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Damage Control

Marlins exec challenged with keeping, bringing back fans

By Scott Becher

April 14, 2000 9:20 a.m. ET

Meet a baseball executive who overcame one of sports' biggest marketing temptations -- feeling the need to promise that his team would win. He is currently the highest-ranking Hispanic executive in Major League Baseball and one of the league's bright new thinkers.

He's a baseball exec who oversees sales and marketing for a professional sports franchise that only two seasons ago won the World Series. Yet there isn't a day that goes by without someone saying to him, "Why did you accept such an impossible challenge?"

Meet Julio Rebull, Jr., senior vice president of Marketing, Communications and Sales for the Florida Marlins.

His credentials include the top position at an award-winning marketing communications firm and, most recently, senior vice-president of an international telecommunications company.

Rebull is only 36 years old, but aging quickly.

"My friends thought I was crazy to take this job," said Rebull, who is a client of our sports marketing agency. "But having been born and raised in South Florida, it's a tremendous challenge to help the hometown team through this rebuilding process. And I've always been a huge sports fan."

As a Marlins fan in 1997, Rebull cheered as the team won the World Series. Then came owner Wayne Huizenga's unprecedented dismantling of the team. Marlins supporters were blindsided, and they left the scene. Huizenga sold the club for $161 million in 1998.

Attendance dropped nearly 25 percent from 1997 to 1998, and dipped another 22 percent last year. And as multi-year sponsorship deals expired in 2000, about 20 percent of that revenue stream was lost.

New owner John Henry put out an S.O.S., and Rebull responded.

Rebull's background wasn't in sports marketing, but he was confident he understood consumers pretty well. Painfully well.

His job -- bring back the disheartened Marlins faithful. Here is Rebull's plan of attack:

"It's a three-step process," Rebull said. "The very first thing we needed to do as marketers was acknowledge how badly fans were hurt."

In a controversial new advertising campaign, the Marlins tackled their troubled relationship with the fans head-on. Spots featured real fans sharing their disappointment with the team, followed by the team's stars making their case for a bright future.

The team's ads tried to get across the point that there might not be a championship in sight, but that the Marlins are a talented young team with a champion's spirit.

"Step two is to reintroduce the fans to our new team and get them excited about them," Rebull said.

This year's new advertising slogan, "Every Day, Every Game, All Heart," in no way promises wins, but does commit to a winning attitude. A style of play all fans can appreciate.

"This is not a one-year campaign," Rebull said. "It's who we are. This is the brand equity we will build for a number of years."

"The third step is to get fans to attend a game and then provide the best customer service we can," Rebull added.

Marketing efforts focused on improving the fan experience. Like a rewards program that gives away products and prizes for every game a fan attends. A new kids play area in the stadium. Umbrellas are now allowed in a stadium notorious for its long rain delays.

All these things help fans let go of some of their bitterness. It makes them more willing to accept the "new" Marlins.

Of course, winning games remains a franchise's best sampling device. But it's also the one element in Rebull's marketing mix he can't control.

The Marlins recently lost the first round of their battle to publicly finance a new stadium. Until one is built, the ownership is unable to realize revenue from suites and concessions, which currently flow to Huizenga, who still owns the Pro Player Stadium (as well as the Miami Dolphins who also play in the facility).

This keeps the Marlins payroll from matching those of playoff contenders. "I know winning is an absolute requirement for a certain segment of our target, but the biggest fan group is those who want to know we are going to be competitive," Rebull said. "The ability to compete, and hopefully win, reinforces our positioning. It's the right plan."

More FoxSportsBiz columns by Scott Becher