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David Samson: Miami Marlins saw trouble with ticket sales before Day One

 
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dhanks@MiamiHerald.com

The Miami Marlins’ new ballpark was slow to draw fan interest even before a disastrous season led to a collapse in attendance so steep that the front office never contemplated it, team president David Samson said Monday.

“It didn’t occur to us... that the off-field results of last year could be what they were,’’ Samson said during a press conference at Marlins Park. “We didn’t even contemplate in a worst-case scenario that our revenues would be what they were.”

And while Samson said the biggest miscalculation was in just how poorly the Marlins would play, he said lukewarm support was noticeable well before the Marlins’ infamous mid-season dive.

Season-ticket buyers did not respond to the late 2011 signing of Jose Reyes and other star players, months before the ballpark’s debut. His marketing team had hoped to announce a string of sell-outs before the April 4 Opening Day, but even the Boston Red Sox didn’t bring enough demand to sell all 37,500 seats.

“We misread last year on and off the field,’’ Samson said. “We did not have the bump we expected after the winter meetings [when the Marlins signed Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell]. That got us worried. Not panicked, but worried.”

His comments danced around a central question looming over the opening of Marlins Park at the site of the old Orange Bowl football stadium in Little Havana.

Can Miami sustain a Major League Baseball team? Samson said he wasn’t trying to suggest the city couldn’t, noting “fans are always right.”

“I’m not going to say Miami is not a sports town,’’ he said. “Or that there is something wrong with the fans. I would never say that.”

Samson’s comments to reporters was the sideshow to owner Jeffrey Loria defending the Marlins’ stripping the team’s payroll of Reyes and other expensive players — a move he said was needed after the players failed to deliver in 2012.

Loria’s press conference came a day after he published a full-page letter to fans in local newspapers defending the move and the controversial deal that had Miami-Dade borrow nearly $400 million for the stadium’s construction.

Facing heavy fan backlash and the prospect of a season even worse than the one that brought “tens of millions of dollars” in losses last year, Loria hopes Miami will see his new young team as one worthy of support.

“We needed to fix the chemistry, we needed to fix the core of the team,’’ Loria said. “We didn’t draw more people [to the stadium] because the team was losing.”

So far, season-ticket sales are about half what they were a year ago, and the team isn’t sure it can sell out Opening Day on April 8. And the Marlins are facing revived ire over the 2009 stadium deal as the Miami Dolphins pursue their own tax-funded renovation for Sun Life.

Dolphins executives have promised a funding arrangement far more palatable than what the Marlins offered, and Loria on Monday called the Dolphins’ effort a “smear campaign’’ for its implicit slam against his arrangement with Miami-Dade.

A referendum on the Dolphins’ proposal probably will come in May, meaning the debate over tax-funded stadium projects will heat up just as the Marlins try to recover from the worst debut season among all ballparks built since 2001.

In his comments, Samson offered new details on the weak ticket sales, and said the collapse in revenue left the team no choice but to cut payroll.

The season’s announced attendance of 2.1 million was still far better than what the team drew when playing in Sun Life, and put the team at No. 18 in the 30-team league in terms of attendance. But Samson said the internal numbers of actual paid attendance were much worse. He put the so-called “turnstile” attendance for the season at 1.4 million. That’s roughly 17,000 people per game — or not even half of the stadium.

In its worst-case scenarios for the 2012 season, Samson said the team’s forecasts only contemplated for a turnstile attendance of 2 million.

Samson said an early sign of trouble was when June match-ups with the Red Sox didn’t deliver at the box office.

“We were very, very worried when the Red Sox games didn’t sell out,’’ he said. As the team turned in a strong performance in May — only the second month in the ballpark -- ticket sales weren’t delivering.

“Our fans I thought would see win after win. Our advanced sales didn’t move,’’ Samson said. “I don’t know the reason. I really don’t.”

He also declined to predict a sell-out for Opening Day – a lack of confidence for only the second year of the stadium’s existence.

“Fans are reticent and upset,’’ Samson said of the fury over dumping the star players. “I am so sorry about that.”

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