Stadium Economic Promises Remain Emptier Than The Seats
Written by Michael Lewis on June 14, 2012
By Michael Lewis
Almost halfway through Marlins Park’s first season, the impact of the $3 billion taxpayers spent for it is becoming clear.
For our money we got three benefits: the name Miami Marlins, more TV shots of the downtown skyline and a better team.
What we did not get is the promised economic jolt.
The Little Havana neighborhood around the ballpark has yet to show any sign of a predicted boom.
The stadium garages’ stores remain shut, though the ballpark took three years and leasing time was ample.
The stadium’s own perimeter retail is limited to the quality you’d expect in a low-income, blue-collar area.
Nobody has paid a penny for naming rights in what are surely the most visible days of the stadium’s existence.
Even attendance gains seem tainted.
Announced figures did rise, from 28th in the big leagues last year to 16th — still below average, even if many of those visibly empty seats were actually sold, as the Marlins claim.
Baseball Nation says that while Marlins attendance rose 49% from 2011, ticket sales are still dead last for a first year among 22 recently built parks in their new stadiums.
The New York teams cut seats in order to multiply ticket prices.
The Marlins tried that too, cutting stadium size to more than triple some top-end ticket prices. That big rise may be why the Marlins have never sold out a brand-new park — no, not even opening day.
Just prior to the opener, team President David Samson told Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce members all tickets were sold — but then added that plenty of opening-day seats remained if people bought season packages.
But while box office prices soared, the resale market tumbled. From an opening day $211.75 average, we reported two weeks ago, prices fell every single game to a low average of $15.92. The Marlins then were at the lowest prices in baseball, even as attendance fell.
So with plenty of cheap seats floating around, why are first-year sales so disappointing, averaging just 28,073?
Go back a few years and listen to the Marlins. To fill seats and survive, they said, they needed a covered stadium, a site near downtown, a ballpark designed for baseball only, parking garages, urban transportation, nearby retail and dining, team control of the stadium and its revenues, higher player salaries to compete, and a winning team.
They got all of that.
Now what’s their excuse?
Moreover, what happened to the new stadium halo effect, in which sales universally soar at a new ballpark? Why not here?
Maybe a few fans bought Miami Heat tickets instead. Who could blame them?
Maybe manager Ozzie Guillen’s warm comments about Fidel Castro burned bridges.
Maybe owners and management are themselves a turnoff. Who can forget President David Samson’s disparaging remarks about his own community? Certainly this is not an ownership that exudes warmth and affection — or generates any.
Or maybe critics have been right all along: Miami is not a baseball town and will never support a team that isn’t in the World Series at the moment. Taxpayers are spending $3 billion right now, including monumental interest costs, to test that theory.
So, with only a lukewarm reception for our huge outlay over the next three decades plus, is this just a building block? Will the stadium add fans every year?
Don’t bet on it, says Baseball Nation’s Rob Neyer. He studied attendance at the newest 22 ballparks and discovered that while almost all enjoyed big sales gains the first year, only one gained again the second year. Some were flat, some fell 20% and another group 30%. He sees the Marlins likely to fall right back to the bottom of the attendance league.
Either way, don’t cry for the Marlins owners. They got a vast profit boost.
At their old home, Sun Life, stadium owner Steve Ross collected huge chunks or all the income from tickets, concessions, advertising, naming rights, parking — in fact, everything.
But the Marlins have a sweetheart deal now. The county nominally owns the stadium but doesn’t get even a penny of revenue. All goes to team owners, whose tiny rent is already counted among their construction costs. They’re making out like bandits. Plus, the Marlins can run as many non-baseball events as they like and pocket the receipts.
Other than taxpayers, those at risk in this fiasco might be the four Miami-Dade County commissioners who voted for the stadium giveaway and now face real, well-funded candidates in an Aug. 14 election battle.
Please welcome the four: Barbara Jordan, Audrey Edmonson, Bruno Barreiro and Dennis Moss.