There’s an entire generation of South Floridians who know the Dolphins only as losers, if they even know them at all.
That sounds brutal, and it stinks to write it, but here we are.
Over the course of nearly two decades, the Dolphins have gone from a brand with national appeal, to a regional joke, to the boring “other team” in a town that craves star-driven success. First, fans longed for a storied past. Then there was exasperation. Then exhaustion spawned derision. The fan revolt came next.
That’s a brief history of how the Dolphins frittered away their season-ticket holders and lost an aging fan base. But that’s not how you kill a franchise, especially one that gave an early NFL some of its greatest moments and biggest stars. No, that takes a little longer, and we’re almost there.
Ignominy is one thing and apathy eventually could be amended, but to be ignored by the one segment of the population your business needs to survive — that’s the greatest fear. If the kids no longer identify themselves as Dolphins fans — and they don’t — then why should anyone else? Yes, the crucible season of this franchise is less than two months away, and the Dolphins know it.
So does 19-year-old Kareem Rutledge.
Who is Rutledge? He’s just a kid from Pompano Beach who grew up loving and playing football. On Friday at Dolphins training camp, Rutledge, who played wide receiver for Pompano Beach Blanche Ely, was in the first row of the bleachers taking in the sights and sounds of an NFL training camp. But he’s not a Dolphins fan and never has been. He loves Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
“I grew up on football like everyone else here and for some reason, I guess it’s how they played the game, I became a Patriots fan,” Rutledge said. “But the Dolphins, I think it’s going to be their season. If this don’t happen, they ain’t going to prosper.”
Bingo. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars on focus groups to figure out the problem and understand the solution. Rutledge represents the key demographic the Dolphins must reach.
Not an easy fix
Owner Stephen Ross has invested millions to salvage his team’s image, and he should be given credit for an offseason that has moved the doomsday clock back a tick or two. But let’s be clear: It’s not enough now to simply win back fans by winning more than 10 games. Not anymore. That day has passed.
The job now is about not only building a team but also introducing young adults, teenagers and children to something they’ve never known — exciting NFL football in South Florida led by budding stars with fresh appeal. That’s a lot of pressure to put on the shoulders of second-year pro Ryan Tannehill, a quarterback who had the same completion percentage last season as Blaine Gabbert, but just look to Washington (Robert Griffin III), Atlanta (Matt Ryan and Julio Jones) and Seattle (Russell Wilson) for examples of how new faces can reinvigorate interest in downtrodden NFL cities.
Once the mainstay of Miami professional sports, once the only game in town, the Dolphins are in danger of bankrupting their future. Those are the stakes entering this new season of promised promise. For a franchise that now shares a market with the most exhilarating basketball team since Michael Jordan’s Bulls, that’s a dangerous place to be.