Back in February, I wrote about the new Marlins Ballpark and what it might or might not mean for the Marlins, in both attendance and the potential for a new naming right partner. With the season winding down and the Marlins looking quite different than perhaps anyone could have predicted, the picture is now much more clear, and unfortunate.
The Marlins of course have since unloaded some of the prized free-agent signings they started the season with, and their performance has landed them at the bottom of the NL East, 15 games under .500. Okay, but you don’t always need a winning team for people to come to a beautiful state-of-art new stadium, right. Well, right, sort of. Actually, the Marlins’ attendance has improved significantly over last year. Through all 80 of its home games in 2011, the Marlins averaged about 19,000 per home game, and through 66 games this year are averaging nearly 28,000 or 74% of capacity. That’s a very healthy increase over 2011, but it really says more about just how bleak their attendance was last year rather than how good it was (or wasn’t) in 2012. As it turns out, this year’s attendance in their shiny, new $600 million ballpark was the lowest for a new ballpark in three decades. As of today, the Marlins rank 18th in home game attendance out of the 30 MLB teams. That’s definitely not what they hoped for with a fantastic new stadium, new All-Star players and a new manager.
So, what happened? Some of it has been well documented, in terms of the huge gaffe by Manager Ozzie Guillen, the trade of Hanley Ramirez and the overall poor performance of the team. However, consider the Minnesota Twins, a team with a worse record than the Marlins and two seasons removed from the glow of new Target Field. The Twins are currently 11th in attendance, with an average of about 35,000, 89% of capacity. By the way, they were also terrible last year, but still managed to finish fourth in overall attendance, selling out 99% of the seats in their second year at Target Field. Yes, losing has cost them, but not to the extent that it is costing the Marlins. What might next year look like for the Marlins? 2011? Possibly.
What people may not remember is that Marlins management chose to wait on a stadium naming rights deal and didn’t want to “do anything too early.” Oh, what they’d give to have taken some of the deals that were reportedly on the table a year ago. Yes, it’s always easy to look back, but what are the real lessons as it relates to naming rights deals?
- First, you’ll rarely have more equity to offer than when the venue is new, or even before it’s completed. A new naming rights partner is going to receive enormous value in mentions and visibility before the first game is ever played. Partner execs will be photographed and immortalized numerous times in the press and other inaugural events. After the season starts, those opportunities and their value vanish, forever.
- The existing brand takes hold, and the power of a new brand is diminished. It is now Marlins Park. Not ADT Park or Wells Fargo Field. It could be one of those some day. But to many, it will always be Marlins Park, and the power of being there at the beginning and being the only name people ever new is gone. A naming rights partner could still be first, just not from the beginning. So, the lesson. Get a partner at the beginning, again, when value is at its highest to the partner.
- Worst case scenarios can and do happen. Could their new manager implode again? Check. Could ownership again sell-off players to clear payroll? Check. Could a team stacked with All-Stars somehow, some way end up not in the playoffs, much less in the cellar? Check. In a season that had all the promise of a fantastic re-birth of the Marlins, complete with new uniforms and a new name, nearly every worst case came true. Not wanting to do anything “too early” on a naming rights deal feels more painful by the day, as value continues to plummet for a potential partner. Don’t wait, With a new venue, sooner is better. See the first lesson.
Where to from here and is all lost when it comes to a stadium naming rights partner? No, all is not lost, of course. Attendance did in fact increase. The stadium, by all counts, indeed is a spectacular venue and the same amount of games will be played there next year as this year. Will attendance wane from here? Possibly, but it appears there is a healthier base to work with than in past years. Can more value be created? Yes. The Marlins will need to create a healthy bundle of assets for a new partner, other than splashing its name on the stadium. It’s likely that they’ve done that already in presentations to potential partners, but that basket of assets may need to get bigger and more attractive to secure the kind of long-term partner they seek, and at the investment level they want.