In trying to fill seats at Sun Life Stadium, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross appears to have retired a winning tradition: the brutally hot home game that starts at 1 p.m.
After taking over the team in 2008, the billionaire real estate developer set out remaking Dolphin games into more accessible entertainment -- adding pop stars as partners, ordering up a Jimmy Buffett fight song, and even clearing out skyboxes to make way for the NFL's first stadium nightclub.
Less noticed was Ross' pledge to make the stands themselves more hospitable by asking NFL schedulers for later kickoffs in September. That's when a sweltering stadium often tests fan loyalty, but also -- at least according to conventional wisdom -- tortures visiting teams not used to the heat.
"Our goal is to have as few games at 1 p.m. in the early part of the season as possible, " Ross said earlier this year. "We’ve let the league know that."
The NFL appears to have listened. With the football season entering Week 7 [ Editor’s note: again, this was written in October 2010], the Dolphins haven't played any 1 p.m. home games yet. When the Pittsburgh Steelers take the field at 1 p.m. Sunday in Miami Gardens, it will mark only the second time since 1995 that it has taken this long for an early kickoff at a Dolphins home game. The other time was last year, Ross' first full season as owner.
A Miami Herald analysis of scores and weather suggests fan relief comes at a price on the field.
Since 1990, the Dolphins have won 72 percent of their home games when the kickoff temperature hit at least 82 degrees. Anything cooler, the win percentage drops to 57 percent.
Like many sets of obscure sports statistics, the weather-to-win ratio captures only a tiny slice of the components that determine victory.
But the Dolphins' mathematical edge under a hot South Florida sun could be a touchy subject for Ross, with fans, veteran players and even his head coach asserting that heat helps the team.
"I think it's an advantage, " Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said at a Thursday news conference when asked about Sunday's 1 p.m. start time. "Even for us to go out here and practice in this stuff, and do a two-hour practice, it takes a lot out of us -- and we're used to it."
Richmond Webb, a Dolphins tackle under Don Shula in the 1990s, recalled watching visiting players suffer in September while his teammates were used to practicing in the heat.
"At one o'clock on a Sunday, it would be pretty hot. You'd see guys -- especially in the second half -- cramp up. They wouldn't be used to that humidity or that hot muggy weather, " said Webb, now a real estate investor in Houston. "Teams would bring in those misting fans. They'd have them on all the sidelines. Coach Shula wouldn't put those" on the Dolphins' bench.
Not everyone agrees. As a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills in the 1980s and '90s, Steve Tasker recalled sweating it in South Florida early in the season. Still, he thought weather conditions were a minor help to the Dolphins at home but a big problem on the road.
"I think the cold is a much bigger advantage than the heat, " said Tasker, now a football commentator for CBS. "We used to look forward to going down there. We'd get off the tarmac, take a deep breath of that warm air -- we couldn't wait to play."
Dolphins executives declined interview requests, noting the NFL sets each team's game schedule. And TV ratings play a central role when a team takes the field.
"Clubs make requests for certain times or dates each year, " NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an e-mail. "We try to accommodate their requests as much as possible in the complex schedule-making process."
This year, the Dolphins' first two home games won coveted night slots, but the New York Jets and New England Patriots won after the 8:30 p.m. kickoffs in Week 3 and Week 4 of the NFL schedule.
The seven-week delay for a 1 p.m. kickoff at home is a rarity in recent Dolphin history.
Using archived box scores on pro-football-reference.com, The Miami Herald reviewed 20 years of Dolphin home games. In the 18 seasons before Ross took over, there were only two years when the Dolphins didn't play at least one 1 p.m. game during the first six weeks of the season.
The exceptions: 1993, when the first 1 p.m. kickoff came in Week 9, and 1995, when it arrived in Week 11.
Do sweltering kickoffs matter? Consider:
• Since 1990, the Dolphins played 30 home games at 1 p.m. during the first six weeks of the season. The team won 24 of them, an 80 percent success rate. But the Dolphins won only 11 of the 20 home games that started later in the day during a season's first six weeks -- a 55 percent success rate.
• Of the 162 home games played since 1990, the Dolphins won 60 percent -- compared to 80 percent of the early-season 1 p.m. games.
• Temperature can be a sensitive factor. While the team's win rate at home hits 72 percent at 82 degrees, it drops to 67 percent at 79 degrees. Crank up the mercury one notch to 83 degrees, and the victories hit 82 percent.
Mark Duper, a star Dolphins receiver from 1982 to 1992, said the heat definitely gave his teammates an edge at home.
"We used to love to play the one o'clock games, " he said. "Because we knew they'd get tired."
But the Coral Springs resident and regular fixture at Dolphins games said he applauds Ross for wanting later kickoffs.
"If I was playing, I wouldn't have been glad, " Duper said. "But as a Dolphin fan now, I like it. It does get hot.
Longtime Dolphin fan Vicky Pestrichelli basked in the scheduling change during the last two seasons, though she didn't realize it might have been engineered by management.
"We were so happy, " said Pestrichelli, a Fort Lauderdale resident who hosts charity tailgates with her husband, Bob Birdsong. For the 1 p.m. September games, the family would retreat from the 200-level seats for shade breaks and hydration. "We'd go through a lot of water, constantly, " she said.
Her 15-year-old son, Connor, had a different take on suffering and football: "I'd rather be in misery and see us win, than be in the shade and watch us lose."