Ozzie Guillen unquestionably and perhaps irrevocably wounded an important segment of Miami's population with his Time Magazine comments regarding Fidel Castro. This was a shocking development, given his pivotal role as part of the Marlins' rebranding and positioning as Latin/America's team-which also included self-identifying as being from Miami rather than Florida, building their new Marlins Park in the Little Havana neighborhood of the city, and signing one of the best available Latino free-agents on the market this past offseason, in Jose Reyes.
These moves were in part marketing strategies: making a splash to coincide with (and make the most of) opening a new stadium is familiar territory, such as with the Minnesota Twins signing Joe Mauer to the richest contract in team history just before opening their new Target Field, and the Marlins' new uniform capitalizes on their name change as well as offering up plenty of gear to buy for a (presumably, hopefully) energized fan base.
But herein lies the problem, and another reason for the franchise facelift. As has been documented, not many fans in general have attended Florida/Miami games over the years. In the past decade, during which the Marlins won the World Series once, finished second in their division on another occasion, and had an above-.500 winning-percentage three other times, the team has had no better than the fifth-worst league attendance (in 2004, following their World Series victory, and a year in which they finished above .500), and been in the top three-worst for attendance the remaining nine years.
So whether Guillen's apologies and the team's 5-game suspension prove satisfactory enough contrition remains to be seen, but it is still fair to ask: were Cubans going to Marlins games even before the leader of the franchise put his foot in his mouth?
Clearly not many fans at all attend Marlins games, and there may be a number of reasons for this dismal record. Previously, the team played outside of Miami's city limits, as well as in a football stadium, both of which can make for awkwardness in terms of building or maintaining a fan base (this identity crisis extended to the facility's name, too, as it was known as Joe Robbie Stadium and Pro Player Park prior to having the baseball team move in, then switched from Pro Player Stadium to Dolphins Stadium to Dolphin Stadium to Land Shark Stadium to its present Sun Life Stadium during the Marlins' co-tenancy: a confusing trend of seeming instability, and one which most of the time referenced the resident football team, with no allusion to baseball).
Added to these issues is the matter of playing in the open air, which is far from ideal in the often sweltering Miami summer. To these ends, weather and lifestyle are at times attributed to the fairly lax attitude of sports fandom in the American Southeast overall, with the exceptions of college football and NASCAR.
The Jacksonville Jaguars struggle to fill even a partial stadium at Everbank Field. In Atlanta-often compared with Miami as being so-called bad sports towns-the consistently playoff-bound Braves draw consistently middling attendance at Turner Field (even in the postseason), while Atlanta's most recent former NHL franchise relocated to Winnipeg during the 2011 offseason, and this after losing another team to Calgary in 1980.
Finally, Florida in general is home to a large population of retirees and snowbirds, which may present obstacles to defining and growing a fan base. And Miami in particular has the reputation of being a very international and cosmopolitan city, given to more exotic tastes culturally and even when it comes to sports (jai alai, for example-popular in Latin America, but relatively unknown in the United States-has a strong following in South Florida).
Baseball, however, also enjoys global popularity, especially in Latin countries-all of which connects logically to the desire to have Guillen at the helm. But this is an approach the Marlins have tried before, with Tony Perez and Fredi Gonzalez (both Cuban), as well as Edwin Rodriguez (Puerto Rican) as past managers, for a total of six seasons since 2001-and it clearly had little to no impact at the ticket window. This cause-but-no-effect could also reflect a history of poor decisions by Marlins upper management, ranging from the meddling with and firing of Joe Girardi (who won Manager of the Year in 2006 during his only season in Florida, but was let go after clashing with owner Jeffrey Loria, and has since gone on to manage the Yankees to a 2009 World Series victory), to controversy surrounding the financing of the new Marlins Park (including an ongoing SEC investigation, and Team President David Samson joking that, stadium deal in hand, the team did not care if anyone came to the games, as they would still have all the money they needed).
And on that topic of the new (retractable roof) stadium, when comparing the Marlins' past experience with their MLB sibling in Tampa Bay, the Rays' playing indoors has improved attendance over Florida/Miami only marginally. Tropicana Field is generally considered subpar at best, but even with the advantage of being under a dome-as well as with playing in one World Series, having two additional playoff appearances, and one other above-.500 season record in the past decade-the Rays peaked with an attendance rating of 22nd out of 30 teams one time (a playoff year that followed an above-.500 finish the year prior), and finished in the bottom three in the league seven times (including 2011-a second-to-last place finish in attendance, during back-to-back playoff-appearance seasons).
So perhaps a new, climate-controlled stadium-one that is well-situated, and houses a reinvented (or at least renamed) team-can reverse the trend of years of abysmal attendance, almost regardless of the Marlins on-field performance. If this has been a Miami issue, these changes could help. But on a broader scope, many variables remain the same, and comparable-from Tampa Bay's struggles, to an apparent regional apathy regarding most traditional pro sports in general. A significant element that also continues its presence is the Marlins' management philosophy, one which frequently seems at best disingenuous, and at worst disdainful of its customers.
One way or another-whether recent moves have been sincere attempts to win a place in the hearts of the home community, or calculated attempts that are more profit-driven-this fragile dynamic has been colossally (and perhaps symbolically) upset. The incendiary comments made by Guillen-previously in position to be a franchise savior as well as cash cow, and arguably the most famous and successful Latino manager in Major League Baseball history-have deeply and maybe permanently injured an important segment of the team's potential fan base.
In the end, however, as disastrous a turn of events as this has been, neither Cubans nor anyone else have attended Marlins games in substantial numbers over the team's history-and that, moving forward, will likely be the most significant variable to monitor.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Castro.>