Saturday, June 22, 2013

The failures of South Florida sports: time to take out the trash

The Miami Heat is the toast of the town. Again. Since signing LeBron James three years ago (and Chris Bosh), the Heat has gone to three straight NBA finals and won the last two. James has dominated the playoffs in the past two seasons, pulling down the Finals MVP trophy in both. It's good to be a basketball fan in South Florida right now, there's no question about it.

But the story of the Heat is much bigger than just Lebron James. It begins and ends with the owner  of the team, Mickey Arison. He bought the struggling franchise in 1995 and immediately dug deep into his pocketbook to bring in Pat Riley. Riley quickly transformed the team by adding players like Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, thought the Heat did not win a title until 2006 (after drafting Dwayne Wade in 2003). Following that, the Heat took a few years to rebuild, an effort that ultimately led to the additions of James, Bosh, Ray Allen, and others to the roster to compliment Wade.

The team, it is true, benefited and still benefits from a sweetheart deal at the Triple-A (the American Airlines Arena), but unlike owners in other sports, Arison is not just banking profits, he's spending them to win titles. And that is no mean point. While the Heat has risen to the pinnacle of the basketball world (loved by some, hated by everyone else), the rest of the professional sports teams in South Florida have been suffering through hard times (to put it mildly).

The Marlins--of MLB--are little better than a minor league team, full of young players who really shouldn't be in the majors at this point in their careers. The Panthers are no better, having basically become a permanent member of the "we'll never make the playoffs" class of the NHL, a league where one has to really try to not make the playoffs, truth be told. And then there's the Dolphins, the once-mighty flagship of South Florida sports, the only game in town prior to 1988. Since the exodus of Dan Marino in 1999, the Dolphins have been to the playoffs exactly three times (2000, 2001, 2008) in thirteen years. Compare that to nineteen post season appearances (with eleven division titles and five trips to the Super Bowl) in the previous thirty years under Don Shula and Jimmie Johnson.

Every year now, South Florida football fans hope for a return to the glory years and every year they end up disappointed, to say the least. Hockey and baseball fans seem to have accepted their lot by and large. Though to be fair, they have enjoyed a few great seasons, with the Marlins having won two World Series (1997 and 2003) and the Panthers having made one magical trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

As I noted in the above piece, the Panthers' success in the 1995-96 season was a special thing, difficult to duplicate, but it did lead to a some competitive years and--more significantly--a serious attempt to succeed, evidence by the signings of players like Pavel Bure in 1998. Similarly, the first World Series victory by the Marlins in 1997 created expectations in South Florida for continued success, expectations that were not realized until 2003, with the freakish success of a clearly under-talented team.

Through all of these stories of South Florida sports teams runs a rarely discussed backstory: team owenership. The Heat has been the most successful franchise in South  Florida for the past twenty years, there is no doubt about this. And the successes of the other three teams occurred--for the most part--under one owner: H. Wayne Huizenga. Huizenga sold off his controlling interest of the Dolphin franchise and stadium in 2008, his ownership of the Panthers in 2001, and that of the Marlins in 1999. And apart from the flash-in-the-pan 2003 Marlins' season, the pattern is clear: the new owners of all three franchises have failed to do much of anything.

Arison, as I noted above, has always been willing to spend the money that needs to be spent. Huizenga was really no different, even if things didn't work out so well for him, while he was the primary owner of the other South Florida teams. Owners of professional sports franchises often bitch and moan about a lack of support, about financial difficulties, about how they are unable to turn a profit, but at the same they often fail miserably to deliver a product worth watching, much less one worth paying to watch. Such is the case right now for the Marlins, Panthers, and Dolphins. These are not well-organized, highly competitive teams and show little sign of becoming such anytime soon.

In contrast, the Heat looks to be the alpha dog of the NBA into the foreseeable future. Even after last year's championship, management did not stand pat but sought to improve the team. And the ownership supported this in full. Such was the case for other teams under Huzienga, even if things didn't always work out.

Yet, both Arison and Huzienga--while he was an owner--have been vilified on numerous occasions by local media and fans in South Florida. But the fact remains, they are the only owners--since the death of Joe Robbie--who have actually tried to win. And that's what it's all about. If you're not in it to win, why be there at all? The condition of South Florida sports demonstrates something that many may not like to hear: there are too many NBA, NHL, MLB and yes even NFL franchises right now. There are too many owners who simply don't have what it takes to be owners, who are unwilling to put competitive teams on the field, ice, or court.

I love hockey, I really do. I desperately wish the Panthers would return to their early form. But that's not happening. Ditto for the Marlins, whose current ownership is--for lack of a better way to say it--more interested in raping the area for dollars than it is in fielding an actual MLB-quality team. There is still some hope for the Dolphins, however. Tradition dies hard. And the Heat is in a class by itself. So, I think it's time that South Florida--along with he NHL and the MLB--faces the facts and dumps the Marlins and Panthers franchises permanently. Don't relocate them, don't look for new owners, just end them. Put them--and the South Florida fans--out of their collective misery.

Right now, there is no hockey in South Florida. There is no baseball, either.

Cheers, all.


  1. Nothing is ever solved by disbanding franchises. Plus, this rant bases effort to win entirely on money spent, when in reality effort to win involves building a system that creates winning; it does not always involve spending money - in the case of the Marlins the key to winning is pitching, and as teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay have shown it doesn't take spending big money to get quality pitching. The Florida Panthers meanwhile had a dismal 2012 season a year after winning the division. The Dolphins showed noticeable improvement in 2012 and appear to be building a system.

  2. The Marlins are a AA club playing in the majors. They're playing kids they shouldn't be playing and may very well ruin some careers in that regard. They're a disgrace and stems from ownership, first and foremost.

    Money is not the the only thing necessary to win, true enough. But it's a critical piece of the puzzle. Along with a desire to actually win, which includes making serious efforts to actually get better.

    The Panthers and Marlins have let top talent go, talent that they discovered/drafted, for what reason? Money. It's one thing to look for diamonds in the rough, it's quite another to surrender what you have for basically nothing in return. Except lower overhead.