SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Forty Under 40

David Samson

DAVID SAMSON, FLORIDA MARLINS

BY BILL KING
SENIOR WRITER

There’s a movie scene that David Samson likes to play in his mind when he considers the approach that he has taken as president of the Florida Marlins.

David Samson
• Title: President
• Team: Florida Marlins
• Age: 37
• Education: B.A., economics, University of Wisconsin, 1990; J.D., Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, 1993
• Career: Founder and president, News Travels Fast, 1993-1996; investment adviser, Morgan Stanley, 1996-1999; executive vice president, Montreal Expos, 1999-2001; named president of the Marlins in 2002
• Family: Wife, Cindy; daughters, Hannah, 9, and Kyra, 6; son, Caleb, 1
• Last vacation: Egypt for a three-day weekend in December
• Last book read: "Free to Be You and Me" by Marlo Thomas, to my kids
• Last movie seen: "Let It Ride"
• Greatest achievement: Unanimous victory in the lawsuit filed against us by the former limited partners of the Montreal Expos
• Fantasy job: Sixth man on the New York Knicks in the early 1970s, when there was no agenda or selfishness in sports
• Executive most admired: Steve Jobs, for not being afraid to fail and for being different and sticking to his principles
• Business advice: Persistence pays. "No" is merely an impediment on the way to "yes."
It’s the opening of “Jackass: The Movie,” where the dependably deranged cast piles into an oversized shopping cart and goes barreling down a hill, pelted by bricks shot from cannons.

“The metaphor is that we put blinders on, and we keep rolling down that hill,” said Samson, who shocked the baseball world when the Marlins won the World Series two seasons ago and insists he’ll do it again when the club locks up funding for a new stadium. “Sticking to that plan has taken incredible intestinal fortitude, because the shots were coming from all sides.

“If you allow yourself to get off course by reacting to any of the intermediate commentary, it guarantees you won’t reach your final goal.”

This particular shopping cart began its roll downhill late in 2001, when Samson, then president of the Expos, worked with MLB to navigate a complex three-way deal in which his boss, Jeffrey Loria, ended up as owner of the Marlins, Marlins owner John Henry bought the Boston Red Sox and MLB absorbed ownership of the Expos.

Many in baseball figured that if Loria wasn’t going from the frying pan into the fire, he was at least going into another frying pan. He and Samson thought otherwise.

Three years later, they have a World Series ring to show for it. While they have bled millions along the way to field a competitive team in a low-revenue ballpark, they remain convinced that the payoff waits around the next corner in the form of a new ballpark that would stabilize the franchise’s balance sheet.

“We knew we couldn’t start our stadium effort until we proved to this community that we were serious about committing to field a competitive team,” Samson said. “You must invest in your product and believe in it before you can get anybody else to invest and believe in it. To me, that’s the most critical part of being successful in the sports industry, and it’s something that not everyone understands or accepts.

“Your willingness to invest on the come is crucial, and you have to have the stomach to continue it every year.”

In the last three years, the Marlins have increased attendance from a dismal 800,000 to 1.3 million and then 1.7 million. This year, Samson says he is confident they will eclipse 2 million. The season-ticket base has grown from the 300 they inherited to 3,000, then 5,000 and last year 10,000. This year, it should clear 12,000. Sponsorship revenue increased 40 percent last year.

It has happened, Samson said, because he and Loria have stuck to their plan, even though the obstacles may have seemed insurmountable, going all the way back to the beginning, when they sold the Expos and bought the Marlins.

“That entire transaction fell apart 15 times and it took creativity and incredible, incredible persistence to get it back on track,” Samson said. “And when history looks back on that transaction, it will go down as the most complicated transaction in baseball history, and one that resulted in taking a powerful franchise and two fledgling franchises and morphing them into three powerful franchises. I really believe that.”

As January turned into February, the Marlins were closing in on the completion of a stadium deal that would include contributions from both the city and county. But another fight remained. They still had to secure a tax subsidy from state legislators.

That’s a fight they’ve lost before. Samson insists that this time will be different.

“I want people to look back in 50 years,” Samson said, “and know that we were captain of the ship when it finally started sailing downstream.”

And the shopping cart when it started rolling downhill.

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