A Fan's Notes

Go Marlins! Go Panthers! Go Heat! Go to hell.

Huizenga is banking on all this razzle-dazzle -- "game production," in industry parlance -- to sell hockey to South Floridians. If it all seems a bit hysterical, consider his effort as tantamount to a full-scale ad campaign. The object: to create in us a need that never existed; namely, the need to attend hockey contests. No small undertaking, given that fans once laughed uproariously at the notion. (You might recall the first-ever exhibition game at the Miami Arena a couple years back. The ice melted.)

But Huizenga, who owns the Panthers, most of the Marlins, half of Joe Robbie Stadium, and a smidgen of the Dolphins, as well as Blockbuster, Sound Warehouse, and the entire nation of Lichtenstein at last report, has plenty of tools to work with. Cross-marketing (free video rental with your ticket stub), designer clothing (with market-tested logo and colors), and, uh A oh yes, the game itself, which often features two grown men on ice skates punching at each other's faces like wind-up dolls.

Of course, pugilism is not one of Wayne's more ballyhooed marketing ploys. Somehow it's hard to envision a man who subjects his Blockbuster employees to follicular drug tests and refuses to stock anything racier than an R-rated flick urging fans to "bring the family out to the Arena for a few brewskis and a little ass-whomping."

He doesn't have to, anyway, because the Panthers are destined to enjoy a terrific expansion year. And that is no great coincidence. The NHL gave both Huizenga and the Disney folks, who settled the Mighty Ducks in Anaheim, sweet deals in the expansion draft because they knew the sport would be a hard sell in both areas and they knew owners like Disney and Huizenga were going to make the league a fortune by aggressively shilling all manner of NHL merchandise. It is the sort of savvy planning that has rescued pro hockey from the economic doldrums.

There is perhaps no better example of the league's Manifest Destiny than the North Stars, who relocated this year from Minneapolis to Dallas. An owner's greed spurred the move, but the other owners approved it because they know that more teams in more cities means money and maybe, just maybe, the biggest prize of all: a TV contract with a major network. Does it matter that fans in Minnesota -- the very fount of American hockey -- no longer have pros to root for? Nah. The owners will give them a franchise soon enough.

The game against the Lightning turned out to be a helluva contest, the six fights in the second period notwithstanding. Late in the third period, Tampa knotted the score at 1-1, and the Panthers put in the game winner with four seconds left in overtime. Those fans still inside the Arena went nuts at the spectacle, myself included. But five minutes later I could have sworn I'd seen the whole thing in a movie.

I had higher hopes when it came to the Marlins. We were all sold on the idea that baseball was a natural for South Florida, owing to the region's tradition as a spring training ground and our huge base of Latin fans. This was one sport, I was sure, that wouldn't rely on the hard sell, where I could sit back and watch a glitz-free game.

Sure. Joe Robbie Stadium was a thunderdome of distraction, from the giant TV flashing replays to the bubble-headed Marlin mascot to the Pavilion of Grease, a corridor of food stands where peanuts and hot dogs had been overrun by Domino's Pizza and gourmet pancakes. Huizenga had even hired "The Bleacher Brigade" A hyperactive pranksters meant to instill merriment through the continuous production of counterfeit enthusiasm.

I sat along the third-base line in a section that, because of Joe Robbie's gridiron orientation, directly faced the right center field alley. Turning toward the plate cramped my back, so I eventually gave that up and took to watching the heads of those in front of me. They swiveled with remarkable fluency from TV replay to mascot to game, until they all pivoted upward at once -- even those equipped with portable phones -- to marvel at the Goodyear blimp, which hovered against the cobalt sky and flashed sincere admonishments that the time was probably now for new radial tires.

There was other, more insidious artifice. The scoreboard in left field, for instance, which was intended to evoke Fenway Park but which from my vantage point was plainly no more than a plywood faaade, like a stage set for those low-budget Westerns. And the bleacher seats, which I found to my astonishment were mostly covered by tarps A with the notable exception of an elevated concrete platform beyond center field, where fans were eating at picnic tables, in much the same fashion one does at rest stops along the highway. Who in God's name catches the home-run balls, I wondered? Certainly not the picnickers.

Seeing all this, I was reminded of the strained attempts by various sports reporters to portray Wayne Huizenga as a baseball fan. Aside from a vague childhood interest in the Cubs, he has made it clear that the only reason he finds baseball (or any sport) interesting is as a business prospect. He is not a fan.

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