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Near the bottom in MLB attendance, the Marlins are now suing ticket holders

Suing season ticket holders is a weird way to get them to come back. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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The Miami Marlins have always been a tough sell. Sure, home attendance spiked a bit after they moved indoors for the 2012 season, but since then the Marlins have never finished the season ranked higher than 27th out of 30 Major League Baseball teams. This year, even with a team that’s flirting with the .500 mark for the first time in years, Miami is averaging just 20,508 fans per game, which ranks 26th in the league.

The answer to the team’s box-office woes, obviously, is to start suing season ticket holders.

That’s exactly what the Marlins are doing, as detailed by the Miami New Times. Since 2013, Miami has sued at least nine ticket holders and luxury-suite owners — plus two stadium vendors — who it says have backed out of multi-year contracts. The defendants in the case, meanwhile, contend the Marlins have reneged on promises made before they agreed to the ticket-buying contracts.

Among them is a veterinarian named Mickey Axelband, who had been a season ticket holder since the team’s first season in 1993. He told the New Times that, before the team moved to its new retractable-roof stadium in 2012, the Marlins promised him a first-floor parking spot in the stadium garage with his own private entrance, plus pregame and postgame buffets in a private lounge so season ticket holders could arrive early or wait out the traffic after the game. In exchange, Axelband agreed to pay $24,000 per season over two years for two seats.

But then, Axelband says, the team eliminated the parking spaces and the separate entrance so it wouldn’t have to pay an usher to guard the door. The buffet devolved into “the same bland panini for every game,” according to Tim Elfrink of the New Times, and soon it was shut down by the sixth inning instead of lasting past the final pitch. A frustrated Axelband wrote the Marlins telling them he was canceling the contract because of unfulfilled promises.

“I didn’t want my money back or anything, but I said, ‘Please give me back the stuff you promised.’ ” he told Elfrink. “The answer I got back was basically, ‘Yeah, we know we took it all away, but tough [luck].’ ”

Rene Prats feels the same way. He agreed to place four of his Sir Pizza franchises inside the new Marlins Park, vowing to pay $2 million to become the team’s official pizza sponsor. In exchange, Prats says the team promised him “30,000 fans a game and $2 million in pizza sales a year,” which never happened (the Marlins averaged 27,400 in their first year at the new stadium, and it’s only gone down from there). After struggling for three years — falling well short of the promised $2 million in ballpark sales each season —  his company filed for federal bankruptcy protection and shut down its stadium locations. The team sued Prats in September, claiming he knew he never would be able to afford the $2 million fee.

Keep in mind: This is the same franchise that claimed it could not afford to pay for its new stadium without significant help from the city of Miami and Miami-Dade County, even though team documents uncovered by Deadspin in 2010 showed that the franchise was relatively healthy from a financial standpoint thanks to MLB revenue sharing. The city and county ended up paying $508.8 million of the stadium’s $634 million total cost, with the county’s debt eventually reaching $2 billion. In January, the Securities and Exchange Commission concluded its investigation into whether the team misled investors about its need for civic financing without finding evidence of wrongdoing.

Axelband told the New Times that he’s requested the team’s financial records for his lawsuit, one assumes to prove that the team was cutting corners in violation of his season ticket contract. Whether that’s enough to get the Marlins to back down is anyone’s guess.