At this point, it seems like piling on to write about anything that the Miami Marlins do. But the last couple of days have produced a news story simultaneously hilarious and revealing: after two fans wanted to back out of the second year of a two-year season ticket contract, the Marlins threatened to sue them.
Of course, all baseball teams are businesses, owned by people or corporations who prefer making money to losing it. But the Marlins have pioneered a Producers approach to baseball, making money on failure rather than success. It would be conspiratorial of me to allege that the Marlins have determined that a losing team is more profitable than a winning team and therefore have intentionally sabotaged their chances of winning — like Rachel Phelps did — so I won’t. But this lawsuit helps to underscore that the team does not place a high priority on building a winning ballclub or drawing fans.
So here’s what happened. Jan and Bill Leon have had front-row season tickets for Marlins games since 1998. They’re in real estate, and together run WJL Financial Group Inc. and the Broward Real Estate Investors Association. They signed a two-year contract for front-row seats at the new Marlins stadium, which opened its doors on Opening Day last year, April 4, 2012. It isn’t clear how much the total contract cost, but it was probably around $50,000, since the cost for tickets in 2013 alone was $25,292. The Leons are clearly passionate fans of some financial means: these are the kind of fans that you want.
They got tickets right down the third-base line, and in preseason games the view was beautiful. But by Opening Day, the Marlins had added a foam advertisement billboard that crept four inches over the railing. The Leons complained that their view was obstructed, requiring them to lean up against the railing rather than being able to sit back in their seats. The Marlins reduced it to one inch. The Leons complained again.
The Marlins offered them other seats. But those seats weren’t as good, according to the Leons. “I could move further back,” Jan Leon told WSVN-TV. “I could move to a different section, none of which would be an equivalent of what I paid for.” Also, she says, the diminished visibility makes her feel more vulnerable to foul balls: “You have a split second before it hits you,” Leon told the Miami New Times. “It’s extremely dangerous.” (She has given a lot of interviews.)
She and her husband didn’t want to have to pay to see the team in 2013. So the Marlins general counsel sent a letter that threatened a lawsuit if they did not pay the $25,292 that they owed. Naturally, the Marlins look awful in the press. And the team doesn’t seem to care. Then again, the Leons probably have an ulterior motivation for wanting to get out of their contract: the team really, really stinks. “They’ve pooped on fans’ feelings for years,” she told the New Times. “I have no intention of renewing… They’re a Double A team now. It went down the toilet when they sold off all the players.”
Having a crappy team doesn’t constitute a breach of contract, which is undoubtedly why the Marlins’ lawyers got their hackles raised. Of course, it’s still embarrassing to argue that in court, as Yahoo’s David Brown notes: “It would be funny for this to go to court and have the Marlins argue that the real reason the Leons didn’t want to renew was because the Marlins sold off their best players.”
The Marlins issued a preposterous statement in response to the story:
Fan comfort is of utmost importance to us. We go above and beyond to ensure our fans have a great experience at Marlins Park. We have offered Ms. Leon numerous opportunities to move to a different seat location, and each time she has refused to move. Unfortunately, we are not in a position to relocate the advertising signage that she alleges is blocking her view of certain plays near third base. We would be happy to assist Ms. Leon in relocating her tickets to seats that do not have this allegedly obstructed view. We value our fans and will continue to do our very best to offer them a wonderful baseball experience.
The self-righteous language, particularly the use of the word “alleged” to describe the view from the seats and the word “wonderful” to describe the now-dessicated team, recalled a statement that owner Jeffrey Loria wrote in February, breaking his long silence to angrily defend the Blue Jays trade that seems to have been the last straw for the Leons:
The controversial trade we made with the Toronto Blue Jays was approved by Commissioner Bud Selig and has been almost universally celebrated by baseball experts outside of Miami for its value.
The simple fact is that we don’t have unlimited funds, nor does any baseball team or business. Fans didn’t turn out last season as much as we’d like, even with the high-profile players the columnists decry us having traded. The main ingredient to a successful ball club is putting together a winning team, including a necessary core of young talent. Are we fiscally capable and responsible enough to fill the roster with talented players, invest in the daily demands of running a world-class organization and bring a World Series back to Miami? Absolutely!
At this point, no one can possibly believe that the team’s owner is “responsible enough” to invest in the team. Back in January, the Marlins hired a new PR firm to help them respond to the criticism over the Blue Jays trade. The team hasn’t done much to answer the allegations of fraud relating to the financing of the new stadium, either. But either the PR firm hasn’t been doing its job or, more likely, its client doesn’t feel much need. When Loria was asked by a reporter about the criticism he has faced, he answered, “I don’t pay any attention to it frankly.” That’s the sort of thing that everyone tells the media, but in his case, it may be true.
The team’s callous stance toward its fans clearly isn’t helping at the ticket counter, where Maury Brown of The Biz of Baseball wrote that exactly three people showed up when single-game tickets first went on sale in February, and Opening Day sales are going so badly that the team is offering a buy-one-get-one-free deal just to sell them. If you pay money to see the Marlins on Opening Day, they’ll give you a free ticket to see another game in April or May.
So maybe Loria just doesn’t believe that they need the fans. The team makes a great deal of money on revenue sharing and shared profits from MLB Advanced Media’s offerings like MLB.tv, which insulates the team from needing to make any baseball-related revenue for itself. And a recent Loria interview indicates that he is hoping to make a great deal more TV revenue after the current contract expires in 2020. As long as the owner doesn’t spend anything extra on the team, TV revenue is essentially free money.
Under Loria, the Marlins have hardly spent any money on the team except when they were under the specter of censure, as in 2010, when the Marlins actually had to reach an agreement with the Players Union and MLB to avoid being found in noncompliance of the provision that revenue sharing funds must make “an effort to improve its performance on the field.” They promptly gave Josh Johnson an extension, and then flipped him to Toronto two years later. (The Hanley Ramirez extension came in 2008, two years before the public squabble with MLB; of course, he got flipped to the Dodgers in July 2012.)
Similarly, many speculated that the spending during the offseason before the stadium opened was an attempt to create a little goodwill around the stadium, to demonstrate that this time, things would be different. Of course, we all know how that worked out. We probably could have guessed it beforehand, too.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.