Miami Dolphins CEO Mike Dee is stepping down to take the top job with the San Diego Padres, leaving owner Stephen Ross to find a new business chief to tackle the team’s lackluster attendance and aging stadium.
Dee joined the Dolphins four years ago and is credited with helping retool the team’s Miami ties, boosting philanthropic efforts and trying to bolster the team’s standing as an institution in South Florida.
“I’m grateful and thankful for what we did to really elevate what was already a celebrated franchise,” Dee told reporters Wednesday.
Dee, 49, presided over the Dolphins’ four-year effort to win public dollars for a renovation of Sun Life Stadium, a costly venture that met its latest defeat this spring in Tallahassee. Dee said the campaign would have had a better shot if the team was playing well, and his tenure was weighted down by some of the worst attendance in the NFL.
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“No regrets other than I wish we would have had more success on the field,” Dee said in a conference call Wednesday afternoon with Padres management. “But I think the franchise is poised to pivot this year. I think this is a franchise that is going to be on the rise.”
Though he held the title of CEO, Dee did not have full control of the Dolphins operation, with Ross giving general manager Jeff Ireland authority over player decisions. Dee was in charge of the team’s marketing, business and political operations. People close to Dee said the Padres position offers a more traditional CEO position, with responsibility for the business operations and athletics.
Dee started his sports career with the Padres in 1995, rising to a top business executive and helping win a campaign for a new tax-funded ballpark for the team. He left in 2002 to join the front office of the Boston Red Sox before Ross recruited him after buying the Dolphins from H. Wayne Huizenga in 2009.
“I never got baseball out of my blood, that’s for sure,” Dee said.
A married father of two school-age children, Dee is credited with helping revive the Dolphins’ visibility in Miami-Dade after years of a Broward focus under former longtime owner Huizenga. Dee focused philanthropic efforts in Miami-Dade, including the Dolphins Cycling Challenge, which raised about $4 million for the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. He served on the board of Sylvester, along with City Year Miami and the Miami Children’s Museum, a team executive said.
“I thought he was a really good face of the Dolphins. He put the Miami back in the Miami Dolphins,” said Rodney Barreto, head of South Florida’s Super Bowl Host Committee. “I’m sorry to see him go.”
Though this spring’s effort brought the most attention and activity, the Dolphins’ push for stadium dollars began in 2010, shortly after Ross bought the team and hired Dee. So the pursuit of a new stadium was a central mission for Dee’s tenure, and one he helped accomplish during his first stint in San Diego.
Ross, a billionaire real estate developer, wanted Miami-Dade hotel taxes and a new state subsidy to fund about 45 percent of a $350 million renovation for the stadium that was built in 1987. But with Ross living and working in New York, Dee led the campaign and made all of the public appearances before elected officials voting on the plan.
In recent months, Dee described the renovation as crucial to the team’s finances, given lackluster season-ticket sales and some of the worst attendance figures in the NFL. Financial information released as part of the stadium push showed Ross pumping $100 million into the franchise, which Forbes estimates has one of the highest debt loads in the NFL.
Two people involved in the team’s stadium campaign said Wednesday they understood Dee’s job might be in jeopardy if the plan didn’t win approval. “He basically said: ‘Guys, if we don’t solve this problem, I’m gone,’ ” one campaign aide recalled.
In a statement, Ross thanked Dee for his leadership and wished him well with the Padres. “Under Mike, we have broadened our role in the community, improved our technology footprint within the organization and enhanced our customer service to our fans,” Ross said. The Dolphins have hired a New Jersey head-hunting firm to find Dee’s replacement.
On Wednesday, Dee said Ross released him from his contract with the Dolphins and that the defeated stadium campaign was not a factor in his departure. “This was a decision that was mine and one I was excited about,” Dee said. “Steve was terrific in allowing me to follow my dreams.”
In his Twitter feed, Dee posted: “It’s not easy to make this move at such an exciting time for the franchise, but I could not turn down this incredible opportunity to return my roots.
“Despite my new role, I will always be a member of Dolfan Nation… A big thank you to [Dolphins owner] Steve Ross + So. Fla. for four great years.”
Dee comes to San Diego after ownership parted ways with former CEO Tom Garfinkle over what Padres chairman Ron Fowler described Wednesday as a lack of “unanimity on how to grow the team.”
The Padres are struggling, with one of the worst attendance records in baseball (and only four spots above the Miami Marlins) and a losing record. But Dee praised San Diego as a small community with reserves of loyalty for a team that had won a pennant when he was last there.
“The Padres are such a unifying force then, and they are today,” he said. “Obviously you’ve got to win, and we’re going to be all about that.”