The Miami Marlins are embroiled in yet another controversy with regards to their fans. As if the November fire sale trade and the (months later) subsequent "letter to our fans" trying to deny wrongdoing were not enough, the team is now involved in a controversy in which they have threatened to sue fans of the team directly.
Fish Stripes has already covered the story of Jan and Bill Leon and their season ticket controversy, but the premise of the story is simple: the Leons do not want to pay the second half of their two-year contract because they feel the seats they purchased have been changed by the presence of a billboard that moves up the green padding in front of them about seven inches. The pictures are shown below, courtesy of the Miami New Times and Jan Leon.
via l3.yimg.com (Big League Stew via Jan Leon, Miami New Times)
The Leons reportedly asked for the Marlins to move the advertising and did not receive what they wanted. They then issued a statement saying that they wanted to be moved from that seat or they would not pay the second year of their contract. The Marlins apparently responded (update at Miami New Times), saying that the team had offered the Leons different seats at multiple times without a response, so the situation has become a "he said, she said" deal.
One thing is clear from these pictures: it does not seem likely that the Leons have a great argument with regards to the actual seats. Peeking through the gaps in the cameramen in the "after" photo reveals the third base line very clearly, so they are not missing anything in the field of play. What they are likely missing are foul balls hit down the strip of dirt in front of the wall. How this endangers fan safety if you do not lean in front of the wall unnecessarily is beyond me. The Leons have a right to argue that they did not receive the seats they initially bought, but the view, as far as I am concerned, is not so obstructed as to complain.
If the Marlins indeed offered to move their seating multiple times as they say, then the Leons have no good recourse to renege on their two-year contract. Provided the team made appropriate accommodations, it should receive its payment from the family, as they agreed on paper to pay for two years of season tickets. This is not a matter of "renewing," as the Leons mentioned in the article, but rather one of fulfilling their commitment that they made last year.
But that hardly seems to matter to the public, and this is not surprising at all. The last team in professional sports that should have a conflict with their fans that may end in a lawsuit is the hapless Miami Marlins organization. The club's public relations situation is a nightmare to behold, and anything that resembles a lashing out at the fans should be avoided. With fans already angry at the team for the fire sale of November 2012, the team is likely at one of its lowest approval ratings in franchise history, and what may actually a nuanced argument for contractual obligation is only going to look like a heavy-handed threat to fans in the eyes of outside media and Marlins fans alike. The Marlins are not going to look like a business simply trying to get a customer to honor their agreement. With everything the organization has done to hurt the fans' confidence, this is only going to look like another slap in the face from an organization that has been manufacturing face-slaps for years.
How could the Marlins have handled this better? It is hard to tell. On the one hand, they should ask for their money, if only not to set a precedence for other contract holders to renege on their deals. Then again, if the Marlins handled the situation more delicately perhaps, without the threat of a lawsuit, maybe the Leons do not take the situation public and allow for other parties in other contracts with the Marlins to see how the team handles these ordeals. If the Marlins do not threaten to sue, would the Leons ever publish this exchange and allow other contract holders to see the Marlins as weak pushovers?
Without the threat of lawsuit, however, how can the Marlins get the Leons to agree to their contractual terms? It seems that the couple had no interest in acquiring tickets for the 2013 season, so no matter what the Fish offered, it is very possible they would not have paid. At the same time, you have to wonder how much $25,000 really is to a multi-million dollar organization that has a major public relations problem. If the Marlins expend the effort to sue or even threaten to sue for their lost money, would they be expected to lose more in legal expenditures and the concurrent fan backlash that would undoubtedly occur? How much money would the Marlins lose from their already dwindling paying fan base if the team was seen publicly taking a case to court against one of their own fans?
The very nature of this problem is a lose-lose proposition for the team. If the Marlins pursue what may appear to be a legitimate case for them, the fans will almost certainly revolt (again). If the Marlins do no go after their money, they will be losing money, and that alone is a motivation for this (as well as any) ownership. Given that it is the Marlins, you wonder if just biting the bullet on this one and keeping all the parties quiet would not have been a better move for the embattled organization. The Fish will have to be more careful with these situations than they have been, because no small slight against the fans from this team, more than any other organization in professional sports, will go unseen when the fans are already this disgruntled. The Marlins are indeed quite different.