MARLINS PARK

At Marlins’ Park, turnstiles are still clicking

 

We’re at the quarter-pole of the Marlins’ inaugural year in their new ballpark, and the team has made significant improvements in attendance, but still has a ways to go to rank among baseball’s elite.

abeasley@miamiherald.com

For all the attractions and distractions at Marlins Park, few are as popular as the beer garden beyond the left-field fence. The open-to-all watering hole gives game-goers a chance to stretch their legs, bend their elbows and talk shop with an unobstructed view of the action.

But if the always-crowded Budweiser Bow Tie Bar is the spot where everybody knows the game (if not your name), the loneliest place in the sparkling new ballpark Thursday night was up in Section 310. An hour into the Marlins’ 14-7 late-week loss to the San Francisco Giants, casual fans Pastora Lopez and Andrew Schindler were the only two people sitting in the entire area.

“I’m surprised it’s so quiet, especially in the first year,” said Schindler, who paid $10 per seat just before the opening pitch. “It’s our first time in the new stadium, and the first time with our own section.”

Nearly two months after the Marlins unveiled their long-awaited new home, the thrill certainly isn’t gone, but it has faded a bit. Thursday marked the 20th home game in the $634 million facility’s young history, and turnout (announced generously as 24,099) was strong, but not spectacular. It marked the seventh consecutive time the Marlins drew under 30,000 after exceeding that figure in 10 of their first 13 games.

A quarter of the way through this crucial first season of the newly branded Miami Marlins, a few trends are evident:

1. Marlins Park is a far more attractive option to fans than Sun Life Stadium ever was;

2. Parking around the stadium is actually a fairly easy proposition; and

3. South Florida still isn’t New York, Philadelphia, or even San Diego, when it comes to baseball interest.

Including Thursday’s take, the Marlins had an average paid attendance of 28,620 people per game in 2012 — a 67-percent increase over the same 20-game span from a year ago. But of the nine teams that have opened new stadiums in the past decade, just the Cincinnati Reds (25,708 in 2003) had a smaller average at this point of their inaugural years, according to figures provided by Baseball-Reference.com.

These numbers reflect tickets sold, not people in seats.

“Of course, we wish there were 36,000 people there every night, but I’m pleased with the response so far,” said Marlins President David Samson. “We’ve gone over 30,000 10 times already. We were a franchise that would go over 30,000 four times a season. At Sun Life, you’d hear comments how you could count the number of fans.

“People are coming to the games and loving the ballpark,” he added. “Overall, we couldn’t be happier.”

Through Thursday, the Marlins ranked 14th in total paid attendance after finishing 28th or worse the previous seven seasons. The club has done so despite fighting some brisk headwinds early in the year.

Of their first 20 home opponents, just five had winning records through Thursday’s action. More than half of their early home games fell during the week, when crowd sizes are almost always smaller than on the weekends.

And the Marlins know that, thanks to the Heat’s postseason success, they’re destined to be the town’s secondary story for at least the next couple of weeks. On six occasions, a Heat playoff game has fallen on a day when the Marlins were home, including five times when both had games in Miami.

Plus, baseball is traditionally a summer sport, and Samson expects the figures to swell once school lets out. Recent history indicates he’s probably right. Attendance for the first 20 home games was, on average, nearly 4 percent lower than it was for the entire first season for the eight other teams with ballparks built in the last 10 years. If the Marlins experience the same boost, they would average nearly 29,000 people a game this year — most since 1993, the team’s first year in existence.

But even with the novelty of their Little Havana ballpark, the Marlins can’t just expect to open their doors and wait for the stampede. Sports consumers are savvier (and pickier) than ever, and on most nights, brokerage websites like StubHub.com allow fans to find seats for just pennies on the dollar

That’s why the Marlins have forged value-rich partnerships with outlets like Travelzoo.com, offering tickets for less desirable games at up to half-off (as they did for Thursday’s affair against San Francisco).

For the gluttonous, the team sells all-you-can eat deals for certain games, and has had some success with its Four For $54 package — a family-friendly Friday night promotion that comes with four tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas and two game programs.

While it might surprise some that the Marlins have resorted to giveaways so early in their new incarnation, such deals are standard in the industry, due to the massive inventory that comes with a 162-game season, said Patrick Rishe, an economics professor at Webster University.

Rishe expects the newness of the facility will help keep the Marlins’ attendance figures elevated throughout this season.

The great unknown, however, is next year and beyond. Teams in new ballparks since 2003 have seen their crowd sizes drop by an average of 7 percent in Year 2. Of the eight newest facilities, only two — New York’s Yankee Stadium and Busch Stadium in St. Louis — experienced attendance increases in their second season.

“It’s the classic example of the honeymoon effect,” Rishe said. “How long the honeymoon lasts is tied greatly to the success of the team and expectations of the team. Whether Miami’s able to see a gradual drop-off or an extreme drop depends on what they do on the field.”

No one knows this better than Chris Gargani, the Washington Nationals’ vice president of sales and client services. Gargani, who previously worked for the Florida Panthers, ran the Nationals’ ticketing operation when the franchise moved into its new ballpark in 2008. Like Miami, Washington is a diverse, transient town without a long-running baseball tradition, which at times makes it a tough sell.

In the stadium’s first year, Washington’s attendance figures were respectable — and strikingly similar to how the Marlins are drawing this year. Washington averaged just over 29,000 its first season, despite winning only 59 games. But a second-straight 100-loss season in 2009 overpowered the allure of the still-novel ballpark, and the Nats’ attendance plummeted by 22 percent.

Finally competitive after several brutal years, Washington fans have responded. Through 23 home games, the Nationals averaged 27,331 people per game — which, like Miami, is solidly middle-of-the-pack.

“Everything’s trending upward,” Gargani said. “It’s a culmination of team performance, civic pride and breathing new life in the park.”

Well aware that buzz in this town only lasts until the next big party, the Marlins are already brainstorming for ways to keep the momentum going. Next month, the club will have its first planning meeting for 2013, Samson said — even though the bulk of the 2012 schedule is still ahead of them.

“Eighty-one games is a lot of inventory,” said Anna Whitlow, spokeswoman for the Clevelander hotel and bar, the South Beach staple that opened a location inside the ballpark. “We’re all just looking for ways to keep it fresh. All the venues in Marlins Park are riding the wave of this new opportunity.”

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