St. Louis, Chicago, Boston and New York have each been labeled a “baseball town” at some point or another. These classic cities each house historic franchises with rabid fanbases, the passion for their MLB teams passing down from generation to generation.
Is it possible that the city of Miami ever joins that class?
Ever since the Marlins came to South Florida in 1993, the challenges they’ve faced regarding fan interest and attendance have been well chronicled. In 2018, Miami bottomed out, averaging just 10,014 fans per home game, which was the lowest in the majors since the 2004 Montreal Expos. Worse yet, people rarely watched the team on TV, ranking in the bottom five in local primetime ratings, according to Forbes.
If you look at it through a broader lens, the entire city of Miami has always had trouble bringing fans to games. It’s no secret that the Hurricanes, Heat and even the Dolphins feel the ridicule of attendance jokes—not just the Marlins.
With the longtime success of the Dolphins and the ‘Canes, it’s understandable that Miami has largely been known as a “football town,” first and foremost. That being said, professional baseball predates them both. Whether it be spring training or minor league franchises, the sport has had a steady presence in the region for more than 60 years.
It should be possible for them to co-exist harmoniously. New York fans, for example, have multiple franchises in most of the major sports leagues and manage to divide their attention between them.
Maybe this is a case where the Marlins have to win people over. Consider the Chicago Cubs in 2014. In what was the sixth straight losing season for the Cubs, the fans still packed Wrigley Field each game, drawing well above the average NL attendance. Locally, we’ve seen that once the Hurricanes football program turned around in 2017 to break out of their own dark period, season tickets were sold out the following season.
A huge misconception is that the Marlins struggle to draw fans to the ballpark because they’re not putting enough Latino players on the field, as if Little Havana residents in the adjacent neighborhoods will suddenly break the bank for tickets when the demographics of the roster change. This is overstated: South Florida simply wants a winner. Special events like the World Baseball Classic certainly encourage people to root for their countrymen, and we can forecast a nice turnout when Cuban outfielder Víctor Víctor Mesa makes his MLB debut, but sustained support will need to be earned.
Go to a game at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. Even if the home team is losing, there are obvious differences between games there and home games at Marlins Park. One thing is that those ballparks are staples of the neighborhood, hosting the Cubs and Red Sox respectively for more than 100 years. It feels like a tradition more than an ordinary purchase.
The Marlins, on the other hand, played their first 19 seasons in a quarter-filled football stadium and have seen their beloved star players often traded away too soon. Continuity is a foreign concept. Fans feel betrayed by ownership throughout the club’s history; Derek Jeter and his group didn’t exactly light it up with a 63-98 record in their debut season.
Still, a metropolitan area where over five million people reside—and millions more pass through each year as tourists—has so much potential. There were 60,000-plus fans packed into then-named Pro Player Stadium during Florida’s postseason run of 2003. We’re not expecting to win the pennant every year, but being competitive would be a nice step in the right direction (Marlins haven’t made it to the postseason since then).
Jeter and management definitely face an uphill battle, but history has shown us that if they’re able to produce results on the field, results in the stands will follow.