If Marlins’ owners can’t sell rights, pray they can sell team
Written by Michael Lewis on September 24, 2014
The Atlanta Braves, still more than two years from moving into a $622 million suburban ballpark, last week announced a 25-year deal that will see the 41,500-seat stadium branded SunTrust Park.
Meanwhile, the Miami Marlins today finish their third year in their new 37,442-seat stadium, financed by taxpayers to the tune of $3 billion, with the name still Marlins Park because they’ve been unable to sell the naming rights.
The Braves for years branded themselves America’s Team. If the Marlins were lucky enough to have any brand at all, they’d be Nobody’s Team.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way. When a mayor and county manager got nine of 13 commissioners to spend billions – although none of them ever uttered the word “billion” – it was agreed that a covered stadium near downtown would jumpstart ticket sales as team owners finally paid enough player salaries to compete.
Those three factors – playing indoors, near downtown and with a well-paid team – were going to turn Miamians into cash customers as the stadium uplifted a shopworn Little Havana area.
What happened was almost the reverse.
Team owners, who had pleaded poverty until a giveaway handed them all revenues from a ballpark that the county owns, were revealed afterwards to be making the biggest profits in baseball by not spending on players. Rewarded in a new stadium with income streams they’d never gotten in their former home, the owners kept on not spending and pocketed even larger annual sums.
Disillusioned fans continued to shun games – the team today is 27th in the league in ticket sales, a tiny gain from 29th when they had no roof and were smack in the middle of nowhere playing in a football stadium.
It’s true that games are no longer rained out, a change owners claimed was crucial to build sales. So the average has risen from 19,007 tickets per game in 2011 to 21,347 as of Sunday.
Was that gain worth $3 billion in public funds? Nobody but the Marlins owners will say so. Commissioners who voted for the ballpark say they were hoodwinked – though if they’d read the deal before they voted they might have seen through it.
The neighborhood, meanwhile, hasn’t prospered. The city, which built 53,000 square feet of retail into stadium garages as an income-producer, still hasn’t leased most of the space in three years. The largest tenant, a medical facility, isn’t there because of baseball.
The stadium, true, is better. Team owners always said they had to have a stadium built only for baseball rather than one used for football – though they now use the stadium for soccer and football too. It was intentionally built that way, Marlins executives have admitted.
Not a single promise leading to the ballpark deal was kept. Even a pledge to open a youth baseball academy in the county before the stadium was finished remains a dream. Major League Baseball has yet to even pin down a site.
So the team’s stadium is still called Marlins Park, with no naming rights income. Nobody wants to be linked by name to a shameful giveaway.
It’s not that naming rights here can’t be sold. Florida International University, whose football team isn’t doing any better than the Marlins have done in baseball, last month signed a three-year stadium naming rights sale to Ocean Bank.
The difference: Florida International University has credibility and mountains of local goodwill. Football aside, nobody says a discouraging word about FIU. The Marlins are on the opposite side of the goodwill ledger, for every good reason.
So FIU will have Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium and the Braves will be playing for a quarter century in SunTrust Park.
Meanwhile, until the Marlins are sold they will play their 81 yearly home games in NoTrust Park.
For the sake of baseball fans and the taxpayers, pray that a team sale comes quickly. It can’t be too soon.