Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross’ decision to give a whopping $200 million to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, was met with broad praise up north Wednesday, with the school’s president lauding it as an “historic gift.”
But in some corners of South Florida, where Ross lobbied for tens of millions in public dollars to renovate his privately owned Sun Life Stadium, many saw it as a thumb in the eye.
Reaction among the rank-and-file Dolphins fans, many of whom never were on board with the failed renovation plan, zeroed in on a simple question: If Ross can afford to cut a $200 million check to Michigan, why not pay for the stadium repairs himself?
“They are very different subjects, and I think it is important to be committed to both,” Ross said. “As I’ve often said, I’ve promised to pay a large portion of the stadium upgrade costs but, the community who would substantially benefit also needs to be involved.
“I also think it’s extremely important to be a good citizen from a philanthropic standpoint, and to set an example for others to do the same. Both commitments are important to me and both have the potential to leave a lasting legacy that will benefit so many people.”
Ross’ short-lived renovations plan would have raised up to $289 million from a higher county hotel-tax rate and up to $90 million from an additional state sales-tax subsidy for the Dolphins over 30 years to partly fund a $350 million renovation to the aging Miami Gardens stadium. The club would have had to repay some of the money, hold a certain number of events at the stadium and remain in South Florida for the next three decades.
But the proposal, which was contingent on a Super Bowl 50 or 51 award, died after the Florida House of Representatives failed to take a final vote in May.
That Ross had the personal wealth to be so generous with his alma mater came as no surprise to Miami-Dade politicians who grappled with the stadium revamp. After all, they knew the real-estate mogul was a billionaire.
“His ask for the roof and improvements I don’t think was ever based on the fact that he didn’t have the money,” said County Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who voted against the deal. “He had the money to do it. The issue is that sports franchises have become hooked on public money to do improvements to stadiums all over the country.”
Just because Ross is wealthy does not mean he must spend his savings on the stadium, Bovo noted, lauding the donation to Michigan.
“I don’t really see a correlation between the two,” he said. “He and his staff and people made a calculation to go after public money. They had their justifications, according to them, to do it, and others had different opinions.”
In jest, Bovo added of Florida International University: “I wish he could have donated $200 million to FIU, but obviously his prerogative is to support his alma mater.”
Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who struck the stadium deal with Ross, cracked a good-natured joke along similar lines.
“I want to congratulate him on his philanthropy,” Gimenez said. “I just wish that the UM he gave it to was the University of Miami, not the University of Michigan.”
Even state Rep. Carlos Trujillo, a Miami Republican whom Ross’ political committee has targeted in fliers criticizing his opposition to the stadium deal, could only praise the Dolphins owner for his largesse.
“He should be commended for his generosity and for his contribution to his alma mater, to help young men and young women and the future entrepreneurs of America,” Trujillo said.
The Stephen M. Ross School of Business and Michigan Athletics will each receive $100 million. The gift makes Ross the third-largest donor to a business school in the country.
Ross has already vowed to give half of his estate — estimated to be in excess of $4 billion — to the Giving Pledge, a long-term, global initiative created by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.
“Stephen Ross’ vision has always been about the ability of facilities to transform the human experience,” said Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman. “He understands the power of well-conceived spaces, and his generosity will benefit generations of Michigan students, faculty and coaches.”
Despite his promises of remaining committed to the stadium upgrade, fans like Facebook user James Kircher took to social media to express their frustration with the owner’s generosity.
“Mr. Ross wants the city of Miami and its taxpayers to pay to renovate Sun Life Stadium, which was mandated by the NFL ... but he can give Michigan 200 million dollars,” Kircher said.
Fans also responded on Twitter. Bethany Turner said the news “sure makes it hard to stay a Dolphins fan,” and @no_big_keal tweeted, “Stephen Ross wonders why Dolphins fans say he’s not all in on winning, maybe you shouldn’t donate $200 million to a school 1,000 miles away.”
There was some social-media support for Ross’s donation, notably from Billy Corben, the director of the 2009 University of Miami documentary The U, and from Michigan alumnus and Heisman Trophy-winner Desmond Howard.
“Props on @MiamiDolphins owner’s generous donation. He can do whatever he wants with his money. He can’t do whatever he wants with ours,” Corben said.
“Thank you to Miami Dolphins owner, Stephen Ross, for his very generous donation towards the future of the University of Michigan,” Howard said.
Ross earned his bachelor’s of business administration in accounting from Michigan’s business school in 1962. With his gift to the athletic department, its sports campus will also bear his name.
“The University of Michigan had a profound impact on my life and I have received enormous satisfaction from being able to give back to the institution that played such a critical role in my success,” Ross said. “I am thrilled to be able to make such an impactful contribution and to not only help write the next chapter for the University, but also offer much-needed scholarships to ensure we continue to attract the best and the brightest students and provide them with the financial resources they need.”
Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.