In the long-abandoned Sun Life Stadium loft where Marlins executives once kept their offices, there is new life, a business bullpen buzzing with football energy.
Recent graduates and longtime staffers alike work the phones in every which way — standing, sitting, pacing and even while tossing around the pigskin.
On the other end of the line: a fan base that the Miami Dolphins hope gives them a fresh look after a mostly lost decade.
Training camp for Dolphins players finally arrives this week; the first of 14 public practices begins at 8 a.m. Friday. But for the business side of the organization, the games have counted for some time.
And after four years of losses, they just might be back to winning.
Spurred by a new business plan and the promise of a remade stadium, the Dolphins are beginning to reclaim the ground they’ve lost — largely to the three-time NBA champion Miami Heat — since the turn of the century.
The 85 men and women who make up the Dolphins’ sales and service staff — one of the largest such departments in the NFL — are only part of the franchise’s vision for the future.
The rest of it — a regularly sold-out home field, and a city that fully embraces its oldest pro franchise — doesn’t appear as far off as it once did.
After years of failure, the Dolphins finally got a stadium-renovation deal passed this summer. Preliminary construction on the 27-year-old building already has begun.
Ticket sales, which increased by 16 percent in 2013, are well ahead of last year’s pace. The season opener — Sept. 7, against the Patriots — and the two home games that follow are expected to sell out. And Tom Garfinkel, the team’s president and CEO, pledged that no regular-season game will be blacked out locally for the 16th consecutive season.
“It was really about changing the culture,” Garfinkel said when asked about his biggest challenge since taking over for Mike Dee last September.
Veteran sales representatives agree: the environment is more positive — and successful — than it was in the recent past.
Every time a sale is made, someone rings an old-time firehouse bell. Bosses hold free-throw shooting contests to break the monotony, with a prize going to the winner. And like their players, the Dolphins sales team keeps score; top earners are listed on a leader board.
That’s not to say anyone there believes the mission is accomplished. Far from it.
One way to look at the team’s financial situation: For a while, the franchise was a locomotive speeding in the wrong direction — and gaining steam. Before it can reverse course, a train needs to be stopped. With renewed public interest and renovations to aging Sun Life Stadium finally under way, the Dolphins have probably done so.
But the Dolphins’ fan base lags behind much of the league. Despite last year’s growth, the Dolphins still ranked 21st in NFL attendance (64,319). The team was in the playoff hunt until the final week of the 2013 season, yet the home-market TV ratings (17.1 average) were the worst among any franchise that doesn’t share a city with another NFL team.
Plus, until recently, they were eclipsed locally by the biggest sports star in the country. LeBron James made AmericanAirlines Arena a destination, and turned Miami, at least while he was here, into a basketball mecca.
The Heat had none of the Dolphins’ ticket problems the past four years. Just the opposite. As coach Erik Spoelstra put it during last month’s NBA Finals, the team’s run created an entire generation of South Florida basketball fans. And those fans only have so much disposable income to spend.
“LeBron’s absence will be felt, but it will not demolish the Miami Heat,” said Darren Heitner, founder of South Florida-based Heitner Legal and contributor to Forbes magazine. “Look for the fan base to stick by the team unless they start off extremely cold. Meanwhile, do not expect the Dolphins to pick up any added support in the process.”
Said Garfinkel: “I think we’ve got to do everything we can to put the best team on the field and win games and provide a great experience. And that’s what we’re working on.”
The Dolphins’ turnaround plan began with asking their fans what they want, instead of telling them what they need. Garfinkel recently used Twitter to poll South Floridians on what local restaurants they would prefer at the stadium.
The club’s four-tiered “membership” plan, which is free to season-ticket holders, has events specifically designed for each genre of fan, from the face-painters to the luxury-box dwellers.
And their salespeople have gotten up close and personal. Whereas nearly all deals were once made over the phone, the team invites would-be customers to in-stadium events, with presentations from a player or coach.
The outreach appears to be working. Jeremy Walls, the club’s chief revenue officer, said season-ticket sales are 15 percent ahead of last year’s pace. In 2013, the team sold just under 42,000 season tickets, well off previous highs. But the renewal rate is the highest it has been in six years.
They have done particularly well with groups, who get a price break by buying in bulk. The team’s group sales figures ranked second in the league last year and continue to grow.
All told, the team is two months ahead of last year’s overall ticket sales pace, Walls said.
But Garfinkel’s group has tens of thousands of seats still to sell, and can only control so much. The product that is being sold still has to be desirable. Since the Jimmy Johnson Era, the Dolphins have been largely irrelevant — when not embarrassing. Miami hasn’t been to the Super Bowl in 32 years. Any Dolphins fan under the age of 13 has never even experienced a playoff win.
That futility has stripped the franchise’s Teflon sheen. Public support now has to be earned, not assumed.
That, in large part, is the job of Claudia Lezcano, who runs the team’s marketing department. She intends create a local atmosphere that rallies dormant supporters and creates new ones.
The team’s latest marketing campaign is based on this “ethos,” as Lezcano called it: Stronger Together.
In the coming weeks and months, you’ll see that slogan everywhere — from roadside billboards to TV ads to banners at construction sites. And for the first time since the Orange Bowl days, the Dolphins are going to light up downtown Miami in aqua and orange.
Even if the Dolphins don’t grow their ticket base, their attendance issues will probably fade on their own. The club plans to shrink capacity by more than 10 percent as part of its $350 million renovation project. Fewer total seats mean fewer empty seats on Sundays (and Saturdays; the Miami Hurricanes have even worse attendance issues than the Dolphins).
Sun Life Stadium has one of the biggest upper decks in the NFL, and much of that section is currently exposed to the unforgiving sun. Neither will be an issue come 2016; many of the bad seats will be gone, and game-goers will be protected by a canopy once construction is complete.
Soccer remains a big part of the organization’s plans, and the stadium’s new look was designed with that sport in mind. Which has some asking: Why can’t David Beckham have his expansion Major League Soccer team play at Sun Life Stadium considering his proposed waterfront locations have not worked out?
“I’m open to having the conversation if they call,” Garfinkel said.
As of Thursday, Beckham’s people had not.
Luring MLS to Sun Life Stadium appeared low on Garfinkel’s list of priorities during a recent interview with the Miami Herald. He spoke with far more passion — and detail — about improving every aspect of the fan experience, from getting in and out of the parking lot to making the seats more comfortable.
All well and good, Heitner would counter, but not enough. None of the in-game improvements will matter if the team doesn’t win enough to return to the playoffs, he said.
And each year the Dolphins flounder, a new group of Miami kids begs their parents for a Dwyane Wade jersey instead of Cameron Wake.
For generations, Miami was a football town. But is it still?
“It would be presumptuous of me to say,” Garfinkel said. “I’ve only been here since September. But for the people that I’ve met in town, in all three counties, people here love football and they love the Dolphins. There’s a deep, emotional connection to this team that’s very real. We’re fortunate to have the fans that we have.”