Florida’s Sun Life Stadium is home to the Miami Dolphins and one step inside won't let you forget it.
Although it's the home of the Florida Marlins for 81 regular season games a year, the stadium is unquestionably a football stadium first, and baseball second.
Located at 2269 Dan Marino Boulevard, Sun Life was set up as a football-only stadium in 1987. Even the Marlins' Web site describes it as an "open-air football facility." So when you step inside the rectangular-shaped Sun Life Stadium you'll notice a few things unique to the venue that also hosts baseball games.
First, there are the sea of Miami Dolphin orange seats that take a bit getting used to. Obviously they're all packed for football, but when the stadium's seating is used for baseball, only 38,560 of the 75,540 seats – just 51% – are made available and the empty seats can best be described as vast.
Second, the primary scoreboards for Sun Life Stadium are located in the end zones. What that translates to for a baseball game is a location above where the third base and right field stands are, which means no scoreboard in center field.
Finally, the sense of history in the stadium is associated with the Miami Dolphins, almost ignoring the fact that the Florida Marlins are the only team to have won a world championship while playing their home games in the venue that has had over a half-dozen names since it opened. Most visibly, the facades of the upper deck are lined with retired numbers and names of those associated with the Dolphins, including the retirement of the entire 1972 undefeated team. Meanwhile, the Marlins, who rent the stadium from the Dolphins, have their accomplishments minimized next to the left field foul pole, where a couple of small banners mention the team won the World Series in 1997 and 2003.
The Marlins won both of their championships during the park’s tenure as Pro Player Stadium. It opened as Joe Robbie Stadium in 1987, assumed the Pro Player name in 1996 (first as Park, then as Stadium), became Dolphins Stadium in 2005, then Dolphin Stadium in 2006, Land Shark Stadium for part of a baseball season in 2009, and finally received its current name in 2010, when Canadian-based Sun Life Financial signed a 5-year naming rights deal just before the stadium hosted its fifth Super Bowl. Besides the two World Series, the various incarnations of Sun Life Stadium have also hosted three BCS national championships games.
When I first saw the view from the inside, I was amazed at how ill-suited the stadium seemed to be when fitted for baseball, but I must say that the sightlines were excellent from the majority of seats not closed off and watching a game there was better than I might have guessed.
It was also clear from my game day experience that the Marlins heavily go after the Spanish-speaking market in Miami. The pre-recorded announcements outside of Sun Life Stadium are read in English and Spanish. Many of the employees are of Latin descent. Most of the fans, at least where I sat in right field, spoke Spanish.
Although crowds at Marlins games are small, I was very impressed at how vocal and passionate about the team they were. When the Marlins scored a run or made a play in the field, the fans roared their approval. Chants of "Let's Go Marlins" would start unprovoked. The fans knew about the players and were constantly shouting out encouragement. Although lots of the talking around me was in Spanish, I would hear "Marlins" or player names mixed in the sentences. And when there was a rain delay in the fourth inning that lasted an hour and a half, all of the fans remained to watch the rest of the game. It even seemed like there were more people there after the rain delay than before.
With the level of enthusiasm of the fans in the stands, the Sunday afternoon crowd of 17,697 sounded louder than the crowd of 27,816 I was a part of the day before when the Yankees played the Devil Rays at Tropicana Field. Unlike the fans in Tampa Bay, Marlins fans were into the game, like what I've experienced in Boston, only the fans in Miami are smaller in number, which makes the 24,530 parking spaces that the stadium contains on its grounds overly excessive for its baseball usage.
An odd thing about Sun Life Stadium is how the parking is run. Located directly off of the Florida turnpike, it's the only stadium I've ever had to pay a toll just to get into. That's a dollar on the way in, and a dollar on the way out.
Since the stadium is in isolation by itself, the Marlins have a monopoly on parking. There are no "gypsy" lots around as the team controls all of the parking lots. In other words, there are no parking bargains to be found, so you have to pay the $10 the team charges. And I hear it is much, much higher for Dolphins games.
Inside the stadium programs weren't easy to find, but were inexpensive once I did get one. There were a couple banks of TV sets sponsored by Direct TV that came in very handy during the rain delay, enabling fans in the concourse to watch up to 9 baseball games or sports news. In 2007, a $250 million renovation added over 2,000 flat-screen TVs throughout the stadium, which takes up 160 acres of privately-owned land that’s almost equidistant between downtown Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
On the subject of rain, it’s a frequent occurrence in Miami during the summer, hence the Marlins’ longtime push for a new stadium with a retractable roof. Sun Life is an open-air facility in the truest sense, since it doesn't have any grandstand roofs or overhangs like every other ballpark I've ever seen. So if you want to stay dry during the rain delays you have to go to the concourses.
Although I wasn't very impressed with Sun Life Stadium as a ballpark in my sole visit to it in 2001, I came away very impressed with the passion of the crowd. The Dolphins may get most of the admiration from the community at large, but the Marlins have gone after a fan base that the football team probably ignores. I'll bet if you compare the diehard Dolphins fan to the diehard Marlins fan you'd get two entirely different people.
But when you compare the success of the Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium to that of the Marlins since their inception in 1993, only one has won a championship, and while the Dolphins, Panthers and Heat all have new venues, it's the Marlins that have been forced to play in a football stadium that, like the sign out front says, is the home of the Miami Dolphins...and the Florida Marlins.
But that won’t be true for much longer, as in 2012 the Marlins will begin playing their games where the Dolphins previously did – in the Orange Bowl. Or more precisely, in a new ballpark on the site of where the Orange Bowl stood until 2008, when it was demolished piece by piece over the course of 72 days.
On July 1, 2008, construction officially began on the Marlins’ future ballpark. When completed, it will seat 37,000, have a retractable roof, and be home to the Miami Marlins, as the “Florida” portion of the team’s name will be retired to coincide with baseball’s swan song from what has always been a football facility, no matter its name.