Stephen Ross was in good spirits Friday. He talked about those neon orange pants the Dolphins are going to unveil next week as part of their new uniforms (he was kidding, no orange pants). He joked about the identity of the team’s first-round draft pick.
But on the subject of upgrades to Sun Life Stadium, Ross was all business:
Question: Why should voters help give you or any billionaire public money to help fund a private enterprise such as the upgrades to Sun Life Stadium?
Ross: “Well, first of all, the benefits of this, the public is the one that really benefits. As we disclosed in our financials, we don’t make a lot of money. In fact, we lose a lot of money. How do you turn that around? By winning football games. And how do you fill your seats? By winning football games. What we’re talking about here won’t really bring any fans in if I’m not winning. It’s on the margin. But when I bought the team and told you then, I wanted to bring South Florida together and see what it can do to enhance the community. Miami is growing and becoming one of the great cities of the world. It’s probably the hottest city in the world right now. It’s the most aspirational city in the world right now. And it needs to bring marquee events and establish itself there. This will help bring marquee events. We’re talking about BCS Bowls and Super Bowls and I guarantee we’ll get that. [Events] do want to be in Miami. But you don’t want to give them an excuse not to come to Miami. Right now, there’s an excuse for them not to come to Miami. Why? Because of the facility. In addition, we will take it upon ourselves to bring other marquee events to Miami. As you saw, two days ago we announced the Guinness International Cup with Fox Sports to bring eight international teams to participate in a tournament. It will also be in other cities with the semifinals and finals to be played in Miami. The idea is to make this a recurring international event with major impact. That’s major. That’s major for the local economy. It’s economic development. That means jobs. Who’s benefiting? It’s really a public-private partnership.”
Q: Mayor Carlos Gimenez demanded that public dollars be linked to the awarding of Super Bowl 50 or Super Bowl 51 and you have done that. Why are you so confident you can get one of those games?
Ross: “Because I really believe that the National Football League wants to be here and bring Super Bowls. Super Bowls are played in January and February. This is the warmest place in the country. This is where people want to party. This is where they want to bring their sponsors. They’ve had the most successful Super Bowls here. But you saw what happened when other cities built facilities and we continued to be in the Orange. Bowl. There was a 10-year hiatus of Super Bowls … When they built Joe Robbie, the Super Bowl came back so you can say we had 10 Super Bowls in 37 years. I’m betting on that, and I’m betting on the fact that this is the legacy I want to give the community.”
Q: Is it a certainty in your mind that if you don’t get the upgrades you will not be awarded future Super Bowls?
Ross: “… The feeling from the owners is they’re not going to come here. And the league is rewarding those cities that have modern facilities with Super Bowls. Why are we going to New York? Because they built a new stadium. And you have all these new stadiums that are either proposed or under construction — San Francisco, Minneapolis. Atlanta is building a new facility with a retractable roof. These are the type of things we’re competing with. The owners recognize it so I really believe they want to be here and if we have the facilities, they will come.”
Q: Will you continue with the renovation plans if the Florida legislature declines to provide a sales-tax rebate on items sold in the stadium?
Ross: “The sales tax rebate, right now I’m optimistic. I haven’t really addressed it. If the voters voted and we only had … they still have to vote in Tallahassee to allow me to put the hotel tax on the ballot. So if that’s on the ballot, I’m sure we’ll look at it and make a decision at that point. Right now it’s a package. I’ll look at it at that point in time. I’m optimistic we’ll get both on the package and they’re both subject to the referendum.”
Q: What is your game plan for getting voters to the polls and voting in favor of the referendum?
Ross: “Well, I mean, first of all letting the facts speak for themselves. When you look at the impact of what it does and having the voters understand the benefits to them is how they’ll get to the polls. This is a win-win situation for them and Dade County. And I can’t believe that other than the rhetoric out there, that anyone would want to vote against this. This brings new dollars into Dade County and makes it such that we can bring these marquee games and events there. And I’m putting my money where my mouth is.”
Q: Mayor Gimenez said at the commission meeting that your initial offer was to let Miami-Dade take over ownership of the stadium and borrow the public portion needed to renovate it. Is Sun Life such an albatross around your neck that you’d be willing to basically give it away?
Ross: “Yeah. [Laughs]. Look, I think Miami needs it. We’re going to play there. I never threatened to move the team even though we need modern facilities. It’s a lot cheaper to do a modernization than it will be to wait another 10 years and build a new stadium. Also, when conveyance was on the table it was always, ‘We’re going to continue to pay $4 million in property taxes.’ ”
Q: You’re spending a lot of money on this effort, including handing over a nearly $4.8million non-refundable check last week to pay for an election. Why not keep all the millions you’ve spent on trying to get public funding and simply pay for the renovations yourself?
Ross: “Well, $4.8 million doesn’t pay for renovations. But I think this is important to the community. It’s my legacy to the community, as I said. It will benefit me but very marginally, from that standpoint. I believe it’s important. Being a real estate developer, I know how world-class buildings and especially a sports facility can do for an entire community.
Q: Would footing the entire Sun Life renovations be a bad investment for you?
Ross: “The fact is one has only so much money you can spend. There’s a private-public partnership here. I’m carrying more than my share of it by paying in today’s dollars roughly 70 percent of the $350 million cost. That’s the minimum I can pay and it can go higher. I think when you’re partners with somebody and everybody’s benefiting, you want to have somebody that has skin in the game.”
Q: You’ve agreed to continue to own the Dolphins for at least five years if the stadium upgrades happen …
Ross: “Well, I could pay a penalty if I don’t. But I intend on owning the Dolphins a lot longer than that. What was asked is that they don’t want to see me benefit and then sell the team and make all types of money. First of all, just in selling the team, you know me well enough to know what I want to do. I mean, everybody at first criticized when I first bought the team all the different things I wanted to do. First, I want to do one thing: I want to win. I want to be a first-class organization and I want to enhance the community and they all go together.”
Q: So will you continue to own the Dolphins even if this issue doesn’t work out?
Ross: “Yes. If I die, my family will have to sell it and then that’s where I worry about who’s going to be the buyer when you don’t have a facility to play in, and you have declining attendance and you’re losing money. That’s when you have to worry about the Dolphins being able to stay in Miami. OK? I’m not threatening I’m going to move them. But I can’t rule from the grave.”
Q: Can a future owner sustain the Dolphins here in this existing stadium without renovations?
Ross: “I don’t think so. If we’re winning and doing all the right things, the answer is yes. Will we be having marquee events? No. Would it be kind of a laughingstock? Yes.
“We put money in every year. I bought the team, we [renovated] the facility, we put in all brand new concession stands. We’ve tried to upgrade everything. But things go down geometrically. Right now the cost is $350 [million] to $400 million to modernize it and have it be tantamount to a new stadium. You wait 10 years, you’re talking having to spend a billion dollars. You pass the point of no return. So that’s why it’s important now rather than later. And we’ve timed it so that we actually get an event. I said don’t spend the hotelier’s dollars if we don’t get an event. That’s what it amounts to. It makes sense.”