Under new management

Originally Published: September 23, 2003
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

It has been nearly two months since Marlins president David Samson took that walk from his seats at Pro Player Stadium back to his office after the game. The habit itself was routine, but the emotion he felt that night wasn't.

Marlins fans
Baseball fans in Miami are excited about the Marlins again, perhaps for the first time since the team won the World Series in 1997.
He doesn't need his calendar to remember the date was July 30. Florida Marlins rookie phenom Dontrelle Willis had gone to 10-2, this time besting Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson. And the Marlins had won their sixth game in a row, this time in front of 37,735 -- the largest home crowd the team had played in front of in more than a year's time.

"When the game was over, people were chanting 'Let's Go Marlins,' " Samson said. "The hair was standing up on the back of my neck."

To fully understand Samson's feelings, consider the context.

A year and half before, when Montreal Expos owner and Samson's stepfather, Jeffrey Loria, sold the team for $120 million to Major League Baseball and then proceeded to use that money and spend $38.5 million more to buy another team in an extremely volatile financial predicament. Few understood the deal's rationale. Why would any businessman savvy enough to have made hundreds of millions as an art dealer volunteer to buy into another mess?

All the momentum from the team's 1997 World Series title had been washed away by former owner Wayne Huizenga's selloff and John Henry, who bought the team following the 1998 season, alienated potential fans by pushing for public financing for a new ballpark before he had thoroughly introduced himself.

Heading into Loria's first season as Marlins owner, with Samson serving as his right-hand man, season tickets had dwindled to fewer than 2,000 -- not a good sign for a team that finished second-to-last in the National League in attendance. Only the Expos proved less of a box-office hit.

"Florida was an incredibly underperforming market and while the Marlins were a small-revenue team, they are still in a large market," Samson said. "That means we could come in and truly make a difference."

Success was hardly immediate. Failure was.

On Opening Day 2002, the first game under the Loria reign, the concessionaires ran out of hot dogs.

"People went nuts," Samson said. "Something like this provided the perfect outlet for the anger and the hostility toward the previous ownership groups to come out against us and against all of baseball. It was, all of a sudden, a national incident."

The Marlins only managed to get out of the cellar in the league attendance rankings on the last day of the 2002 season -- when an anonymous fan bought 15,000 tickets to the last game, just so the team could finish with a higher attendance than the Expos.

But thanks to this season's comeback on the field, tricks like that are in the past and Loria and Samson can realistically hope that one day the Marlins will become a viable business.

Willis, combined with an aggressive marketing plan, has been a key force in helping the Marlins double their attendance from last year to what should amount to at least 1.35 million fans this year. There would be a lot more people upset if the Marlins appeared on any contraction list in the near future.

Not only have seats filled, but local television ratings are up 59 percent year-to-date, according to Jeff Genther, general manager of Fox Sports Net Florida, which broadcasts 95 Marlins games. That's about 22,000 more viewers watching this year over last year's team, which finished the season 79-83. In order to make more money off the Marlins, Fox Sports Net has extended its postgame coverage, allotting more room for advertising by adding more breaks, Genther said.

Florida Marlins
average attendance
Season Attendance
1993 37,838
1994 33,695
1995 23,783
1996 21,565
1997 29,190
1998 21,363
1999 16,906
2000 15,134
2001 15,765
2002 10,038
2003 15,013*
*Through Monday
Given Loria's previous history in Montreal, Marlins fans might have had a hard time believing the new owner would be committed to the Florida market. But this year, Loria approved a $2.5 million marketing budget, among the largest in baseball. It also turned out to be among the most flashy of campaigns.

In the second week of April, the team unveiled newspaper ads which read, "Come See Batting Practice with Greg Maddux and the Braves." Later in the season, the team took a shot at the New York Mets, who -- the ad said -- shortened their nickname because most New Yorkers could not spell Metropolitans. The Marlins even drew the attention of the U.S. Treasury department after they painted 75,000 dimes teal and gave them to local businesses. Each teal dime was worth a free ticket.

"More than 10,000 people used them," Marlins vice president of marketing Sean Flynn said. "Which is actually a lot higher than we thought it would be."

The draw of Willis, who was called up from Double-A Carolina on May 9, has sped up hopes of the Marlins turning their large market into large revenue one day.

The 21-year-old rookie with the high leg kick has had a slower second half since making the All-Star team, but fans continue to flock to the ballpark to see him pitch.

"Celebrities can either be freaks that no one can relate to and in that way they are a sideshow," Samson said. "Or they can be people that everyone relates to and the public seems to emulate. That's what Dontrelle is. He's a hard-working normal kid who has a great arm. Who doesn't want to love someone like that?"

It's too early to call Willis a future Cy Young Award winner, but baseball fans have taken notice of his potential. Hundreds of Willis memorabilia items are traded on eBay every day, and his autograph already is among the most highly coveted in all of baseball.

"I think it's crazy that all these people want my autograph or want a picture of me," said Willis, who signs at the ballpark, but has an exclusive off-the-field autograph memorabilia deal with Tri-Star Productions. "Even on the road in a place like St. Louis, where they bleed for the Cardinals and I wouldn't think there would be one person who would want me to sign a ball, there is always a line of people there."

Even at its $59 price, Tri-Star has sold more than 1,000 Willis signed items, including autographed balls and 8-by-10 photos, said the company's president and CEO Jeffrey Rosenberg.

"We're not guaranteeing he'll become the next Roger Clemens, but there are plenty of people that want a piece of Dontrelle-mania, even if he turns out to be more like Mark Fidrych," Rosenberg said.

The Marlins have tried to use Willis as much as they can, while respecting that they also have to market the entire team.

Willis did his part by obliging to do interview after interview when the local and national media wanted to make him a feature story, but the Marlins sought to further capitalize with the D-Train Flex Pack, which was unveiled in July.

Fans could reserve tickets to any Willis' games for as low as $75 for outfield reserve seats and as much as $150 for infield box seats. Fans who bought two packages -- and more than 200 people did -- received a ball autographed by Willis. Fans had another chance to get Willis' autograph on Aug. 30, since he signed 150 of 10,000 fotoballs with his image on it.

"There's a fine line when you attempt to market a particular player because it is a team game and you don't want to take away from focusing on what watching the entire team has to offer," Flynn said.

Although one published report noted that Willis' agent Matt Sosnick had told the team to scale back the demands it was putting on his client because it was affecting his pitching performance, both Willis and Sosnick deny that either of them ever made that demand.

"The Marlins already decided that they were going to scale things back," Sosnick said. "Dontrelle never tied his performance on the field to his schedule off of it, and I never thought that they were taking advantage of him. The bottom line is that Dontrelle is a paid employee of the team and they should be able to use him in their marketing."

Willis is without a doubt the best value in the league. He'll earn a prorated minimum of about $235,000 -- which should equal $15,667 per regular season home game.

"I'll do whatever I have to do for this team to help people come out to the ballpark," said Willis, who will earn bonuses on his Nike shoe and Rawlings glove deals if he wins National League Rookie of the Year. "We have a great product and people sometimes forget I only play once every five days. Guys like Mike Lowell, Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Pierre are playing every day."

A bigger, more aggressive marketing staff has produced results, as the team's corporate sponsorships have more than tripled from the 25 companies that supported the Marlins last season. The team also came up with the largest outfield sign in all of baseball -- the Miccosukee Tribe now practically owns left field -- which has meant a couple hundred thousand dollars more in team coffers.

But for all that this season has meant to the Marlins, it hardly solidifies their future in South Florida.

Competition for the entertainment dollar is tough to begin with.

"I hope that the feeling from this season will carry over," Willis said. "There are many factors we are up against from school nights to rain and now it's Saturday night football games at the University of Miami. It's not like in some other major league cities where there's not a whole lot of competition."

Cash losses will tally more than $20 million on a $50 million payroll this season thanks to several other factors beyond the team's control.

Not only is the lease with Pro Player -- which Huizenga still owns -- so awful that Samson estimates that the team would have to draw more than 70,000 a night (not physically possible) to break even, but potential walk-up ticket sales are decimated by the weather. While it's hard to quantify tickets lost as a result of the humidity, Samson estimates that more than 315,000 tickets have not been sold thanks to the rain this season.

"There's nothing like sitting at Pro Player Stadium in a rainstorm," Samson said. Rain delays often push many summer games past the four-hour mark.

Even with this year's monumental attendance increase, only three other teams -- the Expos, Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- will draw fewer fans per game than the Marlins this season.

While the need for a new ballpark is almost essential -- Huizenga gets the bulk of the money from concessions, parking and luxury suites -- Loria and Samson have said little about their plans, hoping to endear fans to the team before asking for help.

One report has said that Loria is willing to pledge $100 million toward a new stadium project, but Samson would not confirm the number or discuss any timetable. The Marlins' lease expires next year and the club has the option of renewing the deal yearly through the 2010 season.

Henry's ownership was dominated by stadium talk, but attempts to finance a $385 million, 40,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof ultimately failed.

New stadiums might provide additional revenue streams, but they do not provide the long-term attendance boost that they used to. Teams that move into new ballparks and do not win see even less of a benefit. Both Miller Park and PNC Park opened in 2001, but the Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a winning season over the past three years. Attendance has subsequently declined 39 and 34 percent from the season the parks opened to this season.

If Loria eventually gets his wish for a new stadium, it likely will be because the locals have once again fallen in love with the Marlins, not because they feel like they have a personal relationship with Loria, who is among the least vocal and visible owners in sports.

"There is often an inverse correlation between how outspoken an owner is and the effectiveness of that owner," said Samson, who said he has done his part by making more than 100 public appearances outside of Marlins games since arriving in Florida.

Although fans in Chicago and Boston want the Cubs and the Red Sox to make the playoffs in hopes of winning their first World Series titles since 1908 and 1918, respectively, perhaps no team needs to make the playoffs more than the Marlins. Win or lose, fans show up at Wrigley and Fenway.

The Marlins have to turn a converted football stadium into a magical place where people want to come before they can move out of it. A playoff run could be the start.

David Samson will know the team's heading in the right direction when he walks back to his office among a group of pumped up Marlins fans and the hair no longer stands up on the back of his neck.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.Rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter