Michael Lipman runs a ticket brokerage in Miami. By his math, he’s enjoying the country’s most lucrative market for basketball and perhaps the worst for baseball. But he knows those dynamics won’t last forever.
“Miami is a great, great town for winners,’’ said Lipman owner of Tickets of America. “But when a team heads south, watch out... We bought a lot of season tickets for the Marlins. We gave them back. They’re an unsellable product.”
Lipman’s comments touch on an old complaint about the Miami area being the home to fair-weather fans. But the issue also serves as a subtext for ongoing debate over how much tax money should go to South Florida’s professional sports teams.
The ups-and-downs of fan loyalty weigh on the Miami Dolphins’ campaign for a tax-subsidized renovation of Sun Life Stadium on the heels of a disappointing 7-9 season that left Miami Gardens with one of the emptiest stadiums in the NFL. At the AmericanAirlines Arena, Heat executives are trying to renegotiate their current deal with Miami-Dade for a yearly $6 million subsidy of operations as they contemplate what would happen to ticket sales once the inevitable day arrives when LeBron James no longer takes the court.
The government-owned stadium in Sunrise that is the home ice rink for the Florida Panthers typically sells out about 80 percent of its seats, enough to make the tropical hockey team in the bottom third of the NHL in terms of attendance. As fans fume over the Marlins slashing payroll at the end of their first season in a tax-funded stadium, team executives say the lack of revenue at the box office left them no choice but to cut expenses.
Attendance plunged in the summer as the Marlins slid into a season that would see them win just 42 percent of their games, ending the year with 69 wins and 93 losses.
But in February, when individual tickets first went on sale for Marlins Park’s debut season, team President David Samson said he was stunned to see no sell-outs beyond Opening Day. He had counted on announcing at least a sell-out for Day Two as a way to build buzz and convince residents that Marlins Park was the place to be.
“I had the whole thing ready to announce,” he said in a recent interview. “In Miami, I thought, it’s an event town. If you see everything is selling out, [you think] ‘I’d better get tickets.’ We couldn’t get it done.”
He recalled draped-off sections in the American Airlines Arena in the years when the Heat were without a Shaquille O’Neal or James to draw big crowds. And how in 2001, shortly beforeMarlins owner Jeff Loria bought the franchise, the local television broadcast of a Dolphins playoff game was blacked out for lack of a sell-out.
“Each of the teams in this market has had issues over the years,” Samson said in a recent interview. “That’s a fact.’’
The Dolphins hope to rejuvenate their fan base with an expensive new line-up that includes free agents Mike Wallace, Dustin Keller and Dannell Ellerbe. The signings came as the team pushes a plan for a $400 million renovation of Sun Life, with the Dolphins funding about half of the work and the remainder paid by Florida and by hotel taxes collected in Miami-Dade County.
The renovation is aimed at attracting more Super Bowls and major soccer events. The centerpiece is a partial roof designed to protect spectators against the sort of downpour that drenched the Super Bowl in 2007 when it came to Miami Gardens. But the feature will have the added benefit of shielding spectators from the hot sun during Dolphin games early in the season — one of the challenges team executives have cited in trying to boost ticket sales.
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.
Of those four, only Miami also hosts yearly major tournaments in golf (the Cadillac golf tournament at the Trump Doral) and tennis (the Sony Open that began Wednesday in Key Biscayne).
Throw in Miami’s tie for a record 10 Super Bowls, and “the breadth of sports offerings in Miami year-round is probably second to none,’’ Bartel said. Why doesn’t the fan base show up consistently? Bartel cited the influx of relative newcomers and the team loyalties they bring with them.
“We have that issue that people must adopt their hometown teams,” said Bartel, managing director of the Hamptons Group investments firm in Coral Gables. “When you come to Miami as an adult, you probably have already grown up as a fan of the Boston Red Sox or the New York Yankees.”
At the moment, Miami has clearly adopted basketball as its sport of choice. Tickets for the Miami Heat routinely top out at $3,000 courtside, and $80 for the top rows at the AA Arena. The best winning streak in franchise history and the presence of the hottest star in basketball have made the Heat a top draw in Miami and around the country.
At home, the Heat is pushing beyond the AA Arena’s official capacity of 19,600 in official attendance figures and reporting an average occupancy of 102 percent this season, according to espn.com. That’s the third best in the NBA, and the best for the Heat since the successful 2006 championship run.
But the Heat has seen lean years, too. Sales for non-premium seats dropped 30 percent from its peak during the 2006 championship season, to 2010, the last season before James joined the team, according to financial figures on file with Miami-Dade County. The team has paid no rent in its county-owned arena despite the profitable Three Kings era because the facility still runs a deficit from the non-Shaq years, according to the arena reports.
Heat executives declined to be interviewed for this article, but last spring team president Eric Woolworth noted: “We are in a cyclical business.”
For Lipman, the ticket broker, the Heat’s rise demonstrated just how fully Miami can embrace a winning team. His company resells premium NBA tickets around the country, but the top dollars consistently have come from Miami since the Three Kings era began in 2010.
“Miami is unique. When the team is good, the disposable income is there and [locals are] going to spend more money than anyone, including New York and Los Angeles,’’ he said.
“Miami has the money. But they only support winners,” he continued. “They’re phenomenal fair-weather fans.”