The Miami Marlins are located in one of the largest markets in MLB. South Florida, as of 2010, has 6.7 million people. In fact, in an article from March 2016, it was revealed that we are the eighth most populated area in the nation.
In other words, this is a huge and untapped market.
Untapped? Here are the cold hard facts: the Marlins 2017 attendance figures were an average of 20,395 per game for 28th in the league. This is despite a flirt with history from former slugger, Giancarlo Stanton and even hosting the All Star Game.
Needless to say, the fans don’t show up like they do in other markets.
Houston, which won the whole enchilada, was 15th in attendance averaging 29,674 per game. To put it in perspective, only the A’s and the Rays drew less than the Marlins.
Let’s turn to payroll. The Marlins had an opening day payroll of $111,881,100M for 20th in the league. The Astros had $124,343,900M for 18th in the league. The A’s were at $81,738,333M while the Rays opened the year at $69,962,532M. If we break that down per win, then the Astros would average $1.23M per win, the A’s would average $1.08M per win, the Rays would average $874K per win, and the Marlins would average $1.45M per win. That means the Marlins were the least efficient of these franchises in winning games which, given their attendance figures, is not a sensible business approach.
The Astros are the model for franchises, these days. They reloaded and flushed their system and got to where they are today. It started back in 2011 with a 56 win season and continued with the No 1 picks in three straight drafts from 2012-2014. Meanwhile, the Astros endured 100+ loss seasons from 2011-2013 with 92 losses in 2014. In 2015 they rose above .500 with 86 wins and haven’t looked back since.
Attendance for the Astros in 2012 was 19,848 (100+ losses), 20,393 in 2013 (100+ losses), 21,627 in 2014 (92 losses). Right now, the Marlins are seeing similar attendance numbers despite their on-field product and 77 wins – so the argument has been made that blowing up the big league roster won’t really hurt the attendance figures and thereby the bottom line for this franchise.
The problem with this rationale is that it ignores the problem of attendance in the first place. The Marlins have had paltry attendance figures because of a toxic relationship that existed between the franchise and its market. The championship in ’97 was followed by a fire sale in ’98. This led to establishing a foundation for an eventual champion in 2003, but that team couldn’t be held together for very long because of poor attendance. In 2004, the Marlins drew 22,091 average attendance for 26th in the league. The market was cold towards Loria and his ownership; the media implicit in keeping the toxicity level high (go search for any Mike Berardino article from that period). The Marlins would deliver a tremendous product only once and then follow with years of mediocrity mired in drama. Contraction talk, fire sales, the strike of ’94, squabbling over funding for a stadium, a manager praising a dictator. It was a circus and what could have been a promising relationship was mired with infidelity. People questioned committing to a relationship that wasn’t going to treat them fairly.
This is typical of a market always restarting. It is best to see this as a situation where its early adopters are on board, but the product never reaches critical mass and gets consumed by the rest of the market. For an entertainment business, it would be about offering a product to its market that can promise on just that – being entertaining. With losses and mediocre performances it is hard to market the team. Is another reboot of the franchise going to get the fans to commit?
People in Miami are angry – which is good as a way to gauge whether or not people care. The attendance figures can’t get much worse. The Marlins have been over 2M in attendance only twice, in 1993, in 1997, and in 2012. ’93 was the inaugural season; ’97 they won the World Series, and in ’12 they went all in with the new stadium, big payroll, flashy new uniforms, and marketing around the ‘Miami” moniker. Just for reference, the ’03 team had a tiny 1.3M attendance but that was also a team not promised to do much to the casual fan and it made a strong late season push for its miraculous run.
The Bottom Line
So, “Project Wolverine” may help rebuild the team and bring in more wins IF the team drafts right and makes the right trades. The attendance, however, is going to be terrible whether or not the team wins. The team was already inefficient regarding its spending and its win tally but the concern is will this approach be able to build a sustainable future with winning and the turnstiles bringing in customers. The only time attendance shot up was when there was something to be excited about. The 2012 team is a great example – there has to be a spectacle for fans to come out to the park. Stanton provided that each and every night – but the fans didn’t show up. If the team had decided to spend a bit more and get more wins, it would still not be as efficient as the Astros, but it would help net more fan interest and market to future generations. Project Wolverine will only help the ownership’s bottom line but it will not make the team more popular in the South Florida landscape in the short term. If there isn’t sustainable winning built, it also won’t help in the long term and will only continue to poison baseball’s relationship to the people of South Florida.