There are so many moving parts to the Miami Dolphins’ failed stadium renovation plan that it’s difficult to know where to start in explaining how it stopped.
Let’s begin by saying that billionaire Stephen Ross could afford to pay for his own improvements if that were his personal priority. Can you think of any reasons why he would go so far out of his way to get a chunk of public money for a Sun Life Stadium makeover, accepting the guaranteed PR hit that goes with that?
Greed is the word that comes first and loudest when people think of sports owners, but that seems way too simple with Ross.
Just last week he pledged to donate half of his wealth to charity under a global initiative founded by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates. Forbes’ latest estimate of Ross’ net worth is $4.4 billion, which means he is giving away enough money to make a Saudi prince wince.
I’m banking instead on the compulsion of big businessmen to make every deal work for them in some major way, augmented by the theory that the NFL doesn’t want Ross writing a check for the whole thing.
Going it alone would definitely buck the trend for a group of owners who have tied themselves tightly to one another through revenue sharing. There’s even a pool of money, designated as G4, which is contributed to by owners for the purpose of building or renovating stadiums. Each member of the club feels free to dip into it, asking the league for a loan up to $250 million to be repaid over 15 years at terms that are mutually agreeable. There’s just one enormous catch.
These G4 loans are available only to stadium projects that include public money.
Now, the Dolphins never officially said they were going to apply for a loan from the NFL. Without a thumbs-up vote on the Miami-Dade bed tax referendum that was scheduled for today but canceled last week by the Florida Legislature’s inaction, there was no need to say anything about it. Remember, no public participation, no G4 eligibility.
It’s easy to see, however, how the NFL works. The Minnesota Vikings recently got a $200 million loan from the league to go toward a new stadium. The San Francisco 49ers got the same deal in wrapping up the details for a new stadium in Santa Clara, the one that’s all but certain to ace out Miami in next Tuesday’s vote awarding host duties for the 50th Super Bowl in 2016. Ross, like every owner, is helping to finance those projects. Naturally he was expecting to enjoy some benefits, too.
Marc Ganis, president of the consulting firm SportsCorp, said “it doesn’t specifically say to what degree, but local government must have some skin in the game” in order for an NFL team to be subsidized by the league’s other owners.
“It unlocks money from the NFL,” Ganis said. “Without public participation, the NFL’s contribution does not come in. It’s almost necessary because you get both the NFL’s money and the public participation. That’s a pretty compelling reason.”
That’s how it could have worked, anyway, for Ross. Now he’s kind of stuck.
By playing nice, with pledges to cover the costs of a Miami-Dade referendum on the issue and to pay back better than half of the requested public contributions, the Dolphins got rejected. The Miami Herald estimates that Ross and the Dolphins spent approximately $10 million on the dead deal.
In the meantime, the Dolphins still are waiting to see what will happen with their bid for Super Bowl L and, if that fails, for Super Bowl LI. If they miss out on both, that’s bad. If they don’t, that’s not all good, either.
This whole $400 million renovation campaign has been built on the notion that the NFL won’t grant Miami a Super Bowl assignment until the stadium gets fixed. If those improvements turn out not to be so important, the suspicion of being duped will be doubled.
Dolphins founder Joe Robbie, a pauper compared to Ross, is remembered for building what is now known as Sun Life Stadium without public money, at one point even putting the entire franchise up as collateral for a loan, from player contracts to uniforms to office furniture.
More bad news for future stadium plans that cranky old Joe is the character who will be remembered around here long after Ross’ nemesis, Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, fades away.