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.
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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.
How the Dolphins arrived at this crossroads isn’t important anymore — ownership turnover, transient coaches, under-qualified general managers, burned out football czars, whatever. It has taken the Dolphins front office a while to figure things out — and that’s being kind — but it appears the team is headed in the right direction. That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, most people ages 30 and younger don’t have the slightest clue about the positive transformation under way in Davie. Rutledge simultaneously represents the exception and the glimmer of hope the Dolphins wish to tap this season. He’s a Patriots fan, but he can be swayed. He just wants to see a Brady-like player on a hometown team playing electrifying football.
The lifers, browbeaten so badly for so long, will return with a few wins. They always do. Remember 2008? The Dolphins improved by 10 wins from Cam Cameron’s 1-15 disaster, and the old-timers eventually returned. But the problem now is bigger than that, and it’s going to take more than Chad Pennington to reverse a trend that could eventually undercut the franchise. Hopefully, we’re not there yet, but maybe so.
Hall of Fame receiver Cris Carter, who has lived in South Florida for years, raised a son here, works as a TV football analyst and is an assistant coach at Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, believes the franchise has “zero chance of turning all these little young-cultured dudes into Dolphins fans.”
“It’s not going to happen,” Carter said Friday. “We have tickets for our high school team. ‘Y’all want to go to the Dolphins’ game?’ ‘Nah, coach, I’m going to go to the beach. I’ve been playing ball all week.’ ”
And that’s at St. Thomas Aquinas, a school where Don Shula’s sons sent their children. That place should be popping out Dolphins fans like it does Ivy Leaguers. But apparently, it does not.
“We’re in a special place,” Carter said. “Miami is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. It’s not growing from within. It’s growing from without from all over. And we got a tremendous South American population here. Why should they cheer for the Dolphins? Just cause they live here? That’s the dumbest thing ever.”
That’s not dumb.
“In my eyes it is,” Carter said. “I cheer for the Heat because they’re good. I wasn’t going down there when you had to go through all the bums and everything when they weren’t no good. I wasn’t going down there.”
No, Carter is like so many South Florida sports enthusiasts who jumped on the bandwagon when LeBron James signed in the summer of 2010. A debate over whether the Dolphins need to produce stars such as James, Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal to win over young fans has merit. Carter doesn’t think it’s possible, and people inside the Dolphins front office are clinging to the old-school perception that the NBA is about superstar players and NFL is about superstar teams.
Just win, baby
“You can run the most boring defense and offense in the world, and be the most boring thing in the world, but people will show up because you’re winning,” said Dolphins defensive end Jared Odrick, whose outgoing personality and ferocious play make him arguably the least boring thing about the current Dolphins. “If you’re winning football games … I hope we run all fullback dives the whole game if we win. I don’t care how we get there. We can run the blandest defense as long as we win.
“That’s what’s going to bring people in.”
All sides of the argument have value — maybe all the Dolphins need to do is win — but today’s younger generation, through video games and social media, identifies with stars and excitement like never before. In the past decade, the Heat has had three bona fide, no-doubt-about-it national superstars. Meanwhile, the Dolphins had Jason Taylor on Dancing With The Stars.
“Kids are fans of more people now than ever,” Carter said when asked how video games have impacted the league. “Because now I can play with Julio Jones on my team. I don’t have to be a fan of the Falcons. It makes them more a fan of the league. Kids now are closer to Matty Ice, [Colin] Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, RGIII.”
Tannehill and receiver Mike Wallace have the potential to be in that conversation and win over young fans. Just don’t forget to throw it deep.