Miami Marlins not losers off the field

The Miami Marlins finished 69-93, the team’s new ballpark fell about 500,000 fans short of home-attendance projections, and ownership was forced to trade big-name players and deal with off-the-field issues.

Pretty much an abject failure for the team, right?

Actually, no, in the financial sense.

• The Marlins finished the season having an average capacity at Marlins Park of 73.2 percent, good enough for 13th in the major leagues and a far cry from the 48.8 percent figure tallied last year in the team’s old ballpark.

• According to Fanatics.com, the largest online retailer of officially licensed merchandise, the Marlins were second only to the Washington Nationals in year-over-year merchandise sales.

• At home, the Marlins saw a 700 percent increase in merchandise sales.

Toss in the fact that the Marlins got the new park built largely with public funding ($363 million to the Marlins’ $161.2 million), and the losing record and attendance didn’t spell disaster for ownership.

But to really capitalize, the Marlins need to do one other thing:

“Winning more games is the No. 1 thing,” said David Samson, Marlins president.

Although the team passed 2 million in home attendance for only the third time in its short history, it failed to see the same level of attendance boost experienced at other new ballparks that opened over the past decade.

Through the first four home games, arguably when excitement was highest, Marlins Park only had 88.6 percent capacity. Meanwhile, Citi Field in New York averaged 92.7 percent capacity in its first year, and Target Field in Minnesota had more than 100 percent in its first season.

“You cannot properly compare the opening of Marlins Park to the opening of other new ballparks at all,” said Samson. “The automatic attendance jump that used to exist, that model is over. But we knew that. We said from day one our honeymoon would be the first five innings of the first game. It used to be all you had to do was open the gates of a new ballpark, but it’s not like that anymore. We looked at where we were and where we are, and we’re in a much better place.”

Still, the team did well overall.

The 24 percent increase in average capacity year-over-year meant a sizable increase in gate receipts, which don’t have to be shared with the visiting team in baseball.

The Marlins experienced a 208 percent increase in total merchandise sales, which didn’t cease even in September when the team was clearly out of contention. For that month alone, the Marlins sold 130 percent more merchandise than the same time period last year.

While revenue from Fanatics.com’s merchandise sales is split evenly between all 30 clubs, gear sold within the confines of Marlins Park goes straight to the Marlins' bottom line. Samson said sales were more than 700 percent higher than last season.

“The Marlins started on the right foot when they had the unveiling of the new uniforms with a big show,” said Wayne McDonnell, a professor of sports management at New York University. “They did all the right things to get people excited. The color schemes really define South Beach. It finally seems as if from a merchandise standpoint they captured the community.”

Now, McDonnell said, the club simply needs to apply the same level of community interfacing to other parts of the organization.

McDonnell says it’s not just about winning -- there’s plenty that can be done before next season to bring fans back into the fold.

“The first thing they can easily do is define organizational philosophies for the fans. Whether it be saying, ‘Ozzie Guillen is our guy’ or addressing some of the rumors about organizational shakeups. If they’re going to do it, do it and then give the fans a clear message,” said McDonnell.

“Last year they told them one thing and then shifted gears mid-season. We don’t have a clear picture in our mind of how they’re building the franchise. Fans will appreciate that and be willing to support a franchise that has a clear mission.”

In addition to getting back to winning, Samson said the Marlins are focusing on making the ballpark experience better for next year. For example, the Fiesta Suites, a field-level premium area, was overshadowed by the Clevelander, a popular South Beach bar that set up an outpost in the new stadium. Samson said the club is looking for a partner who can come in ahead of next season and help make the Fiesta Suites as appealing as the Clevelander.