The Marlins Will Sue Almost Anyone

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.

We hoped you liked reading The Marlins Will Sue Almost Anyone by Sheryl Ring!

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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.

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sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

Two thoughts…

1) Somehow $67,000 for four season tickets (even prime season tickets) is considered a discount. That’s higher than the median household income in the United States.

2) While the Marlins may have some legal standing to sue their fans, it is still pretty disgusting to lock fans into multi-year contracts and then hold a fire sale.

Marlins Man sounds like a piece of work too, but I don’t care about him one way or the other.

mikejunt
Member
Member
mikejunt

I mean, front row behind home plate, 81 games.

Just for perspective, I am scanning the secondary market for a trip I’m taking to LA to catch a series at Dodger Stadium (my first), and there’s a day game when I am there that should have particularly cheap tickets. I am eyeballing the Dodgers’ premium Dugout Club (first 8 rows, dugout to dugout basically), which for this game have been as low as $250-300 a ticket. If they drop closer to $200, I’ll try to grab one and experience the best seating in the house one time. The Dodgers sell those seats individually for $550-950 per seat.

In looking at this, I have seen the single-seat season ticket prices for the dugout club seats: they range from $65,000 per season for the worst seats to $87,000 per season for the first row seats.

I get that’s LA and everything, but Loria’s offering to buy 4 seats at that same rate.

Prime location season tickets are incredibly expensive luxury purchases.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

I don’t disagree that they are insanely expensive everywhere. But that just annoys me even more. I just don’t like it.

(I just noticed why mikejunt said this: I meant to say that it bothers me how $67,000 is somehow a discount. Whoops.)

Moate
Member
Moate

Comparing the current Marlins to the Current Dodgers is a UNIVERSE of difference.

If those seats remain empty game after game wouldn’t it be better to have sold them? It’s like airplane tickets. They have value all the way up until the game is finished, and then they’re completely worthless. Each and every game they don’t see butts in those seats makes his offer better.

Also, the 30% rule is nuts. What POSSIBLE reason can you have to not allow that, especially on club/suite levels? You’re getting the guaranteed money up front at face value. Worst case is someone buys that ticket from the seller at a reduced rate and you miss out on no money. Best case is that the cheap ticket is sold AND someone else now has to buy another ticket because your demand is still high but supply is lower.

This team is just horribly, horribly run from top to bottom is all it seems like.

(Edited because I forgot a word)

Doug Lampert
Member
Member
Doug Lampert

The reason to have a limit on resales is to prevent people from buying season tickets specifically for resale (aka Scalping).

It annoys me when I want to buy tickets, and the game is “sold out” but resellers have thousands of tickets available (for more than face value plus a “handling fee”.

It also costs the team money if there is a discount on season tickets, which there pretty much always is.

Annoyed fans + lost revenue is bad. I have no problem at all with a policy that all tickets must be used by the purchaser or resold through a specific team authorized reseller for instance.

Phil
Member
Member
Phil

Sure that is a problem. But is it one the Marlins are likely to ever have?

Moate
Member
Moate

Here’s a pretty good article about Season Tickets: https://www.theringer.com/nfl/2017/8/16/16147716/season-tickets-end-secondary-sellers

The economics you speak of just aren’t in place in the way you’d think. Stubhub is just as frequently used to DUMP season tickets for below face for bad match ups. I once bought Phillies tickets below face value and almost broke even when you considered the meal voucher involved. It’s an isolated example, but it’s part of a larger user behavior.

We’re not talking about the Dodgers or the Yankees or Cubs here. Those are established franchises who sell tickets when the team on the field is only mediocre. The Marlins have trouble getting people in the door when the product is good, so disincentivizing people from guaranteeing you a large chunk of money seems very stupid and short sighted. Bird in the hand sort of thing.

Michael
Member
Michael

It’s not just about the revenue…teams have a vested interest in preserving the value of their tickets. Sure, it’s nice to sell more tickets, but fans eventually change their behavior and wait for cheap stubhub tickets instead of paying full price for lower tier matchups. It’s about protecting the integrity of your ticket prices. (As a Pirates fan during the 20 year streak, I recall multiple years where they discounted so heavily that I could go to almost any game for 50% off. I stopped going times I couldn’t get a good enough discount.)

evo34
Member
evo34

“It’s not just about the revenue…teams have a vested interest in preserving the value of their tickets. ”

This is very true. It’s why team like the NY Islanders quietly allow employees to give away tickets (to bad midweek games) with secret Ticketmaster codes. It fills seats, and no one know that 10%-20% of the crowd was given free tickets.

timprov
Member
timprov

Theoretically, from the description here, splitting season tickets with someone could be breach of contract under that rule, which is amazingly shortsighted. Maybe the actual contracts except it somehow, or maybe the Marlins just don’t enforce that part (though trusting them to continue doing so seems like a bad plan).

I only have anecdotal evidence of how many split- or group-purchase plans are being sold in my own market, but it’s a substantial number.

mikejunt
Member
Member
mikejunt

I mention it to point out that MM offered to pay literally 1/5th the price per seat (his offer was 200k for 4 seats for 3 years).

The Marlins should probably have done it just for PR and sustained income, but its still remarkable how big the price gap is from Marlins world to the rest of MLB

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w

MM’s offer was about 80% the list price of the tickets. According to this his offer was $205 per seat per game and according to this (linked by Sheryl) he had been paying $250 and the Marlins asked for $260.

Asking for discounts like this is pretty gutsy but if you figure it’s a way of delivering a public FU to the team it’s not hard to understand.

Anon
Member
Anon

Yeah, but the Dodgers are a major league baseball team. The Marlins, well. . . . . .

v2micca
Member
Member
v2micca

And yet, the Marlins have won a World Series Championship more recently than the Dodgers. This planet is a strange one.

Tea_Wreck
Member
Tea_Wreck

They’ve won 2 since the last time the Dodgers did.

Bip
Member
Member
Bip

They entered existence since the last time the Dodgers won.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

This is a good reminder that in real life, unlike the movies, the villains often get happy endings.