Transit sacrifice can drive in winning run of Marlins sales
By Michael Lewis
A Miami Marlins ballpark opens in four months, but stadium transit plans are stalled in 2009. Fix that fast to let the ballpark succeed.
Lacking options, both the team and Miami-Dade County are banking on mass transit to get fans and stadium workers to games. But the financially struggling county can't fund shuttles to link the park to Metrorail.
What's to blame? Maybe county turmoil over a recalled mayor, or recession, or the rollback of tax rates. It's more vital to fix the problem than affix the blame.
The stadium, after all, will cost taxpayers $3 billion over three decades. The Marlins' rent was already spent for construction. The county even lent the Marlins $35 million for the team's construction share.
Details we've often cited have made the stadium deal the worst ever for county taxpayers. The Marlins control a county stadium and get all income year around other than for a few events.
But no matter how unfair the deal, nobody wants the costly stadium to fail, especially if it falters because residents who actually want to attend games have trouble getting there. A fix is vital.
As we've reported, the City of Miami built 5,539 parking spaces under contract with the Marlins, who get 250 of those spots free year-around and rent the others from the city at $10.03 each per game for five years, with modest increases thereafter. The deal has the city in a bind over county taxes, but that's another story.
What's important is that the deal leaves only 5,289 parking spaces for customers, all season ticketholders. The Marlins expect 4,000 other fans to park on lawns and in driveways, 1% to bike in and 1,800 to walk up — all optimistic.
At 37,000 stadium capacity, however, most people would arrive at big games via mass transit. But no transit is being added, and the county says it can't afford shuttles from Metrorail a mile away.
That could be a disaster.
The stadium has a roof because, the team says, Miami weather deters fans. So how many will walk a mile each way in blazing sun or rain or dark of night through unfamiliar urban areas? Far fewer than would use Metrorail if a shuttle then took them to the ballpark.
The county had planned a shuttle from Government Center station but now says it can't afford it. It also planned one from Culmer station and seeks a $234,000 federal grant to pay half the cost.
But the county isn't likely to know if it got the grant until three weeks before exhibition games that normally would sell out to see the New York Yankees and a new ballpark.
As the Marlins' Claude Delorme correctly said of stadium parking at a forum, "If it takes 45 minutes to go the last mile, people might turn away." Ditto if it takes a mile walk each way in unknown areas on a rainy night or scorching afternoon.
This is the cue for a hero to step in with an ultra low-cost rescue. It could be anyone seeking a public relations bonanza for as little as $234,000. Imagine taking the Budweiser or Bacardi shuttle to the game. The Marlins control all stadium ads, but not those on public transit.
But the transit donor that stands to benefit most would be the team itself.
The Marlins have the most to lose from a transit glitch and the most to gain if everything runs like clockwork. Fans who don't get to the park on time might not come again. Those who arrive late also buy less — a half hour wasted en route costs sales.
The team can do the math, but just more food and drink profits when fans arrive earlier should exceed $234,000 over 83 games — less than $3,000 a game.
Plus, there's the public relations value. The team could lend the county $234,000 for a Culmer shuttle, then convert the loan to a gift if a federal grant fails. That would cement funding.
The Marlins could be even bigger heroes by supporting Government Center shuttles too. They could fund both shuttles for less than the 2012 minimum player salary, $480,000.
Any team that offers Albert Pujols a $200 million contract to play must add ticket sales. A transit investment of two-tenths of one percent of that salary could pay big dividends.
The Marlins, not noted for public relations skills, could pass this by. They could legitimately note it's not in their contract and walk away with a $3 billion county gift.
But when a simple gesture can build vast goodwill, add ticket and concession sales and enhance the bottom line of baseball's most profitable team, why wouldn't the Marlins step up to the plate?
This is one of those rare win-win situations where the Marlins can play Santa Claus while adding to their profits. Their on-field victories should be so easy.
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