The Super Bowl is back in Miami because Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross spent $500 million refreshing Hard Rock Stadium. He ponied up only after failing to land public subsidies for the upgrades.
Giant video screens. A distinctive shade canopy. Upgraded concession stands. Pimped-out luxury suites.
After half a billion dollars worth of work at Hard Rock Stadium, Sunday’s Super Bowl will be played in a venue that looks strikingly different than it did a decade ago, the last time Miami Gardens hosted the big game.
In a departure from the typical playbook used in big-time sports, the renovations were bankrolled not by taxpayers but by Stephen M. Ross, the real estate titan who owns the Miami Dolphins and the team’s home stadium. Ross’ far-flung portfolio includes an oceanfront manse in Palm Beach, one of the most prominent properties in West Palm Beach and an ambitious new project in Manhattan.
The pricey improvements at Hard Rock Stadium ended South Florida’s 10-year absence from the rotation of Super Bowl host sites. For its first 44 editions, the Super Bowl came to Miami every four years, on average.
The big game, likely to be viewed by 100 million Americans, gives Ross a chance to take a victory lap in South Florida — a region where major wins have proven surprisingly elusive for one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs.
National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell gives the new-look facility a thumbs-up.
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“I call it a new stadium because I think the work that’s been done here by Stephen Ross and his team have made it into a high-quality stadium that I think everybody here is anxious to showcase,“ Goodell said during a news conference in Miami Wednesday.
With the 2020 contest generating record ticket prices and stratospheric hotel room rates, regional boosters also sing the praises of Ross and the Dolphins.
“Without their at least $500 million commitment to the stadium, the Super Bowl would never come to Miami,” Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said in his recent state-of-the-county address.
He’s the 66th wealthiest man in the U.S.
Ross, an accomplished dealmaker and self-made man, was worth $7.6 billion as of Super Bowl week, according to Forbes magazine, a gaudy sum that makes him the 66th-wealthiest man in the U.S.
Yet in his endeavors in South Florida, Ross, 79, has faced uncharacteristic rough patches. CityPlace, the West Palm Beach property Ross developed to great fanfare, nearly went into foreclosure and has been rebranded with a new name.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, have been mostly disappointing since Ross bought the franchise. During Ross’ 11-year ownership of a once-dominant team, the Dolphins haven’t won a single playoff game.
Then there’s the reason that Ross felt compelled to spend $500 million refreshing Hard Rock Stadium: He ponied up only after failing to land public subsidies for the upgrades. After Ross took over the Dolphins in 2009, he repeatedly tried to persuade state lawmakers to use tax money for renovations.
One proposal for funding the improvements involved asking Miami-Dade County voters to approve an increase to the hotel bed tax.
He didn’t get the stadium funding he wanted in Tallahassee
He spent millions pursuing incentives, but Ross never managed to win the hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies he sought.
In Tallahassee, skeptical legislators responded with a common refrain — they didn’t want to dole out “corporate welfare.” Ross’ ask was complicated by aggressive incentive pushes from two earlier owners of South Florida teams.
The late H. Wayne Huizenga, who for a time owned the Dolphins, baseball’s Florida Marlins and hockey’s Florida Panthers, negotiated lavish subsidies for both the Dolphins’ stadium and the Panthers’ arena in Sunrise.
Huizenga landed state packages worth $60 million over 30 years for both his Miami Gardens stadium and for the Sunrise hockey arena. He wasn’t the only team owner to tap into that source of funding; nearly every major sports franchise in the state got it, along with several baseball teams with spring training homes in Florida.
Meanwhile, Huizenga negotiated a sweet deal for himself at the publicly financed hockey venue: The Panthers kept the first $14 million in annual arena profits after debt payments and a $500,000 check to the Tourist Development Council. After $14 million, 80 percent of profits went to the team and 20 percent to Broward County.
One of Huizenga’s successors as owner of the Marlins, Jeffrey Loria, extracted hundreds of millions in local subsidies for a new ballpark on the site of the old Orange Bowl. To finance the air-conditioned stadium, Miami-Dade County issued $400 million in bonds, creating enough new value for Loria to sell the team — plagued by one of the lowest attendance readings in baseball — for $1.2 billion.
His start as owner of the Dolphins began in 2009
That sweetheart deal played a role in voters’ decision to remove Miami-Dade County’s mayor in a 2011 recall vote.
Ross took over the Dolphins in January 2009, when he bought the controlling stake in the team from Huizenga — and became the first to pay $1 billion for an NFL franchise. Ross began lobbying for public support of stadium upgrades as the mood in Tallahassee had soured on hefty payments to benefit the private sector.
Defying the wishes of then-Gov. Rick Scott, Republican lawmakers pushed back on state-paid job incentives through Enterprise Florida and taxpayer-funded tourism marketing through Visit Florida. Meanwhile, the NFL’s optimistic — and hard-to-verify — claims about the economic impact of the Super Bowl in host communities created skepticism.
During the 2013 legislative session, the NFL’s Goodell went to Tallahassee to make a pitch on Ross’ behalf. Lawmakers were unswayed. State Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, was among those who argued against the plan, saying it “allows millionaires and billionaires to tap into taxpayer dollars.”
The subsidy for Ross died on the last day of the legislative session, when then-House Speaker Will Weatherford declined to call the matter for a vote. Ross responded bitterly.
“He put politics before the people and the 4,000 jobs this project would have created for Miami-Dade, and that is just wrong,” Ross said in a statement at the time.
He felt he needed upgrades to the stadium, built in 1987
Even as Ross’ push for public subsidies died, the Dolphins’ home field, built in 1987, was being overtaken by shinier venues in Texas, Atlanta and elsewhere. In a case of keeping up with the Jerry Joneses, Ross could upgrade or be left behind. Ross decided to pay for the improvements himself.
After stiff-arming Ross, state and local officials have resumed doling out incentives to billionaire owners of sports teams, such as the more than $100 million in subsidies granted to the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, the spring training home of the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. Ross’ inability to land public subsidies to woo the sporting world’s single biggest event remains something of a head-scratcher.
“It’s inconceivable to me that public money didn’t come,” said Rick Horrow, a Jupiter-based stadium consultant and visiting expert on sports business at Harvard Law School. “We can speculate why that happened. Is it because the Marlins already gobbled it all up? Is it because there was no threat to move?”
The legislative defeat proved just a temporary setback for one of the world’s most successful real estate players. Ross launched the Related Cos. in 1972 as a developer of affordable housing.
Over the decades, Ross thrived. He built projects throughout the United States, and his fortune grew into the billions. Perhaps his crowning achievement is Hudson Yards, a combination of offices, stores and residences on Manhattan’s West Side. Facebook in November joined a roster of A-list tenants at Hudson Yards, signing a lease for a massive 1.5 million square feet.
He was the developer of CityPlace, now Rosemary Square
However, in West Palm Beach, Ross has experienced mixed results as a property player. Ross developed CityPlace, the mixed-use project that in some ways lived up to its promise as a hub for dining, drinking and shopping.
Belying Ross’ stellar track record, CityPlace pulled off a seemingly difficult trick: Despite bustling crowds, the project struggled financially. CityPlace was hit with a foreclosure filing on its $150 million mortgage in 2011, and in 2016 a rating agency warned that CityPlace was in danger of defaulting on its loan.
Ross is known to maintain a keen interest in that project. While traveling to Dolphins games by helicopter, Ross has directed the pilot to circle the development so he could look over the property from above, a person familiar with Ross’ commute told the Palm Beach Post.
Ross’ longtime partner, Kenneth Himmel, told the Palm Beach Post in 2017 that the pair have developed real estate in Manhattan, Boston, Chicago and Seattle. He called CityPlace the toughest project the two had tackled.
“Without any question, this is the most challenging,” Himmel said. “We overreached, certainly, when we began the project. There’s been a lot of turnover of tenants.”
While CityPlace, now known as Rosemary Square, packs in the crowds on weekends, the comings and goings of its tenants are legion.
The roster of eateries and watering holes that have left over the years includes Bacio, B.B. King’s, Blue Martini, Brewzzi, Burger & Beer Joint, Cabo Flats, Carousel Can Can Cafe, Cheeburger Cheeburger, CityPlace Tap House, Columbia, Field of Greens, Italian Oven Cafe, Jinja Bar, Kona Grill, La Salsa, Lafayette’s Music Room, Legal Sea Foods, Mark’s CityPlace, McCormick & Schmick’s, Mellow Mushroom, Original Steakhouse, Panera Bread, Revolutions, Taco Vida, Taverna Opa, Tequila Cowboy, Tsunami and Wild Olives.
Merchants have struggled there, too. FAO Schwarz, Macy’s, Barnes and Noble and Banana Republic were among the CityPlace tenants that closed over the years.
“When we opened the project, we had an incredible array of tenants, some of whom went out of business, some of whom just couldn’t sustain the sales level required,” Himmel said.
“Part of it was a little bit naivete on our part,” Himmel continued. “First project we’d ever done in Florida, and we got caught up in the same thing a lot of people do who don’t know the market well enough: They don’t spend any time here in the offseason.”
Ross’ Rosemary Square is repositioning itself
In 2019, Ross changed the name of CityPlace to Rosemary Square and began repositioning the property. Related is building an office tower at 360 Rosemary, and the company hopes to build a 21-story apartment complex on the site of the former Macy’s.
Meanwhile, Related won city approval for One Flagler, a 25-story, high-end office tower planned at South Flagler Drive near Okeechobee Boulevard. The contentious project failed to win approval from an earlier city commission, and it faced opposition from neighbors and from Palm Beach County, the town of Palm Beach and billionaire office developer Jeff Greene.
In some ways, the struggles of CityPlace were a dress rehearsal for Ross’ road as an NFL owner. He has cycled through coaches, hiring and firing Joe Philbin and Adam Gase.
Before the 2016 season, Ross was so high on rookie coach Gase that while addressing the Palm Beach Civic Association, he spoke of his new leader someday reaching the level of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
“Instead of getting a retread that really hasn’t had a great track record as head coach, I was looking for somebody that really could be the next, if you will, Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, you know, really great head coach, and I think we got one,” Ross said.
Ross fired Gase in December 2018 after he posted a 23-25 record in three seasons.
In another move that failed to yield greatness, the team bet the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft on quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who was solid but unspectacular during seven seasons with the Dolphins. Tannehill finally became a star in 2019 — as the signal caller for the Tennessee Titans.
The Dolphins have recorded just one winning campaign under Ross, posting an overall record of 77-99, an average showing of 7-9. The team lost its only playoff game during that time.
Ross’ Miami Dolphins have not had on-field success
The Fins’ performance has been too weak to inspire passion among fans but too strong to bring the high draft picks that can propel a team to long-term success.
During the time Ross has owned the Dolphins, the divisional rival Patriots have won five AFC championships and three Super Bowls, with no turnover in the coach’s seat or the quarterback position.
In Palm Beach, Ross and his wife, Kara, are no strangers to high-flying real estate deals. Their May 2008 sale of their lakefront penthouse in Il Lugano set a Palm Beach condominium price record when it sold for $12.1 million. In 2002, they had paid $6.4 million for that apartment.
Today, the Rosses live in a 19,000-square-foot oceanfront house on more than 2 acres at 702 N. County Road, which they bought for $31.9 million in 2007. The Art Moderne-style house is known as The Reef.
The Rosses’ neighbors on the stretch of coastal road that fronts his estate include radio shock jock Howard Stern and TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz.
On the island, the Rosses are known for their support of the Palm Beach Police and Fire Foundation, and Stephen Ross also is a director of the Palm Beach Civic Association.
Staff writers Darrell Hofheinz and Joe Schad contributed to this story.