- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Sports history is filled with battles between fans and the owners of their favorite teams, but never before has the tension risen to the heights it has in Miami. Just 15 games into the Marlins' season, the anger is mounting, and a 3-12 record hasn't helped.
After crossing the $100 million payroll threshold for the first time in team history to coincide with the opening of their new ballpark last year, the Marlins had a disappointing season on the field, which prompted much-maligned owner Jeffrey Loria to scrap the idea of spending more to win (and make more). In the offseason, Loria cut the payroll by $73 million, the largest cut in league history, primarily by trading shortstop Jose Reyes and pitchers Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson to the Toronto Blue Jays. In February, in a rare media blitz, he assured fans to be patient and that his actions were the right ones.
"It didn't work," Loria said at the time. "We stunk; we had to fix it; we had to change it; we had to do it quickly."
Loria was certainly talking about the fact that the team lost a lot of money, $47 million, according to the Miami Herald, which recently examined the team's books. The team had projected that it would draw more than 30,000 fans for every game in its first season in the new ballpark. That didn't happen for 73 percent of the team's home games.
Nine home games into the second year of the new ballpark, things have gotten worse. Only 52 percent of the stadium's seats have been filled, and that's including an Opening Day game that was part of a Groupon discount offer with free seats and merchandise credits thrown in. In the past 10 years, no team that has opened a new ballpark has had a lower percentage of seats filled in its second season.
Fans aren't just mad because their team was gutted -- it's also because they're paying for the bulk of the ballpark. A $91 million construction loan financed by Miami-Dade County over 40 years is going to cost $1.2 billion once it is paid off.
"We put in about $350 million into this deal, but at the end of the day, we're going to be paying over 2 billion in principle and interest because everything is backloaded," says Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, whose predecessor, Carlos Alvarez, helped put together the stadium deal. "That's basically shouldering the responsibility on our kids and our grandchildren 30 years into the future. That's not right."
Gimenez says he's not exaggerating when he talks about the contributions to the stadium crippling the city’s future.
"I'm not confident that the money is going to be there, and then it's actually going to start dipping into our general fund, which pays for fire and police, sanitation services, parks," he said.
But to blame Loria for the public financing of the Marlins Park isn't necessarily fair. Former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman knows that. The Miami billionaire sued the county and city to try to get them to stop the deal.
"I honestly believe Jeffrey Loria is getting a bad rap," said Braman, who was a former Marlins season-ticket holder. "Jeff was no different than any of the other sports owners, and I can name them on my left hand, right hand, toes on my foot, who have gone out and suckered the public in getting public tax dollars to construct something and build something that they should do themselves."
Braman says Loria is just a savvy businessman who took advantage of an opportunity.
"His asset value as far as the franchise is concerned probably went from a value of about $150 million to over $500 million," Braman said.
Loria bought the Marlins in 2002 for $158 million. Before this season, Forbes Magazine valued the Marlins at $520 million. There's even debate in the sports investment banking world over whether the Marlins could be worth even more because there's only upside if Loria sells.
Despite all the hostility toward Loria, is it possible that, from a baseball standpoint, he made the right move in cutting payroll? He has a somewhat shocking ally in the New York Yankees, a team that has given more money to the Marlins through revenue sharing than any other team.
"It's a question of, 'Do you believe the motive?’” Yankees president Randy Levine said. "If baseball people would have said to me that the Marlins got a very bad deal, that they didn't get good players for these great players that they traded, then I'd be in a very different place. But I haven't heard that from anybody who is knowledgeable in baseball."
Levine advocated for Loria to be more open with the fans, something Loria doesn't seem to believe in. He's maintained a low profile since those days in February, and turned down an interview request from ESPN.com.
It's going to take a long time to figure out if Loria and the baseball minds that Levine speaks of are right. It's still not clear yet what we'll see from the players the Marlins acquired in the trade with Toronto. Two of the players the Marlins received -- catcher Jeff Mathis (on the disabled list with a broken collarbone) and pitcher Henderson Alvarez (who started the season on the DL with shoulder issues) -- have been out with injuries. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, a prospect who has seen the most playing time among the new Marlins involved in the deal, is batting .184.
For his part, Braman said he believes Loria is caught in a no-win situation.
"If he kept the same people, everyone would say, 'My God, the season is starting the same way; they're losing all these games,'" Braman said. "What kind of stupid nitwit is this in keeping the same people who were responsible for the disaster last year?"
Braman recalls how he was hated for letting defensive end Reggie White, the biggest free agent in NFL history at the time, go to the Packers in 1993. In his six years in Green Bay, White helped the Packers reach two Super Bowls.
"Was it right, was it wrong?" Braman asked. "Who knows in retrospect? If these young players turn out to be excellent players, does that make Jeffrey Loria a hero instead of a bum? Only time will tell."