The Florida legislature has ended its spring session without endorsing any plan for renovations to Sun Life Stadium, the home of the NFL Miami Dolphins, the University of Miami Hurricanes and the traditional home of the Orange Bowl game. The Dolphins are not happy about it.
Dolphins CEO Mike Dee has insisted a public-private partnership is required to effect changes to the facility, which first opened in 1987. Now that the state government has essentially turned down that idea, it’s time for the next card to be played: moving the team, if not immediately then at some time in the future.
“I don’t think it’s an option for (current owner) Steve Ross, but for a subsequent owner? The Dolphins are one of the only franchises in the National Football League that do not have a long-term lease with their community,” Dee said in an interview. “I wouldn’t want to prognosticate what the future holds, but it’s clearly bleak.”
Observers of the sports scene in the last few decades have heard this story before. Owner uses money-spinning team — or barely functioning team, but which still employs hundreds locally and has a fan base of several thousand more — to get the city or municipality to bow to the owner’s will, usually through tax concessions or other schemes to obtain more control, generally through a combination of tax breaks and control of assets and enterprises (parking, food and merchandise sales, etc.) upon which the team has a direct or indirect impact. If these things do not occur, or if ownership isn’t pleased with the result, the spectre of franchise relocation is raised.
In this case, it’s understandable why there is little support for public money in this effort. The taxpayers of Miami-Dade County recently sunk close to half a billion dollars into a retractable-roof facility for the Marlins of Major League Baseball, only to see owner Jeffrey Loria get rid of just about every star on the team in a fire sale to the Toronto Blue Jays, among others. The attendance figures for Marlins Park shows the stadium is half-full for home dates, but in reality the team gets far fewer actual bodies into the seats. The fact that the team has the second-worst record in the majors (10-22) has something to do with it.
With the Dolphins, it’s a similar situation. They finished 7-9 and out of the playoffs in 2012, and rated 29th of 32 teams in home attendance (just over 57,000 per game); they were the only team in the NFL to fill less than 80 percent of its stadium. The percentages would likely go up if the Dolphins fielded a better squad, and that would also probably go a long way towards repairing the goodwill of the populace. Those are moot points, though: what’s more important is leverage.
Los Angeles has been without pro football since 1995, when the Rams moved to St. Louis. Other potential markets include Raleigh/Durham in North Carolina, Portland and even Las Vegas. If a new group should buy the Dolphins and decides it’s time to go — or to threaten it — there is no shortage of places to explore.