Miami Marlins New Revenue Stream: Suing Fans

At this point, it seems like piling on to write about anything that the Miami Marlins do. But the last couple of days have produced a news story simultaneously hilarious and revealing: after two fans wanted to back out of the second year of a two-year season ticket contract, the Marlins threatened to sue them.

Of course, all baseball teams are businesses, owned by people or corporations who prefer making money to losing it. But the Marlins have pioneered a Producers approach to baseball, making money on failure rather than success. It would be conspiratorial of me to allege that the Marlins have determined that a losing team is more profitable than a winning team and therefore have intentionally sabotaged their chances of winning — like Rachel Phelps did — so I won’t. But this lawsuit helps to underscore that the team does not place a high priority on building a winning ballclub or drawing fans.

So here’s what happened. Jan and Bill Leon have had front-row season tickets for Marlins games since 1998. They’re in real estate, and together run WJL Financial Group Inc. and the Broward Real Estate Investors Association. They signed a two-year contract for front-row seats at the new Marlins stadium, which opened its doors on Opening Day last year, April 4, 2012. It isn’t clear how much the total contract cost, but it was probably around $50,000, since the cost for tickets in 2013 alone was $25,292. The Leons are clearly passionate fans of some financial means: these are the kind of fans that you want.

They got tickets right down the third-base line, and in preseason games the view was beautiful. But by Opening Day, the Marlins had added a foam advertisement billboard that crept four inches over the railing. The Leons complained that their view was obstructed, requiring them to lean up against the railing rather than being able to sit back in their seats. The Marlins reduced it to one inch. The Leons complained again.

The Marlins offered them other seats. But those seats weren’t as good, according to the Leons. “I could move further back,” Jan Leon told WSVN-TV. “I could move to a different section, none of which would be an equivalent of what I paid for.” Also, she says, the diminished visibility makes her feel more vulnerable to foul balls: “You have a split second before it hits you,” Leon told the Miami New Times. “It’s extremely dangerous.” (She has given a lot of interviews.)

She and her husband didn’t want to have to pay to see the team in 2013. So the Marlins general counsel sent a letter that threatened a lawsuit if they did not pay the $25,292 that they owed. Naturally, the Marlins look awful in the press. And the team doesn’t seem to care. Then again, the Leons probably have an ulterior motivation for wanting to get out of their contract: the team really, really stinks. “They’ve pooped on fans’ feelings for years,” she told the New Times. “I have no intention of renewing… They’re a Double A team now. It went down the toilet when they sold off all the players.”

Having a crappy team doesn’t constitute a breach of contract, which is undoubtedly why the Marlins’ lawyers got their hackles raised. Of course, it’s still embarrassing to argue that in court, as Yahoo’s David Brown notes: “It would be funny for this to go to court and have the Marlins argue that the real reason the Leons didn’t want to renew was because the Marlins sold off their best players.”

The Marlins issued a preposterous statement in response to the story:

Fan comfort is of utmost importance to us. We go above and beyond to ensure our fans have a great experience at Marlins Park. We have offered Ms. Leon numerous opportunities to move to a different seat location, and each time she has refused to move. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to relocate the advertising signage that she alleges is blocking her view of certain plays near third base. We would be happy to assist Ms. Leon in relocating her tickets to seats that do not have this allegedly obstructed view. We value our fans and will continue to do our very best to offer them a wonderful baseball experience.

The self-righteous language, particularly the use of the word “alleged” to describe the view from the seats and the word “wonderful” to describe the now-dessicated team, recalled a statement that owner Jeffrey Loria wrote in February, breaking his long silence to angrily defend the Blue Jays trade that seems to have been the last straw for the Leons:

The controversial trade we made with the Toronto Blue Jays was approved by Commissioner Bud Selig and has been almost universally celebrated by baseball experts outside of Miami for its value.

The simple fact is that we don’t have unlimited funds, nor does any baseball team or business. Fans didn’t turn out last season as much as we’d like, even with the high-profile players the columnists decry us having traded. The main ingredient to a successful ball club is putting together a winning team, including a necessary core of young talent. Are we fiscally capable and responsible enough to fill the roster with talented players, invest in the daily demands of running a world-class organization and bring a World Series back to Miami? Absolutely!

At this point, no one can possibly believe that the team’s owner is “responsible enough” to invest in the team. Back in January, the Marlins hired a new PR firm to help them respond to the criticism over the Blue Jays trade. The team hasn’t done much to answer the allegations of fraud relating to the financing of the new stadium, either. But either the PR firm hasn’t been doing its job or, more likely, its client doesn’t feel much need. When Loria was asked by a reporter about the criticism he has faced, he answered, “I don’t pay any attention to it frankly.” That’s the sort of thing that everyone tells the media, but in his case, it may be true.

The team’s callous stance toward its fans clearly isn’t helping at the ticket counter, where Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball wrote that exactly three people showed up when single-game tickets first went on sale in February, and Opening Day sales are going so badly that the team is offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal just to sell them. If you pay money to see the Marlins on Opening Day, they’ll give you a free ticket to see another game in April or May.

So maybe Loria just doesn’t believe that they need the fans. The team makes a great deal of money on revenue sharing and shared profits from MLB Advanced Media’s offerings like MLB.tv, which insulates the team from needing to make any baseball-related revenue for itself. And a recent Loria interview indicates that he is hoping to make a great deal more TV revenue after the current contract expires in 2020. As long as the owner doesn’t spend anything extra on the team, TV revenue is essentially free money.

Under Loria, the Marlins have hardly spent any money on the team except when they were under the specter of censure, as in 2010, when the Marlins actually had to reach an agreement with the Players Union and MLB to avoid being found in noncompliance of the provision that revenue sharing funds must make “an effort to improve its performance on the field.” They promptly gave Josh Johnson an extension, and then flipped him to Toronto two years later. (The Hanley Ramirez extension came in 2008, two years before the public squabble with MLB; of course, he got flipped to the Dodgers in July 2012.)

Similarly, many speculated that the spending during the offseason before the stadium opened was an attempt to create a little goodwill around the stadium, to demonstrate that this time, things would be different. Of course, we all know how that worked out. We probably could have guessed it beforehand, too.




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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


66 Responses to “Miami Marlins New Revenue Stream: Suing Fans”

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  1. walt526 says:

    Tough question: in a fight between Miami realtards and the Marlins, who to root for?

    The lawyers involved, who are probably the only ones who will benefit, are probably the least despicable of the bunch.

    +27 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. Cody says:

    It is official, I am no longer a fan of the Marlins until Loria is gone. The idea of rooting for that team to win a game now makes me sick to my stomach.

    +10 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. whocarestom says:

    We’re well past the schadenfreude event horizon here. I just feel bad for Marlins fans.

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    • Anon21 says:

      Don’t feel too bad for them: nonexistence means they don’t have to deal with such petty hassles as taxes, health insurance, or respiration.

      +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Larry Yocum says:

        I feel bad for the taxpayers that got taken advantage of to fund that stadium. Absolutely awful and a disgrace to baseball. Those poor people may not even be baseball fans and were forced into paying for the stadium on a back room deal between Loria and local politicians. Such a shame.

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      • There may be vanishingly few Marlins fans now, but there actually were some once upon a time. There are a lot of people in their 20s who grew up watching Jeff Conine. The team has patiently and methodically driven them away.

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  4. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Can we fire Loria yet?

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  5. Billion Memes says:

    Classic. Its pretty clear to me the Leon’s are phonies, but Loria has reached caricature status for me.

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  6. vivalajeter says:

    Alex, I actually don’t see any problem with them using the word ‘alleged’ in their statement. They show a picture in one of the links you provided, and it doesn’t seem to have any impact on the view of the field. Sure, it impacts the view of the ground a few feet from the seats – but it’s not like the padding is blocking the field. If you sit back in those seats, you can see the field perfectly fine. ‘Alleged’ seems to be an appropriate word in this situation, as it’s pretty clear that the fans are just using this as a loophole to get out of their tickets.

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    • You have to think about where the photo is being taken from. (It’s important to note that those photos, which I’ve seen linked in every news story, were taken by Jan Leon herself.) Judging by the angle of the concrete, it looks to me like the photographer was braced against the wall as she took the photo, rather than reclining back in her chair. If she were reclining in her chair, she may have had trouble seeing part of the field.

      If you go to 1:08 in this video (which is on the WSVN news story I linked above), you can see Jan’s head over the ad billboard. It appears to come up to the top of her chin.
      http://www.wsvn.com/news/articles/local/21010151055835/couple-upset-with-marlins-over-season-ticket-seats/

      After the team lowered the billboard from 4 inches to 1 inch over the railing, I think that the Leons’ complaint was ridiculous. But prior to that, I think it may actually have been a fair complaint.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        I’ll check out the video once I’m home from work, as it’ll be interesting to see the billboard with her in the seat. I assumed that she took the picture, and that it was a worst-case scenario. If I were in her position, I’d sit back in my seat as far as possible when I took the picture, to show how much of an impact it had. I wouldn’t lean against the wall and make it look like there’s no obstruction.

        You’re right though; when I look again, it does look like she’s leaning forward to take the picture instead of leaning back.

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      • Hurtlockertwo says:

        For fricking $25k worth of tickets I would expect some special treatment. How can you alienate your best customers? No business could survive doing that.

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        • TheUncool says:

          Except the Marlins’ biggest customers actually seem to be the rest of the MLB (via revenue sharing), MLB.tv and their local TV broadcasters… plus they already got their big subsidy from taxpayers for that new stadium.

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        • vivalajeter says:

          The customer only seems to be happy with two alternatives though:

          1 – They remove the advertisement. This would cost them more than $25k in lost revenue.

          2 – They give a refund on tickets. This would take away the $25k.

          Neither of those options makes much sense for the Marlins, as one option leaves them with $0 and the other leaves them with negative dollars.

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        • Brian says:

          @vivalajeter

          So what? The Marlins are the one’s that forced the issue by putting the ad there in the first place.

          The fact that neither of the customer’s solutions leave the team better off is irrelevant.

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  7. cass says:

    The Washington NFL team gained some notoriety after suing fans a year or two ago. Then they traded for the #2 pick, drafted RG3, and then all those sorts of troubles have mostly gone away. Obviously Loria needs to find the RG3 of Miami. I imagine he’ll have some high draft picks in his future, at least!

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    • binqasim says:

      He has better than a RG3 on his team right now but let us see what he does. Most likely a trade next off-season.

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      • cass says:

        Stanton is a wonderful player and must be a fan favorite down in Miami, but there is no way he comes close to the impact RG3 has had on football fans in Washington.

        There are many reasons for that, the two biggest being the greater impact a single player can have in football compared to baseball and DC’s long-standing love of football and the local team. People may have hated the owner, but they always loved the team. Miami has no such strong bond with the Marlins, as far as I’m aware. There’s also a cultural factor which seems to make RG3 a good fit in Washington, but I think that’s secondary to the other two factors.

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    • edgar4evar says:

      Love the choice of not naming the NFL team in DC.

      Problem with this plan is that the time from draft to making an impact in MLB is so much longer. I don’t know the Marlins farm system but if the youngsters that will be part of the next “core” aren’t in it now, those fans have at least two years to wait before they’re good.

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    • theawesomersfranchise says:

      One QB can change an NFL franchise, there is no equivalent for a MLB franchise

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    • Jason says:

      The fan the Redskins sued, or at least the one that got the most press, was a LONG time season ticket holding grandmother. She gave up her seats because she could no longer afford them (there was a recession or something), not because the team sucked. She had tried to work it out with them, but they just turned around and sued her (she never showed up in court and got a default judgment, I believe).

      I don’t think it was RG3 that stopped the bad publicity. I think it was that Dan Snyder finally realized he had to stop making decisions that looked horrible like “Yeah, we’re a billion dollar franchise that is printing money, but we should sue the few season ticket holders who back out of their contracts for a few thousand dealers in open court.”

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      • Here’s the story about the grandmother they sued: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/02/AR2009090203887.html

        The best piece that I know of to catalogue the long, long, LONG list of Dan Snyder’s sins is this one, by the great Dave McKenna: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/articles/40063/the-cranky-redskins-fans-guide-to-dan-snyder

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        • From the story:

          Hill is one of 125 season ticket holders who asked to be released from multiyear contracts and were sued by the Redskins in the past five years. The Washington Post interviewed about two dozen of them. Most said that they were victims of the economic downturn, having lost a job or experiencing some other financial hardship.

          Redskins General Counsel David Donovan said the lawsuits are a last resort that involve a small percentage of the team’s 20,000 annual premium seat contracts. He added that the team has accommodated people in hard-luck circumstances hundreds of times. He said he was unaware of Pat Hill’s case.

          “The Washington Redskins routinely works out payment plans and alternate arrangements with hundreds of ticket holders every year,” Donovan said. “For every one we sue, I would guess we work out a deal with half a dozen.”

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  8. Ian Roberts says:

    Loria should be forced to sell the team.

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Wil says:

    How long is it until MLB forces Loria to sell the team like they did with the Dodgers McCourt?

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    • MLB forced McCourt to sell because he was threatening to create a bad financial precedent for other teams, crafting a sweetheart low-revenue television deal with Fox in exchange for help with his major debt problems. Considering the ballooning TV deal revenues of recent years, Selig couldn’t allow the Dodgers to set that precedent. Loria isn’t hurting anyone outside South Florida, and Fred Wilpon isn’t hurting anyone outside New York, I doubt they’ll be forced out any time soon.

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    • siggian says:

      MLB brought in Loria to kill the Expos. As a reward, he was able to buy the Marlins partially using money provided by MLB for selling the corpse. Loria has no worries about MLB doing anything to him.

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  10. epic23 says:

    Generally speaking the Miami Marlins are bad for baseball. Its a shame they have won two world series when legit teams whose ownership actually care about baseball like the Cubs have not won in 100+ years.
    The Miami Marlins should be sold and re-located. Who does a fire-sale on a team that wins the world series. Who builds a new stadium with tax-dollars and fools the public in building a contender to just fold.
    Marlins be gone. Worst franchise in MLB and probably all of sports.

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    • machado about nothing says:

      The Detroit Lions take exception to that last statement

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      • Clippers says:

        5 winning seasons, 2 playoff series wins in 34 years (since 1978), racist (according to many lawsuits) skinflint (wanted the players to buy their own socks) owner, terrible drafting etc

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  11. MikeS says:

    Congratulations, Jeff Loria! You have lost a PR battle with a Florida real estate agent. I am sure this will help you to sell many season ticket plans.

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  12. Anon says:

    Is anyone else amused by the “We’ve offered to move them ot other seats. . . .” line?

    “Look, we can move you ANYWHERE you want. Seriously, anywhere. Look at all those empty seats. You can have any two of them you like. In fact, we’re short some players, you want to sit on the bench with the team? Can you hit?. . . .”

    +31 Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. Brian says:

    I hope the Marlins attendance is under a million.

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  14. Z..... says:

    I had season tickets for 17 years and last year I was lied to about the position of my seats, and ended up not getting what I thought I paid for. There are other similar factors that were involved in this story as well.

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  15. Dane says:

    Does no one recall that Loria did the EXACT same thing with the Expos? The only difference was Montreal refused to give him a stadium. History has a tendency to repeat itself.

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  16. Blue says:

    This word gets thrown around way too lightly, but I am really, truly beginning to believe that Loria is a sociopath.

    +8 Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. TroutKingFisher says:

    I have a overwhelming feeling that any Miami baseball coverage is going to be of this sort until Loria is ousted. Such a shame. But hey, at least Miami will be getting a taste of what Pittsburgh fans have been entreated to over the past 2 decades.

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  18. Brian says:

    Wouldn’t installing an advertisement AFTER the people pay for the seats technically constitute a breach of contract since they don’t have the view they paid for? Not necessarily that the view is terrible, but if the club sold the seats THEN put in the ad, is that not false advertisement to the season ticket holders?

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    • Neil says:

      I suppose that would depend on what was stipulated in the contract, right? Did they pay for a view, or simply for a seat?

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    • LTG says:

      That would depend on what the terms of the contract are. Most likely, the terms do not explicitly state that the Marlins provide the ticket holders with any particular view. And I’m sure the terms don’t provide that the Marlins surrender their right to modify the seats and the area around them.

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      • Brian says:

        It would depend on the NATURE of the contract.

        Would a reasonable person expect to pay for a seat, and then have it partially blocked by an add?

        (Que the sarcastic, “Yes if they were Marlin’s fans” response)

        Seriously though, I honestly don’t think it needs to explicitly written into the contract. There’s a lot of stuff in most contracts that isn’t explicitly stated but that is still assumed to be part of the contract. It would seem to me that this is one of those cases.

        Not a lawyer, but I did take a contract law class.

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  19. KCDaveInLA says:

    If I’m a Marlins fan, I’m rooting for Loria to let some racist comment slip.

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  20. PillsburyFlowboy says:

    I can’t understand why MLB and the other owners want to keep Mark Cuban out of the old boy’s club when Jeffrey Loria is the alternative. Cuban would be great for Miami. No one could ever question his willingness to spend on the team or his desire to win, yet it’s the fact that he’s outspoken that keeps him on the outside. Despicable.

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    • Loria isn’t costing anyone else any money. They’re worried that Cuban will cause trouble for the rest of them. They might be right.

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      • Me says:

        I’m not sure about that. Do the other teams in the marlins division have their ratings suffer when they play them? We know they will get a crappy tv deal because of the damage they are causing to the fan base. How about ticket sales? Do people not show up when the marlins are on the road? Counting it as an automatic win against a terrible team?

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    • jfree says:

      Cuban’s already in Miami. The real problem is that the Texas Cuban and the Miami Cubans aren’t too friendly. It could turn into a turf war a la Scarface.

      say hello to my little friend!

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  21. BJsWorld says:

    Loria is a clown and a joke but in this case I’ll side with the club. Assuming that they have made every reasonable accommodation to find alternative seating for the season ticket holder I think they have done their job. There are plenty of seats available to choose from. This is clearly a case where the buyers just want out of a contract they signed. No different really than those that try to get out of their cell contract because Verizon tacked on a $0.2/month new fee.

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    • It’s not really clear exactly what options the team offered her. If they truly offered her worse seats, then I think the team is in the wrong. So I’ll withhold my judgment on the merits in the absence of further information.

      But as a matter of public relations, the Marlins have indicated nothing but contempt for their fanbase. Loria’s statement implied that no one but “columnists” was opposed to the Blue Jays deal. The fact is, the team has been around for 20 years, and though they’ve won two championships and have had three different owners, they have a long-established history of trading away star players and blowing up the team rather than spending money on it.

      I don’t know if the Marlins are wrong on the contract law, but they’re grossly, obviously wrong on the optics. They need to bend over backwards for their fans, not sue them.

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  22. adohaj says:

    Revenue sharing makes this possible

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  23. ealtman says:

    How would we/bud/MLB get loris out? It’s no feasible.

    Mccourt was forced out due to his divorce proceedings…

    Btw… McCourt still “owns” the dodger stadium parking lot… He’s still making money off the dodgers

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  24. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    Dangit, i wanted to see if MArlins fans would turn out for the new stadium like i predicted they wouldn’t, now it will just be blamed on the owners and we won’t get to see if they really were going to support the team in a new roofed stadium.

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