The relationship between fans and the franchises for whom they root is something I’m going to examine over the next few weeks. The Marlins provide a case study in how to cultivate tension in that relationship.
The Marlins had themselves an eventful offseason, trading away Dee Gordon, Marcell Ozuna, Giancarlo Stanton, and Christian Yelich, among others. The fire sale was so extensive that the MLBPA filed a grievance against the team for misuse of revenue sharing, a development that I discussed here.
But that’s not all. As I’ve also noted, the City of Miami and County of Miami-Dade are suing Jeffrey Loria for purportedly denying them what they believe they are due of the net proceeds from the $1.2 billion sale of the Miami Marlins to the Derek Jeter/Bruce Sherman ownership group. The latest developments in that case include a request from the city for Loria’s tax returns in discovery — and Loria’s attorneys own request that the dispute be heard in arbitration rather than in court.
And even that’s not all. The offseason has also produced a minor fracas featuring Marlins Man, whose real name is Laurence Leavy, a successful Miami attorney best known for his steady presence behind home plate at every Marlins home game. After the Marlins rejected his most recent offer to renew his season tickets — $200,000 over three years — he declared himself a free agent and is expected to “sign” with, of all teams, the Detroit Tigers. Marlins representatives had what could be characterized as an interesting response to Leavy’s six-figure offer.
Here’s Leavy discussing it in a piece by Darren Rovell at ESPN:
“They said that I did nothing for the team, I don’t promote the Marlins, nobody buys season tickets because of me, nobody buys advertising because of me, and they don’t care what I do.”
For a team with well-documented money and attendance problems, turning down $200,000 from an uber wealthy fan all while insulting him for not generating more advertising revenue may not be the best business strategy. And while it’s easy to look at Leavy as something of a punchline to the Marlins’ offseason, the situation is also reflective of the organization’s troubled relationship with its fans.
The Marlins’ difficulties with season ticket holders began before Derek Jeter and company ever assumed ownership. Jeffrey Loria’s front office made a habit of repeatedly filing lawsuits against the Marlins’ own fans. From the Miami New Times:
In fact, the Marlins have sued at least nine season ticket holders and luxury suite owners since 2013. That virtually never happens in sports, experts say.
The Times is right that it’s unusual for a professional sports team to sue ticket holders. And the basis of those suits is even stranger. The Marlins asked their fans to promise to buy season tickets for multiple years in a row in order to receive benefits like better stadium parking. Then, after the Marlins’ myriad fire sales, when attendance crashed and season ticket holders lost interest, the Marlins used that promise to sue those fans for breach of contract.
But what made the Loria-era Marlins’ litigation strategy against their fans especially brazen were the lengths to which the organization was evidently willing to go to win. Again, per the Miami New Times:
In January, the team won a judgment against [one ticket holder, named Kenneth Sack] for the full $97,200, but his attorney appealed because the lawyer had missed key hearings and filings after suffering a heart attack and spending months in the hospital. That civil case remains open.
But in the meantime, the team has used that judgment to try to nab a building owned by Sack. On March 12, the Marlins initiated a foreclosure proceeding for a commercial building Sack owns in Oakland Park, arguing that they can seize the property to fulfill the $97,200 he owes them; they ask the judge to appoint a receiver so they can begin collecting rent from the location. (Oddly, county property appraisers say the building at 5090 N. Dixie Hwy. is actually worth $725,000.)
That’s right: the Marlins obtained a judgment against a season ticket holder using as leverage the fact that his attorney suffered a heart attack. They then attempted to take away a building he owns to collect on that judgment — and all because he didn’t want to renew his season tickets. This sort of scorched-earth litigation tactic has led some of the targets of the Marlins’ ire to file counterclaims alleging the team engaged in unlawful deceptive practices by having the fire sales in the first place. The argument goes something like this: the fans signed the multi-year agreements based on the the Marlins’ express and implied representations that certain stars would be on the team. Then, the Marlins pulled a bait and switch, selling off those players while expecting ticket holders to pay anyway.
But bizarrely, at the same time, the Marlins were suing some fans for not buying season tickets. Specifically, they were refusing to sell season tickets to those who share or sell too many of those tickets. That’s because of fine print the Marlins insert into their tickets.
The Marlins ban season ticketholders from reselling more than 30 percent of their stubs. (A Major League Baseball spokesman confirms the 30 percent threshold is a Marlins policy, not an MLB-wide rule, although other teams also have their own standards on reselling season tickets.)
And the Marlins enforce that rule, refusing to sell season tickets to people who violate that policy.
There was a belief that with the change in ownership would curb some of the excesses of Loria’s litigious efforts against his team’s fans. But even after Jeter and Bruce Sherman acquired the team, suits against ticket holders remain pending.
The Marlins made just $206 million in ticket revenue in 2016, avoiding last place by just $1 million over the Tampa Bay Rays. Ticket sales aren’t the primary driver of a team’s value, but they are important, and as Forbes’ franchise-value data seems to indicate, they can represent the difference between making and losing money.
Obviously, more people in seats can lead to greater profitability — especially for clubs that make the playoffs — but what the Marlins are doing here is unique. Because, consider: the Marlins haven’t sued just their fans; they’ve also sued ballpark concession vendors who, due to low attendance, were unable to stay in business and thus renew their contracts or pay the $2 million entry fee charged by the team.
What makes that tactic strange is that those lawsuits include claims against companies that have filed for bankruptcy protection, which means that the team is engaged in expensive litigation against entities that may have little or no ability to pay back the amount the team says it’s owed. For a team with money problems, suing bankrupt vendors isn’t a sound financial strategy. Beyond wasting money on expensive contested litigation, it also has a chilling effect on agreements with other vendors, who may well be less likely to do business with the Marlins as a result of these lawsuits.
Thus far, Major League Baseball has shown no sign of intervening, even when the lawsuits caused an embarrassment during the 2017 All-Star festivities. That is particularly concerning to the Marlins’ long-term outlook, particularly because the team’s longstanding attendance problems have reached a critical point so far this season, with the team averaging fewer than 16,000 fans so far on the young campaign. Yes, it’s early, but those games were also against the Cubs and Red Sox, two star-powered teams that ordinarily draw well, even on the road. You could say that the Marlins are conducting a peculiar type of experiment: what happens when a team alienates its fans to such a degree that no one is left to watch.
Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.