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S. Fla. Teams Tossing Big Money To Be Number 1

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(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

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MIAMI (CBSMiami.com) – First it was the Big Three coming together with the Miami Heat. Then the Florida Panthers went on a shopping spree and bought a winner. Now, the Miami Marlins are going all-in to try and establish a winner in South Florida.

All of it has turned South Florida into arguably the professional sports capital of the country, with the exception of the Miami Dolphins.

The Marlins are the latest team to try and make a splash. First, the team signed relief pitcher Heath Bell and shortstop Jose Reyes to large contracts. But that was just the beginning.

According to multiple sources, the Marlins are willing to break the bank to sign the best player in baseball, free agent first baseman Albert Pujols. The cost is exorbitant, but from all reports at the winter meetings; the Marlins are willing to pay Pujols around $200 million or more over the length of his contract.

The Marlins are also hot on the trail of free agent pitchers Mark Buehrle and C.J. Wilson. The team has basically approached free agency this season with an open checkbook, ready to sign anyone and everything.

The team is doing all of this while they have a small window of time to build on the fan fervor for the new Marlins Stadium opening up in Little Havana next April.

But the Marlins are simply following in the footsteps of the Miami Heat. Last July, Heat president Pat Riley and owner Micky Arison completed a process that took several years under NBA rules and signed the big three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh.

It was a blockbuster signing that made Miami the center of the NBA world. Fans from South Florida lived and died by the Heat; and every other fan loved to hate the Heat.

The signings also reaped huge dividends in ticket sales as season tickets last season sold out fast and were gone early in the process for the lockout-shortened season. The Heat set the bar incredibly high for South Florida sports and the Marlins are trying to follow suit.

Not to be outdone, the Florida Panthers had a ton of cap space after last season. So, Panthers management went out and hired a top general manager in Dale Tallon who immediately reshaped the roster.

Tallon shed the poor players of the past and brought in proven players who could help the Panthers establish a winning tradition not seen since the mid-1990’s. Tallon made several free agent splashes and put together a stellar draft this year.

Tallon’s vision has turned into a reality much quicker than any Panthers fan could have hoped. The Cats are all alone in first place in the NHL Southeast Division and are pulling away from second-place Washington as December continues to wind down.

Fans have started noticing too as the Panthers are finally seeing the notoriously fickle South Florida fans coming back to the team now that they are winning. If the Panthers keep it up, they may become a serious playoff contender and bring back the rat days of 1996.

But while three of Miami’s professional sports teams have realized that to do well in this area of the country, you have to put a winner on the field; the Miami Dolphins are stuck in a rut of mediocrity that doesn’t show any signs of letting up anytime soon.

The Fins’ last playoff appearance was in 2008, the first year of the Bill Parcells-era in Miami. Ever since then, the team has become average at best and lost their first seven games in 2011.

Since 2000, the Dolphins have a .478 winning percentage (90-98). If you take it back to the first season after Don Shula left the franchise, 1996, the team is just .500 overall (126-126).

The Fins have had a few playoff runs, but have never made much noise in the playoffs. It’s also a franchise that hasn’t reached the Super Bowl in 28 years.

The Dolphins have tried to hire big name coaches, Jimmy Johnson and Nick Saban, and have even lured Parcells into the franchise to run it. But year after year, the Dolphins are nothing more than a middle of the road NFL team at best.

Much of the Dolphins struggles can be tied to the team’s repeated failures to finally draft a franchise-quarterback. Since Shula left in 1996, the Miami Dolphins have ranked in the top ten in offense just one time. The Fins have never ranked in the top 10 in yards gained since Shula left.

But for years, the Dolphins were the toast of the town due to their longevity and the fans’ fond remembrances of successful years gone by.

However, the Dolphins are now in the toughest position of any team in South Florida. The Dolphins have to do something to re-energize the fan base and get people back into the stands at Sun Life Stadium. After all, sponsors will only buy the tickets up for so long to ensure games can be broadcast locally.

But the Fins don’t have a lot of cards to play at the current time. They will more than likely fire their head coach, could fire their general manager, and have no direction for the future.

They also won’t have the luxury of drafting very high if the team keeps winning. Since franchise quarterbacks don’t grow on trees, the team will have to pay dearly in draft picks and salary to land one.

Outside of Peyton Manning though, there’s not an instant name recognition player that fans know can come in from day one and change the course of this franchise.

South Florida fans love to jump on the bandwagon of the teams that can win in the area. But the bandwagon for the Heat is full and there’s limited space on the Marlins and Panthers wagon.

The Miami Dolphins have to move, or run the risk of becoming the fourth wheel in South Florida.

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