Toughest job in sports: Marketing the Marlins to fans who feel betrayed is hard sell [The Palm Beach Post, Fla.]
(Palm Beach Post (FL) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 19--Think Miami Marlins players are in for a challenging season A more daunting task awaits the team's marketing department.
Less than three months removed from a controversial trade that upended the roster, the Marlins are about to ask an angry fan base to buy tickets and support the team.
"It's got to be the toughest marketing challenge in sports, not just in Marlins history, given what the fan base has been put through,'' said Scott Becher, managing director of Z Sports & Entertainment, the sports marketing division of Zimmerman Advertising in Fort Lauderdale.
A year ago, the Marlins had more marketing tools than any team in the majors. Aside from their new $515-million ballpark, they had a new high-profile manger in Ozzie Guillen and a roster with three All Stars who signed long-term contracts: Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell.
But after the team finished in last place with 93 losses, the front office pulled the plug. Guillen, who had alienated many fans early in the season when he expressed admiration for Fidel Castro, was fired and the three new free agents were traded along with longtime Marlins Josh Johnson and Emilio Bonifacio.
Now, with spring training less than a month away, the team is trying to persuade fans to come back and support a team that features one marquee star, slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
This year's marketing push might be a tougher challenge than the team had after dramatic roster changes that followed the 1997 and 2005 seasons, Becher said.
The difference now is that many longtime fans feel lied to and misled by owner Jeffrey Loria, who said the opening of Marlins Park -- built with $347 million in public money -- meant an end to the days of fire sales and low payrolls.
"It was a big shock how they started off in one direction and all of a sudden went in another. I'm very disappointed,'' said Gary Diamond, 44, a salesman from Miami who said he lives two blocks from Marlins Park.
Diamond spoke early Saturday morning as he waited in line at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter to purchase spring training tickets for two Marlins games -- against the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, two of the most popular teams in sports.
There were more than 200 people in a line that wrapped around stadium when the ticket windows opened shortly after 9 a.m. And just about everyone in line was there to buy tickets for one of four games featuring the Yankees and Red Sox games and for St. Louis Cardinals games.
About 20 minutes after the ticket window opened, a handful of people arrived with plans to buy tickets for the main purpose of watching the Marlins.
"I think the Marlins could run the team a little better, but baseball is more about business than it is about the game. That doesn't mean I'm not going to support them. I'm still a hometown guy,'' said Bud Furman, 60, an electrician from Jupiter.
The Marlins are hoping more people like Furman come to Marlins Park once the season starts.
"Believe me, the team understands what the tone and the attitude of the market is,'' said Sean Flynn, the Marlins' vice president for marketing.
Flynn said it's too early to determine how the sour public reaction will affect regular-season ticket sales. He said he didn't have figures yet to indicate how many season ticket holders might not renew.
But he said the Marlins are preparing to host a sold-out crowd for their home opener April 8 against the Atlanta Braves.
"Our goal is always to sell out on opening day so that's what we are anticipating,'' Flynn said.
The Marlins will roll out a 2013 marketing slogan in early February but Flynn said the overall approach won't differ too much from previous campaigns.
And he said the marketing message will not include "a direct response to" the fans' anger.
"I think it's a positive approach using the assets, telling the story that is attractive to bring people out to the ballpark and experience a night at Marlins Park watching major league baseball,'' he said.
Those "assets" include Marlins Park, the team's players and entertainment options before and after games. This year, for the first time Flynn said, the team will offer at every home game "a value-added component,'' which might include a ticket promotion or a giveaway.
Ticket prices "on average are about the same,'' with slight increases and decreases in specific categories, he said. "Overall, we'll be pretty flat.''
The Marlins last week announced one change to the team's annual pre-season ticket-selling event. For years it was called FanFest. Now it will be called the Winter Warm Up, set for Feb. 9 at Marlins Park.
Fans will be able to buy individual game tickets and meet players, but the Winter Warm Up will be scaled down from previous FanFests. One big change -- it will not include any Town Hall meeting, which allowed fans in previous years to ask direct questions to team officials and players.
Given the bad feelings toward the team in the community, sports marketing experts said the Marlins would be smart to focus their campaign on the experience of Marlins Park and on advertisements with individual players offering messages to fans.
"It's a lot harder to say no to (a young player asking fans for support) than it is if you're just envisioning the organization as a cold, faceless business operation,'' said Evan Nierman, founder of Red Banyan Group, a Fort Lauderdale public relations firm whose specialties include damage control.
The Marlins are hoping fans will embrace their latest crop of young players the way they did in 2006 with promising rookies Dan Uggla, Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez.
But it might take more than a year for the Marlins to make an impact on their attendance, which marketing experts predict will decrease from last year when they drew 2,219,444 total fans, an average of 27,400 per game, 18th in the majors.
"Who's going to want to buy a jersey with some guy's name on the back of someone you've never heard of Not to mention, who's going to want to wear a jersey of a team that I would imagine there's some hard feelings down there, too, with animosity,'' said Dr. Stephen McDaniel, a sports and entertainment marketing professor at the University of Maryland.
"You can only have so many bat days and bobblehead days and fireworks nights that will draw some walk-ups,'' he added.
The Marlins have tried to justify their offseason roster moves as the result of a losing season. But Nierman said he thinks the fan base still is skeptical of that explanation.
"They haven't really stepped forward and made their case in a strong and convincing way,'' he said.
"At this point, it seems to me the Marlins have been tasked in the role of an unfaithful partner and they're in the dog house.''
(c)2013 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
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