The Biggest Ongoing Scam in Professional Sports Is in Miami

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria deceived taxpayers, pocketed funds meant for team improvement, traded away high-value players to make a buck. It's time for fans to protest the MLB about it.

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AP / J Pat Carter

Somewhere, an enterprising baseball writer must be working on a book that is the opposite of Moneyball. This story wouldn't be about a bright, idealistic, young executive who, on a budget dwarfed by those of other major league teams, fields winning ball clubs with underrated players whom he acquires cheaply.

This book—let's call it Scamball—would be about an owner in his 70s who signed All-Star caliber players, hoodwinked the taxpayers into funding most of his new stadium, and then after just one season after the stadium opened, sold off the best talent and pocketed the profits.

What actor could play such an owner? Maybe Alan Arkin, who has portrayed a variety of charming con artists. Or maybe Anthony Hopkins—after all, he made a great Richard Nixon. They don't have to actually look like Miami Marlins' owner Jeffrey Loria. They just have to convince you that they are devious enough to pull off the biggest ongoing scam in professional sports.

Three years ago, Deadspin, in a terrific piece of investigative journalism, confirmed what many had thought all along. The Marlins were using the rich stream of cash flowing in from Major League Baseball—their cut of the national television contract and licensing money as well as their share of the "luxury tax," the penalty money divvied up after teams like the Yankees go over the salary threshold—not to do what they were supposed to be doing, namely providing their fans with a better baseball team. Instead, the cash flow was simply treated as profit by Loria and team president David Samson. Loria and Samson had, for years, been poor-mouthing, insisting that they were barely breaking even financially (though in 2007 Forbes reported that the Marlins actually had the highest operating income in baseball), and they needed the help of local government to pay $645 million for the new stadium (and accompanying parking facilities) that they said they needed to be competitive.

Samson called Deadspin's leak of the financial documents "a crime," though in fact it would have been more accurate to say that the documents revealed a crime. Finally there was conclusive proof that the Marlins could have paid, at the least, for a major chunk of the new ballpark's construction costs. Yet somehow, with shrewd behind-the-scenes manipulation, Loria managed to get Miami-Dade County to agree to a deal for more than $400 million in loans with honey-coated extended payment terms. That wasn't all: Miami and the County would cover three-quarters of the cost, leaving the Marlins responsible for only around $155 million.

With Opening Day about a month away, it appears that Loria has not only gotten away with it, he's done it again.

The sweetest part of the deal for Loria was that the team alone would get any revenue from ticket and suite sales, advertising, concessions, and any future naming rights. Another hidden financial treasure that will become apparent if Loria chooses to sell the Marlins in the near future: The very existence of a luxurious new stadium, even if it's owned by the county and not the team, can double and even triple the sale value of a major-league franchise.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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