After years of suffering and turning their enthusiasm (and money) to the Miami Heat, it is finally cool and fun to be a Dolphins fan again.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are gone. The Marlins are still mourning the death of star pitcher Jose Fernandez. Meanwhile, it’s been almost nothing but good news from the Dolphins in recent months — from the $500 million renovation of Hard Rock Stadium to the resurgence of the team under new coach Adam Gase heading into Saturday’s game at Buffalo.
“The Dolphins are clearly reclaiming the crown of favorite team in town,” said Juan Figueras of Pinecrest, 50, a longtime season-ticket-holder for the Dolphins and Heat. “If they make the playoffs, they will pick up even more steam. For so long, it’s been the Heat and college football jerseys dominating around here, but that is changing.”
Expect to see a lot more aqua and orange jerseys, caps, T-shirts, bobbleheads, beach towels and mugs under Christmas trees and beside Hanukkah menorahs Saturday night. The Dolphins have won eight of their past nine games and are on the verge of making the playoffs for just the second time in 14 years.
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Dolphins merchandise sales on NFLShop.com from Dec. 1-19 were up 40 percent from the same period last year, according to league spokesman Alex Riethmiller. Holiday shoppers at Sports Fan-Attic in Dolphin Mall have been in a mad hunt for Jay Ajayi, Kiko Alonso and Matt Moore jerseys.
The Dick’s Sporting Goods Jersey Report, which tracks sales at the company website and across 650 stores nationwide, showed that Ryan Tannehill’s shirt was the highest seller among women and children in the state of Florida this season.
And the team store at the stadium had the highest jersey sales of the season on Nov. 27, during the 49ers game, which is typically the time of year when sales have dwindled. Sales went up 38 percent that week.
“Us true Dolphin fans never abandoned our team, but the Heat distracted us from the [Joe] Philbin years,” Figueras said. “That was an amazing run with LeBron and D-Wade. But losing Wade was like the Dolphins losing Dan Marino. I’m still adjusting and focusing more on the Dolphins.”
Figueras said he has had a hard time giving away his pair of Heat tickets this season for games he couldn’t attend, even though they are in the 15th row behind the team bench. He said he is “on the fence” about renewing a three-year ticket contract.
Meanwhile, he is holding on tight to his four Dolphin tickets.
“The stadium alone is like a rock star,” Figueras said. “The other day I was at a game, it rained, I was under the roof and I was like, `Man, this is great.’ I sat in the rain for so many days. Sat through a monsoon, totally soaked, for a Steelers game. Now it’s such a different experience. And the team is playing great, so I am hopeful, optimistic and excited.”
Sam Miret, a 49-year-old lifelong Dolphins fan from South Miami, said he notices “much more” Dolphins talk after his softball games in recent weeks. Even his seventh-grade son Sammy Jr., a diehard University of Miami fan, is paying attention to the Dolphins this season.
“We’ve been burned so many times for so long that it’s tough to dive straight in,” Miret said. “But definitely, there is more excitement. I’d call it cautious optimism. For me, the jury’s still out on some of the personnel, but overall, there’s a lot to be happy about. Gase is the real deal.”
In recent years, young local sports fans were more likely to wear Heat or international soccer jerseys than Dolphins merchandise. Miret said it pains him to see his nephews wearing Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots jerseys.
“These kids don’t remember the perfect ’72 team or Dan Marino, so the Dolphins lost a generation,” Miret said. “They’ve been so mediocre for so long. I hope this season can spark a new generation of fans.”
So does Jeremy Walls, the chief marketing officer of the Dolphins. He and his staff have been working tirelessly all season to capitalize on the stadium facelift and the team’s success on the field.
“I wouldn’t say there’s a renewed spike in interest, it’s always been there through thick and thin,” Walls said, pointing out that 95 percent of their tickets were sold before the end of September. “But where we’ll see the most impact is in 2017. One thing I have noticed is that merchandise sales have stayed pretty steady throughout the season, which is different from other years. As new players have emerged, like Jay Ajayi and Kiko Alonso, we are making it easier to get their jerseys.”
The team opened a few boutique-style souvenir stands in the luxury suite areas of the stadium. They are exploring the idea of opening up pop-up stores around town.
Walls said that 80 percent of the Dolphins’ marketing strategy is centered on social media, which caters to younger fans. Many of their in-house videos have drawn more than a million viewers.
“You haven’t seen us do a TV commercial this year, but if you’re following the Dolphins, every week or so we’re putting out a music video, we purchase music rights and tell the story of what’s going on with the team,” he said. “It allows us to be more nimble, share what our story is from week to week, which is a more targeted, fresher, customized approach.”
Fewer than 1,000 tickets remain for the final home game against the Patriots on New Year’s Day.
“It’s a whole new atmosphere at the stadium this year, and you mix in how amazing the team is playing,” Walls said. “It’s the perfect winter storm.”