Yesterday, Alex Remington of FanGraphs commented on the plight of the Florida Marlins’ attendance problems, with the impetus of the article being the closure of the upper decks for the remainder of the season. Of course, as with all things Marlins and attendance, blame ultimately fell once again on the head of Jeffrey Loria, the notorious cheapskate Marlins owner.
It’s rather remarkable that the team has done as well as it has, with such a famously stingy and meddling owner, and it is testament to the baseball operations staff assembled under team president Larry Beinfest and GM Michael Hill. Loria kept firing managers because he believed that his teams were underachieving, despite the fact that his teams usually had the lowest payroll in baseball. Now, he’s closing off the upper deck of his football stadium, acknowledging that South Florida fans aren’t likely to have interest in his latest cheaply assembled last-place team. He’s right. But if he wants to know why, he really ought to look in the mirror.
Let me first say that, generally speaking, I agree with the sentiment that Loria simply does not do enough to complain like he does about the performance of his team. If Loria wanted his teams to win more often, he perhaps should invest in putting out a better product on the field. No one would ever confuse me as a Loria apologist, as I find his strategies for running his team inefficient and unproductive.
But the Loria factor simply cannot be the only thing that is affecting the attendance down in South Florida. As Remington mentions at the beginning of that paragraph, the Marlins have done fairly well over the years, putting up teams that have been around the .500 mark since 2003. It is not like the 1998 days, when the Marlins were putting a putrid product on the field; no one could be expected to purchase season tickets and sit through the debacle known as the 1998 season. The Marlins have been right around average since the 2003 World Series winning team, with only one season of real incompetence, and yet fans still have not shown up. It cannot be that Loria’s unwillingness to spend to help the team go from .500 to better is keeping this many fans away.
Furthermore, before Loria, the Marlins still drew terribly under other regimes, even when the product was doing well (with the prime example being the 1997 World Series winners). Witness this chart comparing the Marlins and MLB attendance “indices” when compared to their respective 1995 numbers. In this graph, 1995 attendance for both the Marlins and MLB is set at 100, and the remaining years are compared to the 1995 attendance.
The chart really shows one situation in which Loria is directly involved, the post-2005 fire sale that involved Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre, and other names from the 2003 World Series team. He took over in 2002, a year in which the Marlins went 79-83 and were competitive despite trading team star Cliff Floyd in midseason (and acquiring important parts such as Carl Pavano in return). Loria did deal various players over the years, but thanks to a savvy front office led by Larry Beinfest, the majority of the trades were beneficial and ended up returning useful parts for the ball club, with none of the trades precluding the Marlins from competing the following season. Aside from the blatant fire sale after the 2005 season, Loria and the heads at the top did not do anything to hinder the capability of the Fish to compete, yet attendance still remained at 1995 levels up until 2005.
The remaining attendance blunders involved either previous ownership problems or things with which the Marlins fanbase inherently struggles. The post-1997 fire sale killed attendance all the way through 2002, which saw the Fish dip below one million in attendance for the first (and so far only) time in team history. After the 1998 peak attendance, fans did not show interest in the Fish until the World Series season, and even that year did not show growth in attendance equal to the comparative growth of overall MLB attendance. MLB attendance since 1998 has been around 140 percent of 1995 attendance, yet the Marlins have only recently returned to drawing 80 to 90 percent of the attendance they drew in the mid-90’s.
I believe that South Florida baseball fandom is a unique monster that is multifaceted, involving more than just a poor owner. Fellow Marlins blogger Dave Hill of Marlins Diehards definitely agrees with this sentiment, as he describes in this post about factors outlined here that could determine the success (or failure) of a fandom.
What does this have to do with the Florida Marlins? The Marlins’ historic, geographic, and financial system are far from those of the Steelers and Packers. And the first two factors compound the third for the Marlins. As such, Marlins fans the world over are greeted with puzzled stares when they assert their fandom, and the team is saddled with the “terrible fanbase” tag, playing for bandwagon fans or no fans, with no exceptions or gray areas. But if you can credit structural factors to the growth of two fanbases, you can certainly point to them when explaining why your favorite team routinely plays in half empty stadiums.
I suggest everyone read the linked article regarding last season’s two Super Bowl participants and how those three factors can also relate to a lack of interest in the Marlins. In addition, check out what David has to say, as he brings up some excellent geographic and financial reasons for a lack of success by the Marlins. But in the next few posts starting on Monday, I’d like to touch on a number of factors outside of Loria’s involvement that could be influencing the state of the Marlins right now