Miami-Dade County

How the Miami Dolphins plan to bring tennis to Hard Rock Stadium

A view from the cheaper seats at the Miami Open tennis tournament, held each year on Key Biscayne. The for-profit tournament wants to move to Hard Rock Stadium in 2019, and play in a tennis complex to be built by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross.
A view from the cheaper seats at the Miami Open tennis tournament, held each year on Key Biscayne. The for-profit tournament wants to move to Hard Rock Stadium in 2019, and play in a tennis complex to be built by Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. El Nuevo Herald

What would the Miami Open look like if the tennis tournament moves to Hard Rock Stadium? The details remain a secret, with the tournament owner and the Miami Dolphins declining to release renderings ahead of Tuesday’s crucial county vote on the Miami Open’s plan to leave Key Biscayne for Miami Gardens in 2019.

But interviews with people who have seen renderings of the tournament’s imagined new home on privately owned land reveal an ambitious strategy aimed at making Miami Gardens the new center of tennis in the Miami area.

The Dolphins plan to use curtains, bleachers and other features to temporarily downsize Hard Rock Stadium’s 65,000-seat playing space into a far more intimate setting for the matches that currently play before a crowd of about 14,000 people each spring at the tennis arena at Crandon Park. The football field would be transformed into center court for marquee matches between the tennis stars who have made the Miami Open a global draw for decades on Key Biscayne.

Outside the stadium, parking lots to the south and west would be transformed into a permanent tennis campus with upwards of 24 courts. Those would be for the qualifying matches on the way to the championship rounds and form the outskirts of the tennis village similar to the one that each year encamps at Crandon, a county park. There would also be a secondary grandstand with extra seating for medium-profile matches.

“It’s like a tennis arena, with surrounding out-courts,” said Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert. “The way it’s designed, it has the ability to host a number of different things.”

The mayor’s preference is that those renderings be made public. Once those are made public, our residents and stakeholders will have a much clearer picture as to what is possible at Hard Rock Stadium.

Michael Hernández, spokesman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, on renderings of the proposed $53 million home of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Miami Gardens.

IMG, which owns the for-profit tennis tournament, has resisted county and media requests to release renderings of the proposed $53 million redo of the Hard Rock campus, according to several people familiar with the talks. The current plan is to release the renderings on Dec. 11 before the Dolphins play the New England Patriots at home during ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcast. ESPN also has the broadcasting rights for the Miami Open.

County commissioners could demand to see the renderings before Tuesday’s vote on a deal allowing the Miami Open to break its lease at Crandon and move to Miami Gardens under an arrangement that will eventually include a $1 million yearly subsidy for the Dolphins.

The payment would come under a 2014 county agreement with the Dolphins that pays the team up to $5 million a year for hosting large sporting events in exchange for owner Stephen Ross’ privately financing stadium renovations that were valued at roughly $500 million. The $1 million payment for tennis would contribute to the $5 million cap. The payments are set to begin in 2024 and would total $13 million before Ross’ original 20-year deal with Miami-Dade expires.

Michael Hernández, communications director for Miami-Dade, said the county did not retain renderings of the proposed tennis complex when Mayor Carlos Gimenez and aides met with Dolphins executives over the summer about the planned move. He said Gimenez wants the drawings released so that the public can see what’s in store for one of the region’s most popular sporting events.

“The mayor’s preference is that those renderings be made public,” Hernández said. “Once those are made public, our residents and stakeholders will have a much clearer picture as to what is possible at Hard Rock Stadium.”

Representatives of the Dolphins and IMG did not respond to requests for comment.

Ross, a New York real estate developer with ties to Miami Beach, is trying to position his football stadium as a much broader entertainment hub.

He’s recruited global soccer tournaments to capitalize on the sport’s popularity in South Florida, and now sees tennis as another way to boost traffic. While some of the outer courts can be converted back to parking when the one-week Miami Open isn’t in town, the team expects to make others part of a year-round facility for youth clinics, matches and other tennis-related offerings, according to people briefed on the plans.

The Miami Open wanted to spend $50 million expanding at Crandon, the tournament’s home since the 1980s. But the tournament once known as the Lipton was blocked by county rules strictly limiting commercial activity at the park, even after a 2012 countywide referendum backed the expansion. The rules are tied to a 1993 settlement with the Matheson family, which once owned Crandon and claimed construction of the tournament’s stadium violated restrictions placed on the land.

Bruce Matheson, a wealthy heir to the family currently trying to block David Beckham’s Miami soccer stadium, successfully defended the rules in court. Despite Gimenez opposing Matheson’s objections, Miami-Dade joined Matheson as a defendant in the 2014 suit by tournament owner International Players Championship, an IMG subsidiary.

The move to Miami Gardens would mean trading a lush — but remote — island setting for the tournament to one fronting the Florida Turnpike. Gilbert, the Miami Gardens mayor, said fans will be cheered by the plans — once they see them.

“I’m sure the Dolphins would really like to talk about it,” he said of the Miami Open design for Hard Rock. “Because it’s nice.”

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