Marlins Sue Season Ticketholders, Vendors Bankrupted by Small Crowds

Mickey Axelband may be the Miami Marlins' biggest fan.

Ever since the baseball team's first game in 1993, the 59-year-old, bald veterinarian with lively green eyes has been a season ticket holder. He's attended every single home opener and final game of the season. He sweated through thousands of brutal summer innings at Dolphin Stadium before the team moved to its air-conditioned Little Havana digs, and he even once threw out a first pitch. When the Fish won titles in '97 and '03, he was there partying with the teal-draped faithful. When fewer than 600 fans showed up to a dreadful afternoon game in 2008, he was on hand, too.

"I was a pretty hard-core fan," Axelband says in voice still tinged with a vibrant Bronx accent. "I was there for some great moments and a lot of the big lows, too. But I stuck by the team because it's baseball, and I love the game."

Then last year the Marlins sued Axelband, alleging he had illegally backed out of a two-year season ticket deal. He might have reacted angrily, but that's just not the kind of guy he is. "I wasn't shocked, just disappointed," he says. "After all these years, I wondered, why now?"

Axelband isn't alone. In fact, the Marlins have sued at least nine season ticketholders and luxury suite owners since 2013. That virtually never happens in sports, experts say. Two stadium vendors are also locked in court battles with the team, both alleging the Marlins promised robust crowds and then didn't deliver.

All this from a team that has gone from world champion to perennial also-ran, hustled taxpayers on a Little Havana stadium, and just lost its best hitter and last year's National League batting champion Dee Gordon to an 80-game drug suspension.

"You bamboozled us for this ballpark and now you have the audacity to sue a small businessman?" says Rene Prats, who went into bankruptcy after his Sir Pizza franchises failed at the ballpark. "I lost it all. I lost my business. And you're coming after me?"

The Marlins declined to comment for this story. In court, they've painted themselves as business owners who have been burned on contracts.

But as the team flounders during another season of apathy and disappointing attendance, critics say their treatment off the field of fans and vendors is emblematic of how they've alienated the city. "The on-field product hasn't always been great, but it's really just the customer experience that's the problem. It's horrible," says Axelband. "The ownership is just horrible."

"The on-field product hasn't always been great, but the customer experience is the problem. It's horrible."

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Like most baseball fans, Axelband's fascination began as a kid. The Bronx native was just a toddler when he started watching games. "I was 3 when I went to my first game," he recalls. "I really do still remember walking in and just seeing that green field and thinking, This is amazing."

By the time he was a teen, Axelband had become a die-hard Yankees fan. Mickey Mantle was his hero.

He graduated from veterinary school at Ross University in Saint Kitts in 1985, addicted to the warm Caribbean weather. He started a clinic in Boynton Beach and then grew his practice to three offices. When the Marlins arrived in '93, he was ecstatic and quickly signed up with a partner for season tickets. Two years later, he struck out on his own, nabbing dugout seats in the first row.

Axelband wasn't just using the tickets as client giveaways. He'd fight traffic from Palm Beach to Dolphin Stadium for at least 40 home games. Being a Fish fan in the '90s wasn't glamorous, with the team playing to tiny crowds in a sunbaked football stadium. "As bad as it was sometimes, I loved it," Axelband says. "I knew everyone, I knew all the ushers by name. It was like a big family."

But Axelband says that changed when Jeffrey Loria bought the Marlins in 2002. The team hit a rare high the next season, winning its second World Series over Axelband's hometown Yankees. (Axelband rooted for the Marlins.) But he'd already noticed a difference. "It was just much less fan friendly," Axelband says. "I felt more like a number than a person who was part of this franchise."

Axelband stuck with the team, though, keeping his usual seats until 2011, when the Fish finished their now-infamous new stadium in Little Havana. Today, the ballpark is a byword for bad sports deals, but at the time it seemed to be a dream come true for Axelband.

Yes, the new location meant an extra half hour on the road. But during numerous sales pitches, Axelband says, the Marlins promised first-floor parking in the stadium garage and a private entrance. There would also be a lounge with pre- and postgame buffets so season ticket­holders could arrive early or hang out late. Axelband happily paid $24,000 for the two-seat package (that's $148 per seat for each game) — nearly double the $13,000 he'd ponied up for the final year at Dolphin Stadium. He agreed to a two-year deal. Although only the private lounge was actually written into the contract, Axelband says he had no reason to believe the team wouldn't follow through.

But Marlins Park wasn't the success the team had hoped for. By midseason, crowds had dwindled to near Dolphin Stadium levels, and the team began slashing expenses. Those nearby parking spaces? Gone. The private entrance? Closed to save money on the extra usher manning the door. The buffet was stocked with the same bland panini for every game. Soon the team shut it down in the sixth inning.

These all might seem like small details, but "that's exactly what we paid all the extra money for," he says. Worst of all, Axelband says when he wrote the team to complain, the Fish weren't sympathetic. "I didn't want my money back or anything, but I said, 'Please give me back the stuff you promised.' The answer I got back was basically, 'Yeah, we know we took it all away, but tough shit.' "

Axelband decided to walk away. He knew he'd signed a two-year agreement, but the way he saw it, the team had failed to live up to its end. A month before the next season, he called and wrote the team a letter canceling his package. The Marlins could simply resell those 2012 season tickets, he figured, and life would go on.

It did for a year. But then the Marlins began a spree of litigation. The first came in June 2013 against Total Bikes LLC, a Wynwood Ducati dealer that had backed out of an agreement for a suite. Then Loria and company sued Castle Investments of Brickell, also for reneging on a deal for a suite. The Fish also went after a fan named Kenneth Sack; Round the Clock Mitigation, a construction firm; Turnberry Realty; a fan named Nelson Lopez; Sterling Building, Inc., a Miami Beach property company; and Advanced Neuro Spine Institute of Aventura.

This tough legal approach, experts say, is quite rare but not unheard of. The Dodgers in 2010 sued actor Jon Lovitz and filmmaker Steve Marlton for failing to pay for season tickets, according to Jordan Kobritz, chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. The Washington Redskins in 2008 threatened to sue around 125 season ticketholders who could no longer afford their packages during the recession. The Skins later backed down.

Most teams weigh the lost revenue against attorney's fees and potential bad press, then decide a court fight isn't worth it. "I'm not sure the Marlins thought this through," says Darren Heitner, a Fort Lauderdale sports law attorney and Forbes contributor. "If you're contemplating getting season tickets, now you're worried you won't get everything you bargained for and you even might end up in litigation."

Not only fans were caught up in the team's get-tough approach. Prats, the former Sir Pizza franchisee, says his story echoes Axelband's bad experience.

Prats spent about a decade as an NFL agent, he says, while also working in the restaurant business. As a Papa John's owner, he worked with the Marlins for more than a decade doing promotions. In 2009 he opened the first of what grew into nearly a dozen franchises of Sir Pizza, a small chain with corporate headquarters in Indiana. When the new Marlins Park opened two years later, it seemed like the perfect way to grow. Prats signed on as the team's official pizza sponsor, with four concessions in the ballpark for a $2 million fee.

But the deal quickly tanked — and Prats says Marlins executives fed him false expectations. "They made promises to me that never happened, such as 30,000 fans a game and $2 million in pizza sales a year," Prats claims. "We never did more than $1.1 million in pizza sales, which was the first year, and then averaged $600,000 per year the next two years."

Prats' chain crumbled, he says. By last September, all but one of his restaurants had closed, and Prats had filed for federal bankruptcy protection; Sir Pizza was gone from Marlins Park. "I just took my lumps, put my tail between my legs and walked away," Prats says. "It didn't work out and it cost me a lot of money."

In September, the Marlins sued him, his company, and Sir Pizza's corporate office. The team alleges Prats used shell companies to hide his finances and knew he wouldn't be able to afford the $2 million fee. (Sir Pizza's attorney also blames Prats for the problems. "My client is as much a victim of Rene Prats as anyone else," says Andrew Berman, who says that Sir Pizza terminated his franchise agreement last year over bad quality control and mismanaged money. Prats disputes that — he says the agreement was terminated over a dispute about a legal indemnification clause in a separate lawsuit, and provided documents from that case.)

Prats denies the Marlins' allegations. He says he'd used the same corporate structure when his Papa John's franchises worked with the team. He says the team simply didn't draw enough fans.

"I know a lot of people regret getting into business with [the Marlins] in the first place," Prats says. "I had a great relationship with the team, I thought. Then they turn around and sue me after I've lost my business. That's just wrong."

Prats isn't alone in alleging the team misled him. In 2011, University of Miami football great Jonathan Vilma's restaurant, Brother Jimmy's Barbecue, negotiated a stadium concession for the 2012-14 seasons. But Vilma's company paid only the first $25,000 of the $300,000 deal before backing out, the Marlins say; the team sued in June 2013, demanding the rest.

The barbecue company countered in court by claiming the Marlins had promised 28,000 fans per game and around 40 nonbaseball events to boost sales. Instead, some games had "less than 8,000 fans," the company claims.

Most of the lawsuits are ongoing (the Marlins won final judgments in two of them, and Turnberry mediated a settlement in its case). Axelband, who now owns a chain of veterinary clinics, says he won't roll over without a fight, even though he may have to spend a bundle. "It's just the principle," he says. "If they would have provided what they said they'd provide, I'd still be a season ticket holder today."

He might even win. Though the Fish are notoriously secretive with their accounting, he's requested financial records. The website Deadspin obtained similar records back in 2010 that showed Marlins executives had lied to Miami politicians about the team losing money.

For all the acrimony, Axelband still drives down for games whenever he can make it. Owner Jeffrey Loria, he says, won't kill his passion for baseball.

"I'm not asking them for anything except to drop the suit... just to say, 'Hey, we realize we messed up and we're sorry,' " Axelband says. "I'll still go to games, I'll still be a fan. I'm rooting for the guys in the uniforms, not Loria."

Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated when Prats began working in the restaurant business. The story has been updated to reflect that he worked in the industry throughout his time as an NFL agent. 
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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink