What has moving to Miami brought the Marlins? About 100 extra fans per game.
That’s the current gap between this year’s attendance and the average gate count for the Marlins’ last season at Sun Life Stadium, the football field that owner Jeffrey Loria blamed for the team’s long-standing attendance and revenue woes.
Those problems ended up following Loria to the government-owned Marlins Park, which is on track to face the worst fan rejection of a new baseball stadium in at least a generation. [Click here for an interactive chart on just how poorly Marlins Park is faring as a new baseball stadium.]
“Usually you have a honeymoon effect,” said J.C. Bradbury, a sports-science professor at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta who studies the business side of baseball. “It’s hard to have that when the fans are predisposed not to like you.”
Attendance for the Marlins hit a 15-year high with the opening of the 36,000-seat Marlins Park last year, despite lingering ire over Miami and Miami-Dade picking up most of the $634 million construction tab. But the gains didn’t last long. On the heels of a losing season, Loria slashed the team’s payroll by $60 million and traded most of the star players. Sales of season tickets plunged 60 percent, and the Marlins became the only Major League franchise to turn to Groupon to fill seats on Opening Day in April.
“I obviously still feel tremendously sorry about what happened last year,” said Marlins president David Samson. “The goal we have with our fans every day is to get them to the point when they say, ‘I remember when — I remember when I was so unhappy with the team. But now, it’s a love affair.’ ”
At the moment, the Marlins have the worst attendance in baseball at about 17,830 people per game, according to a ranking on espn.com. That amounts to an average sales drop of 10,400 tickets from the 2012 inaugural season — a 37 percent decline.
Using attendance figures from the 1980s on posted at baseball-reference.com, The Miami Herald compared the ongoing 2013 season at Marlins Park to the second year of every new stadium built since 1989.
Only one ballpark saw a worse drop: Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, where attendance fell 38 percent in the season after its 1998 debut.
But Marlins Park could wind up in the statistical basement by the time this season ends. During its first 55 home games, which is how many times the Marlins have played in Miami this year, Tampa Bay only saw a drop of 30 percent. Assuming the Marlins follow the same trajectory once summer ends, it will pass Tampa’s record for the worst sophomore season.
Loria argued the player trades were necessary after his $100 million payroll, one of the highest in baseball, failed to deliver last year. Once the new squad gels and starts winning, front-office executives predict fans to come back in the numbers needed to spend more on the field. In April, Samson said the Marlins need attendance of about 30,000 to afford a $80 million payroll, far better than the estimated $35 million players earn now.
The Marlins are reporting an average announced attendance of 17,977 per game, helped along by Thursday’s second-best tally of 25,916 thanks to a popular summer-camp promotion.
The per-game average is 109 more seats than the team’s attendance for the same number of games at Sun Life in 2011. It’s also enough to fill about half of Marlins Park’s 36,742 seats, but actual attendance has been lower because the announced tally includes sold or distributed tickets that are not used.
Despite a strong start when then-Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga brought the team to his South Florida football stadium in 1993, the Marlins have generally drawn some of the smallest crowds in the major leagues. Even when the team won the World Series in 2003, attendance was still the third worst in baseball.
Ire over Loria’s trades and the team’s second losing season have yet to put baseball to the real test in Miami. “I think when they see a winning team, we’ll have the same enthusiasm we have for the Miami Heat,” said Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who opposed using public funds to build the stadium. He said he has yet to attend a Marlins game there, but added, “I think the stadium is fabulous.”
On Tuesday night, Luis Roblejo joined family and friends for their first Marlins game of the season. They took up five seats in a mostly empty upper deck above right field. Each wore a Marlins jersey. None bore the name of a current player.
“I’m a little bit embarrassed” about not being at the ballpark yet, said Roblejo, an IT worker in Miami. He wore an old Gaby Sanchez jersey, while his 13-year-old son, Ryan, had Hanley Ramirez’s name on the back of his Marlins shirt. Both players were traded last year.
“If I had more players to identify with, I would come,” Roblejo said.
To combat weak demand, the Marlins are cutting into profits with more promotions than they ever envisioned at the new ballpark. The discounting includes kids-eat-free specials on Wednesdays and $27 all-you-can-eat buffets on Saturdays. Seniors get free tickets on Thursdays. “It’s a very aggressive approach to get people back into the building,’’ said Sean Flynn, head of marketing for the team.
Ana and Juan Avila paid about $54 to bring their two children to Sunday afternoon’s win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. Each ticket came with a free hot dog and soda. “It’s my first game ever,” said their son Juan, 9, from his seat high above right field in a nearly empty Section 140. “It’s bigger than I expected.”
Even with the discouraging attendance numbers, Marlins Park remains livelier than the statistics might suggest. Buying a hot dog ($6) or a Pepsi ($4.50) requires waiting in line. While the upper deck remains roped off many evenings for lack of ticket sales, the lower deck appeared more than half full during two visits to the park this week.
During Tuesday night’s extra-inning loss to the New York Mets, enough spectators jumped up with raised arms to perform several laps of a respectable fan wave before it fizzled.
“The recovery from the hurt is happening quicker than we thought,” said Samson, the team president. “As time passes and people realize it’s a fun place to see a game, things will get better.”