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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

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