Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Marlins' Fire Sale

Why should you go to a game if you are a Miami Marlins' fan?  Your team just traded its stars, and I would have said bankable stars but new CEO Derek Jeter recently spoke of netting a gain of $265 million by shedding the long-term contract of uber-slugger Giancarlo Stanton.  His premise is that the Marlins will not win with Stanton because they are lacking too many other pieces, so why shell out that money for him?  In other words, fans need to trust the process with business decisions like that so that the Marlins can re-tool the team the new-fashioned way -- through draft picks, the signing of foreign players and analytics.

The Marlins are an obvious choice to pick on, but so are perennial also-rans in many other leagues with the exception of the National Football League, where parity is such that many of last year's good teams have fallen off, only to be replaced this year by teams who were not all that good last year.  That's great for the NFL, which has some serious issues to deal with, first and foremost of which is the long-term health of its players.  But in Major League Baseball, it has to be hard to root for the Marlins now or the San Diego Padres almost ever.  In the English Premier League, it has to be hard to root for a team not named City, United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal, although admittedly it can be tough to be a fan of those teams too.  That said, with the exception of Leicester's catching lightning in a bottle a few years ago, why would anyone spend a lot of emotional energy to root for anyone else.  True, money does not buy you a title, but it is necessary to spend a lot to get your team into the top six.  And with the NBA, well, it has to be hard to be, among other things, a fan of the Brooklyn Nets or the Phoenix Suns. 

Circling back to the Marlins, they just jettisoned the key players.  Yet, they're asking season ticket holders to renew and new people to subscribe to season tickets.  I'll put it to you another way.  Give me the Astros and the worst sales force in the world or the Marlins and the best one, and I'll bet on the Astros' sales force to sell more tickets than the Marlins' sales force any day of the week.  I only can imagine the sales pitch being made to Marlins' fans.  Among the possibilities are "come see the other team" and "invest in the future of professional baseball in Florida."  As to the former, years ago the Nats and Pirates advertised in the Philadelphia market to draw Phillies' fans to their teams road series in Washington and Pittsburgh.  Could the Marlins do the same?  As to "trusting a process," well, you need some future stars to watch now in order to make that pitch compelling.  The 76ers had amazingly talented Joel Embiid available last year.  By comparison, who do the Marlins have?

After the 2008 season, the Phillies had waiting lists for their full- and partial-season ticket plans.  Because they were not forward-thinking after 2008, the team consistently regressed to the point where they are today, where the team is trying to sell hope to the fans, whose experience is that the team more often than not has not been that good.  Today, you can buy single-game tickets in any section of the ball park, including the section right behind home plate.  I suppose that the business owners and plaintiffs lawyers stop subscribing if the team does not provide a compelling product on the field.  And Philadelphia has been a baseball town.  Sure, it's an Eagles' town, but it also has plenty of baseball fans.  Even then, the team's average attendance has been way down.  The once electric atmosphere at Citizens Bank Park now reflects the current of a third-world island whose power remains constant for about one-third of a day and sputters the rest of the time.

Loneliness is a killer.  Remember "That Natural?"  The New York team that Robert Redford played for and Wilfred Brimley managed played to an empty stadium, where you could hear foul balls clatter off empty bleachers in the midst of a hot summer's day.  The Marlins' broadcasters will be able to hear individual conversations from the stands and distinguish the call of the lonely hot dog or beer vender in the seats near their perch.  Fans will go, some out of habit and some because their dads took them and they feel obligated to take their kids.  But people will not come close to turning out in big numbers, perhaps for a long time.  It doesn't help that the new owner has all of the personality of someone who just underwent a colonoscopy without anesthesia.  Even Derek Jeter does not seem to believe in the product he will be putting on the field come March.  The stadium will be empty; the experience at the ball park worse than loneliness, because encroaching upon a fan's solitude will be awful play juxtaposed against not-so-distant memories of the champions of 1997 and 2003.

The omnipresence of the media offers numerous entertainment alternatives.  It seems like Marlins' fans will save money and at the same time find more joy in something other than baseball, for this season and years to come.  Derek Jeter, if he has not already, will realize quickly that the magic he brought to the playing field does not have any sway in a town where, if anything, its fans footed for him to fail.  Now they need him to succeed -- and in a hurry.