Rolling The Hard Six In Miami

For one moment, picture yourself in the Miami Marlins’ shoes. You have run a cruelly efficient organization over the past 18 years – emphasis on the “cruel” – and as a result, you’ve managed to alienate a large portion of your local fanbase. The common narrative surrounding your team is that you’re profit-driven and ruthless, and the current SEC investigation into your new stadium’s funding isn’t helping matters any. Your attendance has been among the worst in the majors since 1999, and things were so bad last season you had to close to upper deck partway through the year.

Finally, though, you want to change all that. You have a new stadium, new uniforms, and a new name, and MLB has given you a not-so-subtle kick in the pants recently to spend more money. You have few financial commitments past the 2013 season, and you expect to see an increase in revenue over the next few years as a result of your new stadium’s attendance booster shot.

Given this situation, how do you create a successful, sustainable franchise in the state of Florida? The common assumption is that you’d approach the situation much like you would anywhere else: invest money in the team, build a winner, and don’t overreach your arm. As long as you make steady progress, the fans will respond.

But in case you haven’t noticed already, the Marlins have chosen a different plan of attack. Instead of staying within their means, the Marlins are acting with reckless abandon. They have already signed Heath Bell and Jose Reyes to long-term deals, locking up $19 million in payroll for 2012, and they’re in on nearly every big name free agent. With their new stadium set to open this season and bring in a wave of revenue, the Marlins are the kids in the candyshop that just got their allowance and are impulsively buying everything in sight.

Is this a risky strategy? Oh, definitely. The Marlins are already getting called all sorts of ugly names by analysts – idiotic, short-sighted, etc. – but at the same time, this is a risk they have to take.

In case you haven’t noticed it already, Florida is a unique market – probably the most unique market in all of sports. There are more professional and D-1 college sports teams in Florida than in any other state outside California, and most of these teams are 20 years old or younger. Also, a large percentage of Florida’s population is composed of transplants from other parts of the country, so these two factors feed off each other and cause Florida teams to suffer from what I like to call “bandwagonitis.” There are so many local teams and fans have few built in loyalties, so fans can afford to bounce their interest around to whichever local team is performing well that year.

Due to this regional dynamic, it takes a lot of effort to market and sell your team if you’re based in Florida – more than it takes in any other market. You’re competing with many other franchises to convince local fans why they should follow you this season, and sometimes winning alone isn’t enough; you have to make fans excited about your team. And when you already have a poor public perception like the Marlins, selling yourself becomes nigh impossible.

Faced with all these challenges, the Marlins only have one logical path forward this offseason: go big and reinvent the franchise. With so much changing next season already — new name, uniforms, and stadium – the Marlins have a one-in-a-franchise chance right now to completely redefine the local perception of their team (not to mention their ownership group). They need to show their fanbase that this isn’t the same team that they’ve deal with over the past 18 years, but a new and reborn team: the Miami Marlins.

Star players hold a certain amount of sway down in South Beach – see: James, LeBron – and the area has one of the largest populations of Hispanics in the country. By signing Jose Reyes and pushing hard for Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the Marlins are killing multiple birds with one stone. They’re putting themselves in a position to compete immediately for one of the two NL Wild Card spots; they’re showing the local area that they are committed to the team and have turned over a new leaf; and they’re also providing themselves with perfect players to market to the area.

Of course, the Marlins have no guarantee that this gambit will pay off. Even with a new direction, multiple years of winning baseball, and all the marketing in the world, it may not be enough for the Marlins to overcome their organization’s past. The Marlins have a long history of frugalness to overcome, so they will need to prove again and again over the next five seasons that they aren’t the same old “Firesale” Marlins that so endeared themselves to fans. They won’t have a long leash, and the SEC investigation into their stadium’s financing is going to turn up skeletons the Marlins would prefer stayed buried.

But if the Marlins don’t go all in right now, what happens then? That’s an easy question: they would be doomed to be a small-to-mid market team for the foreseeable future. Unlike the Rays – whose stadium is stuck on the tip of a peninsula and isolated from the regional population center – the Marlins’ attendance issues have never been stadium-related; they had to do with local fans giving up on the team after years of miniscule payrolls and defeatist trades. Unless the Marlins give their fans a reason to reinvest in the team, in five years they will be in much the same place they have been the last 10 seasons: stuck with a miniscule attendance and a damning public perception.

Can the Marlins afford all these contracts over the long term? Do they see their attendance staying at a high enough level to allow them to maintain a $100 million payroll? I don’t think that even the Marlins know the answers to these questions, but as a wise man once said, sometimes you have to roll the hard six. Sometimes you have to take a leap without knowing where you’ll land, as standing still or incremental progress will both get you nowhere.

Florida is currently one of the hardest markets to thrive in as a professional sports team, and 18 years of frugalness has only made the Marlins’ current situation all the more challenging. Their offseason spending might seem outrageous, unsustainable, and downright stupid, but in reality, it’s their only hope at a brighter future.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

30 Responses to “Rolling The Hard Six In Miami”

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  1. pach233 says:

    I agree with the overall premise of the article. But to say that attendance issue has nothing to do with the stadium is false. The stadium is locating in between Dade and Broward counties and is a very far drive from the majority of the people in the metropolitan areas. Additionally, it is a football stadium with terrible sight-lines. The daily threat of rain combined with 90% humidity and 90 degree temperatures all summer don’t do much for a help in attendance. The retractable roof and location of the stadium are going to go a long way towards raising that attendance. Will it be enough? I have no idea, but it will definitely help.

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    • I guess I should clarify. I wouldn’t say that the stadium has nothing to do with it — just that it has less of an effect than the Rays’ stadium situation has on their attendance. And I’m basing that off the # of people within a 30-60 minute drive of the stadium. TB has the worst numbers in the majors, while the Marlins’ current stadium isn’t great, but it’s also far from the worst.

      Agreed about the other factors too, though…there’s certainly something to be said for having an indoor/retractable roof stadium in Florida :)

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  2. Preston says:

    The Marlins have unique problems. Even when they have been competitive they have not drawn fans. They need to garner more interest. The new uniforms, stadium, big money signings and Ozzie Guillen should create a buzz enough to get attendance to go up this year. But if they are going to sustain that going forward they will have to win a lot of baseball games. The two biggest keys to the Marlins doing that are already on the roster; Hanley Ramirez and Josh Johnson.

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  3. bc says:

    Why do writers like Slowinksi say things like signing Reyes makes sense in part because of Florida’s large Hispanic population? I’ve never heard someone comment that signing a white guy makes sense because the home town has so many white people in it. Why not? Is that because white baseball fans are generous of spirit and cheer for anybody provided they are really good, but Hispanics are more narrow-minded and need Hispanics players to route for, over white and black ones? It strikes me as patronizing. Also, I wonder if it is trading off racial stereotypes rather than being a position rooted on a sound, statistical anaylsis of attendance trends.

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    • Will says:

      I think the language issue, which you leave out, is relevant here.

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    • For a couple reasons:

      1) When the negotiations for Pujols were going on, there were multiple reports that came out that suggested the Marlins were much more interested in Pujols than in Fielder in part because of marketing thoughts. I’m not pulling this out of thin air.

      2) 65% of people in Miami County are of Hispanic/Latino origin, according to the 2010 census. 70% speak a language other than English at home. I’m not sure how those two facts rank nationally, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were towards the top of the list. If you’re looking to market your team and improve your attendance, you shouldn’t ignore such a huge aspect of your market.

      The idea isn’t to say that Hispanics won’t cheer for players that are white or black, or that white fans are “generous” because they’ll cheer for any player regardless of background. It’s simply that in Florida, where it can be difficult to market yourself, it’s silly to leave any stone unturned.

      Also, I don’t think it’s radical statement that people enjoy rooting for players that they see as similar to themselves. When you see a player that shares similar characteristics as you, it becomes easier to fall in love with them (especially true with kids, I’d imagine). And I don’t mean that from just a racial point of view…it can be for any variety of characteristics, like religion or background or whatever. It may be that some local kids notice that Reyes’ primary language isn’t English, and they take to him because hey, they struggle with English as well.

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      • Kampfer says:

        Numerous experimental economics researches prove that people act in a manner deviating from rationality(generous) towards people who share similarity with them. So yes, white is more likely to cheer for white and Hispanics are more likely to like Hispanic players, but it is reasonable to suggest that ultimately the thing that matters is what the player can offer to the team. Albert Pujols was the King of Cardinal Nation, not a great Hispanic player who played for the Cards.

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      • StopHey says:

        re: not sure how they rank nationally

        Miami has the highest number of foreign born persons living in it as a percentage of population of any city in the world.

        I’m not sure if you have ever lived here but it definitely makes a difference, the language issue in particular.

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      • B N says:

        “towards people who share similarity with them”

        Which is always where it gets a bit complicated, due to perceptions of similarity being a bit random. For some people, race has a lot to do with perceived similarity- others, less so. For some, nationality is the golden key. For myself, it tends to be similarity of goals.

        So the question is: Will Reyes increase attendance because he is Hispanic, or will it be irrelevant it because he’s a Dominican and the Cubans and Puerto Ricans don’t really relate to him? ;)

        Because coming from Philly, despite the clear similarities between Greeks and Italians- neither of them is going to flock to the stadium because you picked up a “Mediterranean guy” unless he has the right national credentials.

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      • Jon says:

        Its why I root for the fat guys!

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    • Joe says:

      I’ll give you an anecdotal example.
      My mid 80′s Dominican grandparents just bought Marlins season tickets for the first time after the Jose Reyes signing they wouldn’t have purchased otherwise.

      It’s different when you’re a minority in a country (culturally, not racially) and you have someone on your team to relate to.

      It would be similar to if I as an American citizen moved to England, I would tend to want to root for a Premier League club with the most or highest profile Americans.

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    • bc says:

      Yah, I hear what your saying. I’m not trying to be hostile. Still, I wonder about this type of talk. Like, if the GM of Atlanta says he prefered a specific black players to white one in the current free agent market becasue the African American dude would be a marketting plus over a white guy. Or the Twins GM concedes they need a “white star” to help move tickets. At the very least we would wince and squirm a bit, no?

      Also, just as Cameron’s article pokes holes in the “big free agent signings add to attendence” hypothesis, should we not apply the same rigour to the similar hypothesis “racially identifiable stars add to attendance”? Maybe they do, I dunno. I’m just saying we shouldn’t rely on gut feelings about it.

      The language part is relevant to be sure. I hadn’t considered it properly. But there was a time when the Montreal Canadiens HAD to have a French Canadian star on the team. They even had regional drafting rights. But now that seems very old fashioned. The Canadiens are committed to drafting or signing the best guys out there, whether Russian or whatever. Because winning matters most. At that seems the more mature approach some how.

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      • joser says:

        Actually, that’s exactly what the Twins did with Joe Mauer, the player they had to draft and sign. Except it wasn’t his “white-ness” that mattered, it was his Minnesota-ness. He was a local that the fanbase could relate to and feel especially proud of. He was one of them. In south Florida, that’s what a hispanic/latin american player is to a huge chunk of their (potential) fanbase.

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      • Jon says:

        The Braves are constantly drafting guys from the Atlanta area for a variety of reasons but because they come with some built in fan support has to be one of them.

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      • Garrett says:

        I agree with the posters above. It doesn’t have as much to do with the fact that they’re Hispanic as it does that they’re the same origin as a large portion of the population. Just like Mauer, guys drafted out of Georgia high schools for the Braves, just like guys from Japan are huge draws on the west coast, more so than anywhere else in the country.

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    • Cidron says:

      Might have something to do with that the locals, especially the kids, will have someone to to root for, to wear their names on the jerseys, to better identify with etc. The fourth grade kid hispanic kid can see the success of a hispanic player and smile, and he may go out and play ball in the park and might do something successful given time. Not as likely to happen if that ballplayer is not hispanic. Not racist, but merely, more easily to follow, root for, purchase merchandise (and, from teams point of view, do the merchandising that will sustain success). A successful hispanic ballplayer can be a good rolemodel for the huge hispanic population (of kids) in the area.

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  4. Bay Slugga says:

    Love the title, and just like the old man says, “Sometimes you have to roll the hard six.”

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    • Snapper says:

      Only b/c you made a bad bet in the first place.

      If you stay away from the middle of the table, you never have to roll a hard-6 in craps.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        If you would have stayed up on your house payments and put money into your business to facilitate a higher quality of product, you wouldn’t be in the casino despirately trying to win enough money.

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  5. mnt says:

    I was worried you wouldn’t give the appropriate shoutout and then I spotted that hyper link towards the end

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  6. Picker. Nit Picker. says:

    Just a stylistic point, something can’t be “most unique”. It’s unique or it isn’t.

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  7. JG says:

    Can we stop using “South Beach” to refer to Miami? It has nothing at all to do with the local sports scene. It’s like CC Sabathia saying “I’m going to re-sign with the Yankees and keep displaying my talents on Broadway.”

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  8. Antonio Bananas says:

    statistically attendance always drops within 5 years. there is a 37.5% increase for the first three years I think it was, then it goes back to whatever level of attentance your level of winning generates.

    I’m guessing it’s not going to be sustained.

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    • fred says:

      Statistically, nothing always happens.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        True, I mean, if I jump off my apartment deck and dive head first into the concrete 1,000,000 times (like in alternate realities) I probably won’t die everytime. So hell, may as well go do it.

        Maybe I should have said “has always” dropped, because I’m positive it has. I could be wrong though, maybe there’s a team who had higher attendance in the stadiums 5th year than their first (in relation to win%, obviously, if you win the world series in yr 4, attendance is likely to be high in yr 5).

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  9. Larry Bird in Boston and Fernando in LA are too classic examples.

    Wasn’t this also the case with Ichiro in SEA?

    Joe DiMaggio in NY would be another example.

    Boxing generally provides the best evidence for rooting for someone “like you”, whether you’re Mexican, Irish, Cuban, Black, etc and they market the crap out it. Having a talented Mexican fighter challenge a talented black fighter or Manny brings out the PPV like crazy. You also see flags all over the place.

    I’m not sure baseball is the same to that degree. I always thought the biggest challenge in FLA was competing with college football, but in MIA I think it’s the rain and humidity.

    Even in the Midwest, the humidity is one thing that will keep me away. I simply don’t enjoy sweating through my shorts and buying a beverage every inning.

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  10. Is this really any different than the Yankees signing Sabathia, Burnett, & Teix or the Twins signing Mauer the year that each of these teams opened their new stadiums? Was anyone making a big deal about the Twins signing Mauer or was it lauded as finally having the money to lock up a great player? I could see fan reaction being a bit crazy if Pujols had ultimately signed, but $19M a year for 4-7 wins is at a minimum a good deal with the potential to be even better. Good for the Marlins.

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