The Dolphins are enduring a rough patch in fan support, with Sun Life finishing the 2012 season with the lowest home attendance in roughly 20 years (57,400 per game out of about 75,000) and the fourth-worst in the NFL (Tampa Bay was one off from the bottom, while Oakland held the basement ranking). In terms of the percentage of available seats sold, the Dolphins were the worst in the league with only 76 percent sold, according to standings tracked by espn.com.
Fans across the country punish their hometown teams at the box office during losing seasons, and Marlins Park and Sun Life Stadium are hardly the only stadiums that see empty seats. But some involved in the sports industry say South Florida teams must contend with a higher degree of fair-weather loyalty than many others do.
Mike Sophia served as president of the Miami-Dade Sports Commission, which recruits amateur athletic events as a way to boost tourism. He said that while events flocked to Miami for its athletic facilities, tourism base and weather, they generally accepted they couldn’t count on selling as many tickets locally as they could elsewhere in the country.
“There were events we didn’t pursue because we knew the [need for] a heavy local ticket base was something we would struggle with,’’ he said. “There is a passion for every sport in Miami. It just doesn’t always translate into attendance.”
When the Volvo Ocean Race picked Miami as the only North American shoreside stop last year, the global sailing race drew its smallest crowd at its temporary quarters in Bayfront Park. “We had by far the smallest footfall of any of the stops,’’ said Dusty Melton, a Miami lobbyist who volunteered for the local organizing committee. Projections for the Volvo crowds were set at 25,000, but Melton said the actual total was a fraction of that.
In 2009, the NCAA brought the first two rounds of its men’s basketball tournament to the AmericanAirlines Arena, but local ticket sales were “a bit of an issue,’’ Sophia said. “We thought it would sell itself.”
Contrast that to an entertainment event that draws fans from all over the state. “We did Wrestlemania,’’ Sophia said. “That sold out.”
Weather gets the bulk of the blame: With year-round sun, would-be spectators can head for the beach, boat or playground on game day. In Tampa, the Rays enjoy a winning record and finished third in the American League East last year. But the team consistently struggles to sell tickets.
“Conventional wisdom is ticket sales go down when a team is losing. The flip side is when a team is winning, fans will show up,” said Lee Igel, an associate professor of sports business and management at the NYU-SCPS Tisch Center. “But go a little bit northwest from where you are. In St. Petersburg, they’ve had a very good team, but they have a hard time getting people to show up.”
Tampa and Miami share the same kind of balmy weather that gets linked to a lack of turnout at stadiums. But the transient nature of South Florida’s population, particularly in the Miami area, also is seen as a culprit in the region’s up-and-down interest in hometown teams.
At a recent speech before the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the chair of the group’s sports committee, Jeff Bartel, touted Miami as one of the country’s great sports cities. Only 11 others can boast major-league teams for baseball, basketball, football and hockey. Only four host major NASCAR events.