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.