Marlins' strategy- less talk, more fun

Saturday, March 9, 2002

MIAMI -- The Marlins' new management has a message for fans: We want to meet you, listen to your suggestions and, most of all, tell you we won't let you down like our predecessors.

The goal is to woo fans jilted by the team's quick rise to a championship and subsequent slide to mediocrity under previous owners.

"We are trying to distance ourselves from the past, and the only way to do it is one fan at a time," Marlins president David Samson said Thursday. "We want fans to recommit to us emotionally."

The courtship begins with the team's new marketing slogan -- "It's Time To Play" -- and addresses the primary issue that has loomed over the club the past few years: a new ballpark.

Former Marlins owner John Henry campaigned aggressively for a new stadium. But new Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria has said he's not ready to discuss whether one is needed or how it might be financed.

Samson said the issue is "not even on the radar now."

"We want to just calm down all of South Florida and not have them talk about contraction or relocation or a new stadium or any of the buzzwords that were distracting the past few years," Samson said.

Dismantled, disenchanted

Since the Marlins won the World Series in 1997, fans have seen the team's championship roster dismantled. The threat of losing the team has been dangled over fans' heads as owners insisted the club needed to build a new stadium to be profitable.

Rumors that the team was being considered by the league as a candidate for contraction were particularly worrisome to those fans who hadn't already become entirely apathetic.

"The thing you worry about is people saying it might be our last year. If you hear that, nobody is going to come," outfielder Cliff Floyd said. "If you're playing well and you look out there and there's 5,000 people, then we're in trouble and there ain't no way we're going to make it."

Samson is guarded with details on what the Marlins will do to fill seats at Pro Player Stadium, but the strategy involves entertaining the fans during the game beyond what is taking place on the field.

"It's important to reconnect with the team, and our whole marketing strategy has been to basically calm everyone down," Samson said. "Sometimes you have to do it one fan at a time. That's our strategy."

On Tuesday, the team is holding the first of at least two town hall-style meetings with groups of 150 invited fans. The team sent invitations to current and former season-ticket holders, among others, Samson said.

During games, fans already accustomed to such novelty enticements as Beanie Babies, player bobbing-head dolls, floppy hat or disco nights, can expect contests and more opportunities to meet players.

As part of the new focus on fans, Samson said he acted on two suggestions culled from hundreds of fan e-mails: a new half-season ticket package and bilingual signs on ticket windows.

The Marlins finished 76-86 last year, below .500 for the fourth straight year since 1997. The team averaged 15,765 -- 536 more than in 2000. But the team has never surpassed the per game average of 38,311 during its 1993 debut season.

On March 2, when Marlins season tickets went on sale, fans at the stadium bought 2,100 tickets, Samson said. The team did not have any other figures Friday.

Samson, who officially began his job less than three weeks ago after serving as executive vice president of the Montreal Expos, said his strategy paid off in Montreal, increasing average attendance in 2000 to 11,435 from 9,547 the previous year.

He said the fact that average attendance in Montreal dipped in 2001 to 7,524 is a sign the team needed to better connect with the fans.

Samson said Marlins fans just need to be reassured.

"That's really the bottom line," he said. "People want to know that it's OK again."

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