Publics Economic Clout Is Vital On Stage And At Home Plate
Written by Michael Lewis on May 11, 2006
By Michael Lewis
Beyond competing for ticket sales and public funds, sports and culture seldom cross paths. But the woes of the 14-year-old Florida Marlins and the 50-year-old Coconut Grove Playhouse intersect.
The Marlins seek income from the accoutrements of a stadium. The playhouse has dumped most of its staff and must quickly plug a $4 million deficit.
Both have plunged into peril due to arrogance at the top and the assumption that Miamians haven’t got the sense to come in out of the rain.
The Marlins, in fact, claim they need a new stadium because they must have a roof to keep out the rain – yet baseball’s 2006 rainouts have been elsewhere, and most years, despite lack of cover, rainouts have not been significant here.
But the plea for a roof covers up what the Marlins really want – a cover to tap revenue streams like advertising, naming rights, parking and corporate suites that now go to stadium owner Wayne Huizenga. Given those revenues, cries for a new stadium would dry up.
The playhouse, meanwhile, has been giving the public a stream of productions featuring washed-up semi-names that were familiar to television sitcom viewers and telling us that is cutting-edge.
Directors have on one hand tried to suck in revenues from the blatantly commercial while on the other sought donations for producing art. If budgets were balanced, sitcom stars would quit pouring in.
How real are the financial woes?
The Marlins in fact will rake in healthy profits by cutting back to realistic salaries. Their $15 million payroll is lowest of the 30 major-league teams, just 40% of what the next-lowest team pays and less than one-seventh of the top tier.
This produces good entertainment that fewer people attend because the team will lose games but net a nice profit. In seeking a new stadium, owners aren’t battling red ink – they just seek to maximize profit.
The playhouse has cut staff to almost none but still must deal with Producing Artistic Director Arnold Mittelman and his undisclosed salary. The board has told him to go away, but he won’t quit.
The playhouse, too, could produce good shows yet live within a combination of ticket revenue and contributions if operators were to toe a responsible financial line.
The playhouse is far worse off than the Marlins, yet both could disappear – the playhouse into the history books and the Marlins to a city that would build a stadium whose revenues would flow to the team, if they could find one.
Both institutions need a major dose of humility and common sense to survive in Miami.
Mr. Mittelman has considered himself a genius who knows what the public should and would have. He might have been right. His problem has been flat-out arrogance, a lack of public-relations skill and an inability to balance a budget.
Marlins President David Samson used chamber of commerce speaking platforms this year not to specify how the audiences could help him but to show how bright and off-putting he could be. He succeeded, working without a text to shoot barbs at the community. Arrogance, combined with a void of public-relations sense and an inability or unwillingness to outline a detailed financial plan, was fatal.
Both institutions, in fact, have held their finances so close that they have prevented help from the public or any business leaders but a few insiders.
Salvation for the Marlins lies in Hialeah – yes, Hialeah, a perfect place for a stadium – rather than San Antonio, which the team has used as a stalking horse. With a May 15 deadline to cut a San Antonio deal and nothing begun, that city is a non-starter.
But in Hialeah, developer Armando Codina is rumored – without evidence – to be a willing land donor. City government would contribute. County money remains on the table. And the massive Miami TV market, so vital to Major League Baseball, remains.
The stumbling block is team owners. They need to dig deeper for money or bring in someone who will. They’ve used up bluffing time wandering in vain around the US to find a home.
Despite arrogance and a gap in common sense, the Marlins’ officials have their best shot today. Somehow, they’ve managed to avoid offending Hialeah’s leaders. It’s late in the game, and the Marlins are running out of time. They need to keep smiling, dig deep and get a deal done before it evaporates.
Salvation for the playhouse rests with its board, which must guide the restructuring of debt, get a new director, decide what the theater should be in its second 50 years and land the $15 million a bond issue has earmarked for physical improvements.
Those structural improvements, in turn, require a commercial component to create a long-term revenue stream.
The board must replace arrogance in its future mix with common sense to stay solvent. It must also provide oversight to avoid ever again accumulating millions in debts and controls to prevent staff from using funds inappropriately or illegally.
If the Marlins built in Hialeah, fans would follow. If the playhouse cleaned up its act, donors would follow. Both retain excellent brand names.
The playhouse can survive. Good smaller theaters here do so and manage to put on quality productions.
Baseball, too, can survive. Teams in much smaller markets do.
In both cases, though, common sense and good management must replace arrogance.
In turn, individuals, businesses and governments that want theater and baseball alive and thriving must use economic clout with heavy hands to be certain that changes at the top precede the exchange of money.
Both the Coconut Grove Playhouse and the Florida Marlins have looked to public subsidies. The public must exercise its own common sense and not arrogantly toss money into untenable situations.
Before cash changes hands, other change is called for.