Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria – History about to repeat itself

What’s the saying – you’re supposed to learn from our mistakes and not supposed to repeat history (or at least the decisions we’d rather not make again)? That may be true for most people, but it certainly doesn’t apply to Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. Loria is about to repeat an error in judgment in made in 2001 when he owned the Montreal Expos. Loria’s previous faux pas ultimately led to the demise of the Expos and the same blunder likely will lead to the death of the Florida Marlins. Once again, Jeffrey Loria the Major League Baseball franchise killer is up to his old tricks.

A report in Tuesday’s South Florida Sun Sentinel, suggested the Marlins are facing a 60-day deadline to purchase about 11 acres in an area south of Miami Arena generally bounded by Northwest Fifth and Seventh streets, Miami Avenue and the Metrorail line, but those contracts expire within 60 days. The Sentinel’s Sarah Talalay indicated the contracts for the land are currently held by Major League Baseball. Loria and the Marlins have to reach a stadium agreement in place in two months – an impossibility especially when you consider Loria’s record of stadium building failure.

For Jeffrey Loria it will be the second time in the last five years he will have failed at successfully negotiating an agreement to build a stadium that could save a MLB team and market.

Labatt Park was the name of a proposed baseball stadium that was to be built to house the Montreal Expos, replacing Olympic Stadium. Proposed in 2000, it was designed by the AXOR Group of Montreal and was to be an open-air stadium with a capacity of 36,287. It was designed for a lot bordered by Rue St. Jacques, Rue de la Montagne, Rue Notre Dame and Rue Peel, two blocks south of the Bell Centre (the home of the Montreal Canadiens). Architecturally, the park was a departure from the retro ballpark trend; it would have featured an exterior glass wall and a postmodern design.

Located in the heart of downtown Montreal, the stadium had everything the Expos needed to not only survive in Montreal, but thrive. The proposed stadium would have cost a modest $200 million to build. Labatt’s had agreed to a $40 million naming rights agreement and an additional $60 million in stadium pouring and sponsorship rights. 50 percent of the money needed to save the Expos from extinction was in place, and that was before. Loria became the teams’ managing partner. Labatt’s stood by their agreement with the Expos, confirmed the sponsorship deal on March 29, 2000.

Jeffrey Loria’s reign of terror in Montreal began early in his stewardship with the Expos. Loria ended the Expos broadcast agreements alienating the local business community. His next move that caused concern for Expos fans was that he instilled his stepson David Samson, as Expos president. Samson in Montreal was like oil and water, the two never worked together. Samson’s inability to speak French, in a city where 80 percent of the population speaks French, upset the Francophone community

The parallels between what has taken place in Montreal and what is happening in South Florida are so similar it’s almost scary.

Loria gutted the Expos roster of any major league talent, cutting the teams’ payroll, making the team nothing more then a glorified Triple-A baseball franchise playing Major League Baseball. The Marlins somehow won the 2003 World Series, with Loria and Samson running the franchise. While the Marlins are contending for the National League wild-card playoff position this year (how they ‘earned’ their way into the 2003 playoffs), Loria and Samson as they did in Montreal ,cut all of the players who brought Miami its second World Series title in 2003, slashing the teams’ payroll to $15 million this year.

The mark of Jeffrey Loria’s ownership style -- the Marlins received more then $30 million in MLB revenue sharing this year, with little if any of that money being directed back into the Marlins on-field product. With the Marlins contending for a playoff spot, the team did nothing at the July 31 MLB trade deadline to improve their playoff position. What message did Jeffrey Loria send to South Florida’s business community when he stood ideally by and did nothing to enhance his business? Did that help or hurt the image of the Marlins?

The Florida Marlins are destined to join “Loria’s Attendance Hall of Shame” by the end of the current baseball season. The Marlins are dead last in MLB attendance by only managing to fill 38.1% of Dolphins Stadium. When Marlins starter Anibal Sanchez pitched the first no-hitter in the Majors since Randy Johnson threw a perfect game on May 18, 2004 last week, the announced attendance was a shade over 12,000. Various media reports pegged the actual crowd at around 5,000. Throughout the three seasons Loria ran the Montreal Expos (1999 through 2001) the Expos where at the bottom of Major League Baseball attendance – Loria’s MLB business history repeating itself.

If there is any real opportunity Loria is going to be able to pull a rabbit or in this case a stadium deal out of thin air, Loria and Major League Baseball need leadership from Loria and almost as important from David Samson. Like he did in Montreal, Loria appointed his stepson Samson the president of his Major League Baseball franchise.

A recent radio appearance by Samson, likely didn’t help Samson or Loria’s standing in the South Florida community. .

Samson appeared on 790 The Ticket (WAXY-AM), with The Miami Herald’s Dan LeBatard. According to The South Sentinel columnist David Hyde, the Marlins' team president gave another supposedly comic discourse on that touched all the bases of women, sex and pornography. This isn't uncommon for Samson. In the past, he has "joked" of having Porn Night at the stadium. He's "joked" of having a sex toy in his car. He's "joked" which players looked like porn stars. Do you see the thread here? And are you laughing yet? Is this a personality you’d entrust with a business that has a value well in excess of $100 million?

On this particular show, a male caller who said he otherwise enjoyed Samson's segment asked him to, "Please try not to be so derogatory toward women and lustful when you do the interview. I try to enjoy the show with my girl, and she's like, `Oh, that Dave Samson, he's a real creep.'"

"Don't be lecherous, Samson," show host Dan LeBatard said.

"I will try to be slightly less lecherous for his girlfriend," Samson said. "And if he would like to bring her to my office, we could definitely talk about my lechery."

What exactly could David Samson have been trying to accomplish that day, a few short weeks ago?

A story on the Marlins website focuses on Samson’s passion and training to compete in Ironman competitions. One side of the man Jeffrey Loria’s entrusted to run and manage a $100 plus million dollar major league baseball franchise talks about Samson’s dedication and commitment to excellence through a rigorous 26 hour weekly training regiment. Then Loria goes on an all-sports radio station, Miami’s ESPN affiliate and offers crude comments about women filled with sexual innuendoes and overtones.

There is little if any political backing in South Florida to offer any taxpayer support for a Marlins stadium. Loria was facing an uphill battle when he arrived in South Florida, after dumping the Expos on his fellow MLB owners. If Loria stood any chance of getting a stadium agreement in place, the last thing Loria needed was to have his most visible employee (his stepson), the teams’ figurehead, and the president of his MLB franchise, go on radio and try and be ‘one of the boys’. Not only might Samson cost Loria important political support, but any private support. Once again, as was the case in Montreal, Loria and Samson have alienated potential political and corporate support, key factors in securing the capital needed to build stadium(s).

The downtown Miami stadium site isn’t the only potential location for a proposed Marlins Stadium. The Marlins are negotiating with Miami-Dade County and the city of Hialeah to finance a stadium in a section of western Hialeah west of I-75 and east of Florida's turnpike between Northwest 170th and 154th streets. Representatives of the team, county and city are to meet with MLB officials in South Florida on Sept. 28 to discuss that plan.

It remains to been seen if Jeffrey Loria has the ability to part the red seas and secure the needed pubic and private funding he needs to build a baseball stadium in South Florida. However, Jeffrey Loria and David Samson business acumen (or lack thereof) will likely lead the Florida Marlins to the same place they led the Montreal Expos – the graveyard of dearly departed sports franchises. History repeating itself – Jeffrey Loria the Major League Baseball franchise killer, about to repeat history!!

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The South Florida Sun Sentinel and Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia