If news of Miami Dolphins fans' chants for Kyle Orton(notes) and the media running wild with rumors about Brett Favre(notes) didn't make it clear that these are desperate times in Miami, here's one tidbit that should seal the issue.
This week, Dolphins management hired a "third-party" company to chase down a couple of hundred season ticketholders who have failed to make payments on their high-end tickets. As Adam Grossman, the team's vice president of public affairs, was clear to point out, this third party is not a collection agency. However, it's only a step removed.
Getting away from the argument over whether it's OK for a sports team to chase people down for ticket money, here's the deeper issue: The Dolphins, who were once the undisputed kings of South Florida sports, are so desperate these days to sell tickets that they have to go after everyone they possibly can.
On another team, it would be easy to turn those "club" seats (which include access to Sun Life Stadium's club lounge and are usually sold as part of three-year contracts) to new owners. While the Dolphins have traditionally had problems selling out their 75,000-seat stadium, the premium seats shouldn't be an issue in a town conditioned to luxury.
"We enlisted the services of a company that has an accounts receivable recovery module," Grossman wrote in an email. "This is not a collections service. They are a third party that is helping us contact account holders that we [haven't] been able to reach over the past six months, even though they have received – on average – 8 to 10 communications (letters, e-mails, personal phone calls, video blasts, invitations to participate in private, special events, etc)."
Grossman declined to identify the company, which he says has no power to impact a person's credit report or rating, unlike a traditional collection service. He also said the team had yet to decide what it would do if the fans with contracts don't respond at all. With some fans who have responded thus far and claimed to have financial problems, Grossman said the team has worked on different payment plans.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league had no comment on what teams do to collect money from ticketholders, saying that is handled on a club-by-club basis.
It is unusual for teams to take such measures to get ticketholders to respond. The Washington Redskins have made headlines in the past over legal battles with season ticketholders who didn't pay renewal fees.
All of that skirts the bigger point. Despite the Dolphins' long history, the team has progressively lost its foothold on the South Florida market. Only once since Sun Life opened in 1987 has average home-paid attendance been above 74,000. In 2000, the team failed to sell out a playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Still, in most years, the sales were consistent. Between 1995 and 2005, season ticket sales were steadily in the 53,000 to 60,000 range. In 2006, the second year under former coach Nick Saban (and when quarterback Daunte Culpepper(notes) was acquired), the team sold 61,121 season tickets, the second-highest total since the team moved to Sun Life.
Since then, sales dropped to a low of 46,131 in 2008 after the team went 1-15 in 2007. Last year, sales were at 51,069. Grossman wouldn't say what the team expects to sell this year, but seemed to waver when the 50,000 figure was brought up.
At a time when billionaire owner Stephen Ross is paying off his big purchase from two years ago, he is seeing the Miami Heat capture the attention of the market with the combination of Dywane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Compared to the Heat, the Dolphins are boring. Not bad, not awful, just boring.
They have gone 7-9 each of the past two years with coach Tony Sparano's close-to-the-vest play-calling and lack of offensive weapons. Dan Marino's former team is playing plodder football. It's dreary and lifeless, sapping the energy from fans faster than South Florida's brutal August weather. That's one of the reasons the Dolphins have had to put a nightclub at one end of the stadium and sell off shares of the team to the likes of Fergie and Marc Anthony. The product on the field is simply not good enough.
Hence the cheers for Orton earlier in camp (which have thankfully changed to pleas for Chad Henne(notes) to emerge from his two-year malaise) and the frenzy over Favre when Sparano declined to shoot it down directly on Thursday.
Perhaps that little bit of excitement will help drive interest in the meantime. Perhaps the NBA's labor issues will allow the Dolphins some time to get fans excited this fall.
Either that, or the Dolphins may have to scare up interest some other way.
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