Talk all you want about how this is a Heat town now. Talk all you want about how the Miami Dolphins are no longer relevant in a city ruled by the best basketball team and player on the planet.
Last night, a turnout of 22,876 South Floridians for a Dolphins’ scrimmage made it apparent: There is room in this town for the both of them. The Heat and Dolphins that is.
Seven losing seasons–four consecutively–since 2004 is what has damaged the Dolphins’ brand. No playoff wins since 2000 is what has led to an exodus of fans and season-ticket holders from Sun Life Stadium.
The last time the franchise won a playoff game–a 23-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts on December 30, 2000–Sun Life Stadium was named Pro Player Stadium, after all. And it has since held two other distinctions–Dolphins Stadium and Land Shark Stadium.
The name has changed several times, but the venue has remained the same. Yet every new naming rights announcement has seemingly ushered in more empty orange seats.
The Dolphins ranked 8th in league attendance during the 2001 season. That standing has plummeted in recent years.
It bottomed out in 2006 and 2007–the latter, of course, was Miami’s embarrassing 1-15 season–when the franchise finished 31st and one spot behind the Minnesota Vikings for the league’s worst attendance figure.
An AFC East title in 2008, which ultimately proved to be fool’s gold in the long run, boosted attendance marginally. But as of last season, the Dolphins found themselves right back amongst the bottom-feeders with the NFL’s fourth-fewest attendees.
The Miami Dolphins just don’t have the same aura about them that they used to. And it’s been gone for some time.
This used to be one of the league’s most successful franchises. A dynasty in early 70s and the annual winners that followed made loving the team irrefutably contagious for sports fans in South Florida and for many scattered throughout the country.
Since the new millenium, however, a first-class organization has favored incompetence. One poor personnel decision after another, highlighted by whiffing on quarterbacks such as Daunte Culpepper, John Beck and Chad Henne, has plagued the franchise with mediocre teams.
And nothing signifies the Dolphins’ demise more than the sea of empty orange seats that has been increasing by the season at Sun Life Stadium.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has been forced to purchase tickets himself to prevent local television blackouts. Large tarps being pulled over entire sections of seats has even been considered to reduce the void.
Irrelevancy has been the bitter reality for the Dolphins for more than a decade. And a lack of wins has been mirrored by a lack of fans in the stands.
Something changed over the offseason that could reverse it all, though.
Whether it was the promise quarterback Ryan Tannehill showed as a rookie, the addition of several marquee free agents or even a rebranding effort that introduced a new logo and uniforms, Dolphins fans are ready to jump on board with the 2013 team.
They’re ready to believe in this franchise again.
They’re ready to buy tickets and to fill seats.
They might show up late to games–that’s just South Florida’s style–but a hostile, filled-to-capacity crowd at Sun Life Stadium is in the team’s near future.
IF, of course, the Dolphins become winners in 2013.
For now, the Dolphins have South Florida’s attention. Dropping nearly $250 million on new contracts during the offseason tends to have that effect. But how long they can sustain it will depend on the product that takes the field in September.
Win games, contend for a playoff spot, and the fans will come back. They’ll stay too if that success promises endurance.
But so much still has to be proven before that bridge is crossed. Is Ryan Tannehill a legitimate franchise quarterback? Can the offensive line become a respectable unit? Is the defense elite?
If those questions are answered positively, the return of a passionate fan base will ensue.
The 22,000-plus that filled Sun Life Stadium on Monday night for a glorified practice doesn’t make the return of a rabid fan base official. But it did exemplify how eager South Florida is to embrace the Dolphins again.
Will the team embrace South Florida with success on the field? That remains to be seen.
But it’s clear that the Dolphins must make the first move.