Sunday, October 19, 1997
For Huizenga, cost of winning
is too high

The Cincinnati Enquirer

For sale: Big league baseball team. Limited experience. Unlimited potential. Motivated seller. Ready buyer can secure good seats for World Series. Price negotiable. Contact H. Wayne Huizenga, c/o Pro Player Stadium, Miami, Fla.

MIAMI - The above advertisement is fictional. The details are fact. In a baseball world gone mad, the Florida Marlins have bought the pennant and decided to sell.

Wayne Huizenga, who made his fortune by disposing of garbage, is now trying to dump his diamond empire. The Marlins started their first World Series Saturday night as a stunning artistic success and a staggering financial flop.

Huizenga claims to have lost $30 million on the Marlins this season, and insists he is not willing "to sustain the losses any further." If he does not sell his stake in the ballclub - an intention he announced in June - he may pare his payroll to a point where the playoffs are unattainable.

"We're losing our ass here," Huizenga said Friday. "Before we started in sports, I thought we could buy the team and maybe make a little money with it. I soon found out that wasn't possible. Then our goal was, 'Let's just try to break even.' We haven't been able to do that."

Huizenga invested $89 million in the free-agent market last winter - acquiring such notables as Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla and Alex Fernandez. The spending spree stimulated season attendance by 600,000, but the big-bucks Marlins drew 700,000 fewer fans in 1997 than they did in stumbling through 1993. The novelty of a contending club was not enough to overcome the location, configuration and precipitation of Pro Player Stadium - built for football; crow-barred for baseball.

"It doesn't have the atmosphere," Huizenga said. "You come here and you can have 30,000 people here and it's like drinking in an empty bar. A new stadium does more. A new stadium creates an atmosphere that you can't create here."

You know the routine. There's nothing wrong with any sports franchise that a new, tax-subsidized stadium won't solve.

Huizenga has made this power play work before, on behalf of his hockey franchise, the Florida Panthers. Yet he doubts he can do as much for the Marlins. As the adjective "billionaire" has become attached to Huizenga's name, the public has become wary of bailing him out. Already, the Florida legislature has refused to grant Huizenga $60 million in tax breaks to make Pro Player Stadium more conducive for baseball.

"I don't believe that anyone will build a new stadium for the Marlins," he said Friday, "as long as Wayne Huizenga is attached to the team."

Yet in another interview, Huizenga said he was starting to hear from politicians and business leaders, urging him against acting hastily. Though Marlins President Don Smiley continues to work on developing an investor group to buy the ballclub, Miami Mayor Joe Carollo is exploring the idea of building a retractable-dome ballpark in downtown Miami.

Theoretically, the World Series should serve to build support. Presumably, the big push to get there this year was a part of Huizenga's master plan. A man doesn't often make a billion dollars by accident.

"I like Wayne Huizenga as the owner," said Marlins slugger Gary Sheffield. "If we go out and win the World Series, he might change his mind. That's been the attitude of the whole team. If we can do something to make him feel special around here, he might reconsider."

A man doesn't often make a billion dollars through sentiment. While Wayne Huizenga calls this cost-uneffective Marlins' season his "contribution to South Florida," it might mean more money in the long run.

While the baseball owners were unable to achieve realignment last month, they did agree to allow clubs to sell stock to the public. Conceivably, initial public offerings could be a bigger bonanza than new ballparks.

Last year, Huizenga sold off less than half of the equity in his hockey team for $70 million - an amount greater than the estimated worth of the franchise. You would think stock in a World Series team might command a larger premium.

"I'm not going to tell you that I'm going to sell the team," Wayne Huizenga said. "Maybe we will keep the team. And maybe we'll change our mind. Maybe we'll try to figure out something else. I don't know what that is right now. But whatever that is, I don't want the fact that I'm a billionaire to hurt the Marlins."

A man doesn't often make a billion dollars without recognizing the time to sell.