MIAMI — Miami Heat fan Brian Hartline was heading for the exit after a game when he encountered the wife of Pat Riley. He held the door for her and they visited briefly, but Hartline says Chris Riley didn’t know who he was.
“I was just trying to stay in my lane,” he says with a laugh.
Hartline’s one of the Dolphins’ best players, but his team’s profile is a little lower now that Miami’s a basketball town.
Football has always been No. 1 in the South, in Florida and in South Florida. The Dolphins have by far the deepest roots and richest tradition of any pro team in Miami, thanks to Don Shula, Dan Marino and the Perfect Season. The Heat even honored Marino by hanging his jersey in their arena.
But since LeBron James brought his talents to South Beach, the Heat have overshadowed the Dolphins, reaching the NBA Finals three years in a row and winning the past two championships. During the same span the Dolphins have gone 20-28, including 7-9 in 2012, and their most recent postseason victory was in 2000. Heat games are sellouts, while the Dolphins often play in a half-empty stadium.
Hartline, an Ohio native and longtime fan of James, attended a couple of Heat playoff games this year and says any eclipse in the fans’ interest is temporary.
“It’s still a football town,” he says. “We’ve just got to make them re-believe. Wins is what it’s all about.”
Center Mike Pouncey agrees. He attended more than half a dozen Heat games last season and says the Dolphins need to emulate their success.
“When you win, everything’s good,” Pouncey says. “The fans are into it, and your job is easier. That’s something we’re trying to get here — change things around and get back to a winning program.”
An offseason spending spree on free agents ensures change, but opinions are divided as to whether it will be for the better.
The Heat lost 16 regular-season games, and the Dolphins probably won’t match that. But while players offer optimistic assessments that are commonplace in every training camp, most national prognosticators project the Dolphins to finish around .500.
That won’t be enough to beat the Heat. Have they taken attention and money away from the Dolphins?
“Maybe in the short term,” outgoing Dolphins CEO Mike Dee says. “If we have a successful season this year, I think you’d see that correct itself. This is a major city now. There are enough entertainment dollars to support teams that are doing well.”
Team owner Stephen Ross agrees. He grew up in Miami and concedes it’s a tough town in which to sell tickets if you don’t win. But he says the Dolphins and Heat can both thrive in the market.
“They’ve been successful, and I applaud them for that,” Ross says. “There’s enough out there for both of us if we’re winning. … You’ve got to win.”
Along with too many losses, a lack of star power is part of the Dolphins’ profile problem. While the Heat have one of the world’s most famous athletes and three NBA All-Stars, the Dolphins’ 2013 media guide has a helmet and football on the cover, instead of a player.
“Superstars are not born from hype,” Dee says. “They’re born from success and achievement. You can’t manufacture that.”
Dee formerly worked for the Boston Red Sox and is leaving the Dolphins after four years to become president and CEO of the San Diego Padres. He says all professional teams endure a shrinking bandwagon when they lose, with a few exceptions.
And he says the Dolphins’ best fans are as passionate as anywhere.
“Their intensity surprised me,” Dee says. “The Dolphins are a national franchise. The road army that follows us around includes many who are not from South Florida but lived here at one point, or grew up watching the Dolphins and Marino in the 1980s and fell in love with that team. Their passion has carried over to today. We have a broad footprint, and that surprised me.”
Florida native Warren Sapp, a recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee, is among those who grew up watching the Marino teams. He says the Heat still can’t match the Dolphins for fan loyalty.
“You see those Heat games at the beginning of the first quarter,” Sapp says. “Those are half-a-million-dollar seats they’ve got down there, and nobody’s there. Come on. Dolphins have been No. 1 since I was a baby. You get to winning, they’ll pack the stadium.”
Hartline agrees. He says the Dolphins need to beat the Patriots, Jets and Bills, not the Heat.
“We’ve got enough to worry about,” he says, “without competing with our own town.”