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Florida Marlins fans wait to enter the stadium in this file photo. (Ozier Muhammad/NYT)
Florida Marlins fans wait to enter the stadium in this file photo. (Ozier Muhammad/NYT)

FAN REACTION

Marlins’ fans feel betrayed but Loria stays defiant Add to ...

It’s safe to say that enemy No. 1 in Miami is Jeffrey Loria, the Miami Marlins owner who approved a blockbuster 12-player trade that gutted his team and catapulted the Toronto Blue Jays into championship contention.

Angry Marlins fans are feeling duped and betrayed by an owner who took an estimated $360-million (all currency U.S.) in taxes to build a new stadium, then turned around after one season and jettisoned the expensive superstars who were supposed to fill the seats. “The joke is on us,” shouted a headline in Wednesday’s Miami Herald.

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But does Loria owe South Floridians a championship team, or even a good one? According to some sports legal and marketing experts, not really.

“The trade could be seen as strictly a business move,” said Darren Heitner, a Miami-based sports and entertainment lawyer.

“Are the fans disgruntled? Of course. Do they have a right to be disgruntled, subjectively? Yes. At the same time, the owners do not necessarily answer to the individuals that reside in that city.”

However, even those involved in the decision to build the new ballpark acknowledge that the trade has now weakened the Marlins brand.

“Everybody in the world wants to talk about the Marlins and the fact they’re now a Triple-A team,” said city commissioner Marc Sarnoff, who was an opponent of the ballpark project. “The Marlins have lost pretty much all credibility with fans. Even if this trade is a positive move from a baseball standpoint, it won’t be viewed by the general public as a positive move.”

Loria was defiant on Wednesday, saying the deal was necessary to revitalize a losing squad. “We finished in last place. Figure it out,” he told reporters. The Marlins moved into their $515-million, retractable-roof ballpark in 2012, adding pricey players such as Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle as well as manager Ozzie Guillen. The result was a last-place finish in the National League East with a 69-93 record, their worst in 13 years.

Still, fans were promised that last season was only the beginning of something great, said Wayne McDonnell, clinical associate professor of sports management at New York University. Told a new stadium was what the team needed, they forked out 80 per cent of the cost. And while attendance wasn’t great last season (18th in the league), Miami showed the league’s largest increase in attendance between 2011 and 2012 – a 8,600 bump that is to be expected for a newly built venue.

“You have all this hope and optimism built into the community,” McDonnell said. “But the problem is … from a community standpoint, hate to say it, that with Jeffrey Loria this [disappointment] is a regular occurrence. The hopes and dreams of fans in south Florida are built to a crescendo, and then come crashing down because they realize that they overextended themselves.”

It’s true that Miami might have seen what was coming. After all, this is Loria’s second fire sale as Miami’s owner, and he has left disgruntled fans elsewhere, including Montreal. When he couldn’t strong-arm the Quebec government into building him a new stadium for the dying Expos, Loria sold the Expos back to the league for $120-million, and the team was eventually shipped to Washington.

Miami government officials can be excused for hoping that investing in a new stadium would pay off, says Kenneth Wong, Professor of Marketing at Queen’s University School of Business.

But they should have done more to protect their massive investment, he said.

“Just about every arena in the world, except for the Dallas football stadium, and Yankee stadium, are funded with some kind of public money. The presumption is, it’s a draw for tourism and economic development, which, if successful, will return those funds many times over.”

“Unfortunately, city officials aren’t very skilled at negotiating contracts, because to have that kind of a contract of that magnitude, and not have some condition that presumes effort on the part of the tenant, it is an obvious sin.”

The city of Miami may have little recourse against Loria now, but its citizens do. The question going forward will be whether Loria has done irreconcilable damage to the Marlins fan base. After this latest so-called “fire sale,” fans may decide once and for all to focus their attention elsewhere, such as the NBA’s Miami Heat, or the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.

“The Miami Marlins were going to be Miami’s team,” said McDonnell, referring to the moment, almost exactly a year ago, when the Marlins officially rebranded themselves with a new logo, uniform, stadium and colour scheme.

“Now, really, they’re Miami’s afterthought behind the Heat and the Dolphins.”

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