 06, 2013 13:28 PM
rating: 0
 
faithdies

The difference is that it was demonstrable that McCourt wasn't financially viable as an owner and using the baseball team as a way to balance his personal finances.

May 06, 2013 10:46 AM
rating: 1
 
BarryR

Even more important, because he needed operating cash, McCourt had signed a sweetheart TV deal with FOX, which was the worst sin he committed. When a major market team undersells its TV rights, that reverberates in the offices of MLB.

May 06, 2013 19:48 PM
rating: 0
 
steve.k

Maury - you missed a fairly significant descriptor of Mr. Loria's infamous partner....David Samson is not only president, he's also Loria's son-in-law. Those two desreve each other.

May 06, 2013 09:40 AM
rating: 2
 
terryspen

Samson is the son of Loria's ex-wife, not his son-in-law -- he married Samson's mom when Samson was young, so he is basically Loria's kid.

May 07, 2013 09:54 AM
rating: 1
 
Meatpacker

To the extent the other owners may disapprove, they only have themselves to blame. It's not like this wasn't forseeable. They saw Loria drive the Montreal franchise essentially into a receivership position. And yet they gave him the opportunity to ruin another one.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice ...

May 06, 2013 15:13 PM
rating: 5
 
Llarry

Loria does provide one other 'valuable' service for the other owners: He makes them all look good by comparison...

May 06, 2013 15:13 PM
rating: 2
 
Jeff Evans

Some of the other owners gotta love him - How'd that Miguel Cabrera trade work out anyway?

May 06, 2013 17:41 PM
rating: 0
 
Pat Folz

That SEC investigation is still going on, right? If they do drop the hammer in the near future, I'd imagine Loria would be booted out of MLB as fast as (in)humanly possible, to try to distance MLB from the whole "massive criminal fraud to steal from taxpayers to build a stadium" bit.

May 08, 2013 03:45 AM
rating: 0
 
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