Stadium development has loomed over the both clubs’ financial success.
On the field, the teams have had quite different stories. No club has won two World Series Championships faster than the Marlins; Samson was part of the front office when the club won it all in 2003.
In addition, the Marlins have had an erratic player payroll. First with founding owner, Wayne Huizinga, and now with Jeffery Loria, player payroll has been bi-polar—going up to more than respectable levels, only to come crashing down in dramatic fashion. Ownership argued in both cases that lack of a controllable revenue stream from a baseball-only facility prevented sustainable competitive player payroll levels.
Now, David Samson may have his most difficult task at hand—potential relocation of the Florida Marlins. While continuing efforts to complete a deal for a new facility in South Florida, they have requested and been granted permission by MLB to look at relocation.
The clear preference is South Florida. Home is always preferable to the unknown. However, in the eyes of the club, a new facility is no longer just wanted; it’s required.
Certainly, fans in Florida are upset. Samson, as president, is the official taking the public heat from the Marlins fan base.
Other locales have sent invitations. Samson and other Marlins officials have slated visits with many as seven jurisdictions. The future location of the Florida Marlins remains undecided.
Samson was an energetic and engaging interview subject. The following interview focuses on the Marlins’ efforts to get a new facility deal. Other topics include: the relationship between the former minority partners and Jeffery Loria during the ownership of the Expos; whether the Marlins are observing the lease negotiations in Washington, DC after relocation of the Expos; whether the Marlins are looking over their shoulder at other possible relocation candidates such as the Twins, A’s and, possibly, the Royals; how player payroll could get back to its pre-2006 season levels; how Samson reacted to the Marlins winning the 2003 World Series; and movie-buff Samson’s recommended baseball movies.
BizBall: Before we get started on weightier subjects, I understand that you are quite a movie buff. Is this true?
Samson: It is true. I have a radio show where I review movies and I try to watch at least one movie every day, so I would say I’m definitely addicted to movies. Today [editor’s note - January 31] happens to a holiday for me, because the Oscar nominations were announced. That’s second only to the day that they’re actually given out, so I do love movies.
BizBall: Do you have any particular baseball movies that you would recommend?
Samson: I do. I think that there are a few obvious baseball movies that everybody should see; they include The Natural, Field of Dreams, and A League of Their Own.
But I want to talk about one that people may not have seen, called The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. That’s a documentary about Hank Greenberg, who was a terrific baseball player; it is a movie that shows the type of racial prejudice he went through when he was playing and, really, what life was like when things were difficult. I think that in this century and in this decade, we forget how good we all have it. That’s a great movie for the kids today to watch to get some perspective.
BizBall: You’re coming off seven years now between the Expos and the Marlins…
Samson: It’s hard to believe, but this is our seventh season in baseball. BizBall: During that time, the key effort has been trying to get a new facility, whether it was in Montreal or now in Florida. Given the fact that you have yet to secure a stadium deal, has it been frustrating?
Samson: I’d say that if it were easy, then anyone could do it. Of course, it’s a little frustrating when you have a singular goal that you don’t meet, but having said that, we are certainly not giving up. We’re continuing to work both here in Florida and now we’re looking elsewhere.
Eventually, the Marlins will find a home, whether it’s a new stadium in Florida or elsewhere, but it’s a process that takes a long time. The Marlins have actually been trying to get a stadium for thirteen years, ever since they were born in 1993, so the list of people who have tried is pretty extensive.
BizBall: In the case of the Expos, was the internal struggle between the limited partners and Mr. Loria an added distraction to the effort?
Samson: It was just another thing on our plate, obviously.
You may recall that they did eventually file a lawsuit that went to arbitration and all of their claims were summarily dismissed. They were found to have no merit whatsoever, but it did take months of preparation and months out of my life. I wouldn’t call it a distraction as much as I would say it was an unfortunate part of a job that most people would love to have until they’re sitting in the chair, and all of a sudden it may not be so glamorous.
BizBall: Baseball hadn’t moved a team in 34 years up until the Expos move to DC, where they’re still going through struggles to finalize a lease. Are you watching what’s going on with the lease agreement there, because you may be relocating and there are things you can learn from that lease situation? Or is it a wholly unique transaction, because baseball owns the club?
Samson: No, I think it’s not unique at all, I think baseball’s realizing what it’s like to try to get stadium deals done anywhere. We’ve looked at the stadium deals that have been done all over baseball, so to the extent we can learn anything, which is plenty, we learn it from other places, including Washington and others.
BizBall: You recently met with officials from Hialeah and you looked at some possible sites. Can you categorize how those visits went?
Samson: They were preliminary but good. Hialeah is a city in the County of Miami-Dade, and the county are the people we have been negotiating with to build a stadium. We’ve really needed a site ever since the Orange Bowl in the city of Miami fell off the table. That was the place we were going to build. So now we’re looking at different sites within the county, and Hialeah has some interesting possibilities.
BizBall: While the Marlins are the only club that has currently requested the option to explore relocation, other clubs such as the Twins, A’s, and if voters vote no on a sales tax, possibly the Royals, have all mentioned the possibility of relocation. I hate to use the term “land grab,” but is there a feeling that you may be looking at this in the context that others may be looking to relocation in the future, so you’re trying to get it done while conditions are good?
Samson: No, because I think it’s more of a global baseball issue, that there are all these cities that have not done stadiums for their teams yet, and that is going to lead to relocation at some point. I don’t view it as a competition at all, because all teams in baseball need to be successful for the sport to be successful, and the Commissioner understands that he has an important job ahead of him: making sure all teams have stadiums so that they can be viable.
BizBall: Is a primary goal of the Marlins to become less of a revenue taker and become a revenue payer within the revenue-sharing program?
Samson: That’s obviously our goal. Right now, we’re the biggest revenue taker and we want to be a revenue giver because we think we’re in a city that should be one of the big markets. We don’t let our people here call Miami a small-market team. The Florida Marlins are not a small-market team. We’re a low-revenue team and we’ve got to cure that. One way to cure this is to make sure we play in a place that’s a baseball-only facility with a roof that has air conditioning so people will want to come and enjoy a night out no matter what the weather is.
BizBall: Is there a higher sense of urgency right now to work on finalizing a stadium deal, and given the difficulty in making the deal, do you find it a bit daunting?
Samson: I don’t find it daunting. I just find it necessary to get something done as quickly as possible because, you are correct, time is running out.
BizBall: Regarding funding of a facility. There was an ownership equity component for the Orange Bowl site location. Is that offer now off the table, and how flexible are the Marlins to adding ownership equity to construction of a stadium? Are there certain facets of the construction, such as land or infrastructure, that are outside that discussion?
Samson: Yes, I think that the contribution that we have on the table right now would make us the third or fourth highest contributors for one of the new stadiums in baseball, and that was one of the contributions that would have ended up being over $200 million. What that covers depends on what site we’re at and what the costs of the land and infrastructure are. But as far as overall contributions, I think that amount is more than enough, especially for a market that has not yet proven it can sustain Major League Baseball in high numbers.
BizBall: The Marlins have made considerable cuts to player payroll as you and Mr. Loria have termed a market correction. Larry Benifest pulled together a World Championship team in 2003 with a considerably higher payroll than the Marlins will have next season. How fast do you feel you can rebuild to get back in contention?
Samson: Well, that’s generally the reason why we took the payroll all the way down. Number one, we wanted to have a payroll that matched our revenues. Number two, we wanted to make sure that we were in the position that we didn’t do it half-way. We didn’t want to be mediocre for another ten years. We wanted to just start over. The deals were necessary to do. We’re moving forward.
We’re hopeful that some of the players that we got back [in trades] are going to blossom into stars in the same way Dontrelle Willis did. As you recall, when we traded for him no one had heard of him. And now he’s a 20 game winner. Hopefully there’s a jewel in the rough. We’re going to go out there and compete, and we went people to know that they should be cheering for the front of the jersey. And now’s an important time for people to support the Marlins, because without season ticket support or attendance, it’s hard to convince politicians that it really matters.
BizBall: Let’s say in a perfect world, a stadium deal dropped into your lap today. Would there be a correction to player payroll as soon as a stadium deal was completed? I know you had some player contracts in the past that were tied directly into a stadium deal. Would you change your payroll outlook to match that scenario given future opportunities?
Samson: It depends at the end of the day what the stadium contributions is. Our view is that a stadium is needed to save this franchise, and we’re just not going to lose money anymore. If our contribution stays where it is or we even have to go a little higher, that will obviously impact payroll going forward.
BizBall: While the Marlins organization has never mentioned this, the CBA has a provision within it that allows for MLB to go forward with the possible dissolving of one or more clubs via contraction. If all options fail within the timeline that the Marlins have, would you consider this option?
Samson: My guess is contraction has seen the light of day and has gone back into its hole. I believe contraction is the groundhog who will never see his shadow. I don’t see that as a possibility.
BizBall: Finally, on winning the World Series in 2003… You were involved for a small fraction of time in MLB compared to many of your fellow MLB President counterparts when Florida won it all. Can you describe the feeling that you and Mr. Loria had at that time?
Samson: Well, I can only describe my feeling, and the first word that comes to mind is incredible humility.
I remember thinking exactly what you said. We were in the locker room, where we had just been given the trophy and I was standing on stage looking out at the players celebrating. And I was thinking to myself, “How many people have been in the game, both players and executives, who never had a chance to do it?” And realize that no matter what happens in the rest of my life, I’ll always be the president of a Major League Baseball team that won a World Series. Having that thought so quickly made it stick with me forever, and I still think about it almost every day. And certainly, every time I look at my [World Series] ring, it reminds me how lucky I am.
The following interview was originally published on the SABR Business of Baseball website, and can be read here: SABR Business of Baseball Interviews Page
Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 1/31/06.
Transcribed by Kenneth Mendes and Tim Cashion
Edited by Maury Brown and John Ruoff
Graphics and layout by Maury Brown