Miami-Dade County

Miami Open tennis at ‘grave risk’ of leaving Miami after county changes Hard Rock deal

A view of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne in 2015. The tournament has been planning to move to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens in 2019.
A view of the Miami Open tennis tournament in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne in 2015. The tournament has been planning to move to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens in 2019. El Nuevo Herald

It was supposed to be a moment of triumph, as Miami-Dade commissioners voted to approve a deal allowing the Miami Open tennis tournament to break its county lease on Key Biscayne and move to Hard Rock Stadium with a $1 million yearly subsidy.

But Tuesday’s decision saw tournament representatives rushing out of the commission chambers, refusing to say whether they would accept the relocation plan after a last-minute dispute with the county mayor over an outstanding audit of what the event owes Miami-Dade.

“We’re going to regroup,” Wendy Elkin, senior vice president of the Miami Open, said on the escalator in her lone reply to reporters’ questions about the vote. Minutes earlier, she told commissioners: “We are at grave risk of not staying in Miami with this deal.”

The Miami Open, Miami Dolphins and Miami-Dade had been negotiating the deal to let the tournament play its final matches on Key Biscayne in 2018 and then move to Hard Rock Stadium in 2019. And while the deal was approved Tuesday, developments at the meeting left even more questions hovering over the future of Miami’s premiere tennis tournament.

A longstanding agreement governing the parkland, despised by Mayor Carlos Gimenez and some county commissioners, has prevented the tournament from implementing a $50 million expansion to boost revenues and prize money for the springtime event. With no option to grow, the for-profit event threatened to move from Key Biscayne when its lease at the county’s Crandon Park expires in 2024.

County voters endorsed the expansion in 2012, but the tournament lost a court fight to overturn the rules. The restrictions are tied to a legal settlement with the Matheson family, which had traded the land decades ago in exchange for the county building a bridge to link their Key Biscayne holdings with the mainland.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has a deal with tournament owner IMG, a global sports and entertainment conglomerate, to build a $53 million tennis campus outside of Hard Rock to house the tournament. Miami-Dade commissioners approved the arrangement in a 10 to 2 vote Tuesday, freeing the Miami Open from its agreements at Crandon after 2018 and approving inclusion of the event in an existing subsidy arrangement with the Dolphins.

“I am so proud we are keeping the Miami Open in Miami-Dade County,” Commissioner Sally Heyman said before the vote.

Esteban “Steve” Bovo and Joe Martinez cast the two no notes.

The approved deal includes a $1 million yearly subsidy from the county for the tournament, as part of a 2014 agreement with the Dolphins that pays the team up to $5 million in exchange for major events recruited to Hard Rock. The 2014 deal was linked to Ross agreeing to privately finance stadium renovations valued at roughly $500 million by the team.

Before Tuesday’s vote, Elkin warned that the Miami Open opposed the deal because the county at the last minute wanted to change a provision settling expenses that the Miami Open owed for the last few tournaments. The problem: The mayor’s office only recently realized the county is several years behind in auditing the tournament’s finances and wanted to leave final payments open for arbitration rather than stick with the original provision that set the payoff at $1.3 million.

That is a “deal breaker,” Elkin told commissioners. “Our management is extremely frustrated.”

Elkin’s comments drew a rebuke from Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who in 2009 voted in favor of public financing for the new Miami Marlins ballpark — one of the most unpopular county decisions in the last decade.

“The words of the lady brought back memories,” Sosa said. “Memories of the Marlins standing before this commission, and saying: ‘If you don’t do this, we’re leaving…’ 

Directing her comments to Elkin, Sosa said: “If you don’t want to be here, fine.”

Gimenez said that he did not realize until late last week that county auditors had not delivered their review for the 2015, 2016 and 2017 tournaments, and that the Miami Open may owe significantly more than $1.3 million.

While the parks department was negotiating the Miami Open settlement over past audits, county auditor Cathy Jackson — an Gimenez department head — wasn’t aware of the pending deal. She said she learned about the agreement when the commission meeting’s agenda was made public last week, and notified the mayor’s office of the pending audits on the tournament.

That prompted a tense meeting at County Hall Monday, when Gimenez told IMG executives and lawyers he wanted a new agreement to deal with pending audit results. The tournament camp refused, saying an agreement with the mayor’s signature had already been made public. In a Monday email to commissioners seeking support for the original agreement, tournament chief Adam Barrett said IMG doesn’t want other expenses lingering as it moves to Miami Gardens.

“As the Tournament respectfully told Mayor Gimenez this morning, the Tournament negotiated the Agreement to address and resolve, as a complete package, all relocation issues at the same time,” Barrett wrote. “Ambiguity and delay in any important aspect simply does not work.”

The commission voted only on the revised agreement Gimenez wants. It drops the $1.3 million settlement amount, and requires the two sides to go to arbitration over any disputed obligations claimed by county auditors.

Now the fate of the long-awaited relocation rests on Miami Open taking Gimenez’s offer.

Without the deal, the tournament is obligated to continue playing on Key Biscayne through 2023. It pays about $2.5 million in rent, but parks officials say county expenses related to the event amount to a wash in terms of county finances. Gimenez noted rejecting the Hard Rock move would still leave the Miami Open facing county audits for the next six years.

“We’re going to get paid what we’re owed. I’m not being unjust,” Gimenez said. “All I want is for Miami-Dade to get paid what it is owed by contract. I’m not even saying we need to get paid what we say we are owed. I said let’s put it to an arbitrator.”

Roger Federer workout Friday morning, March 25, 2016, before pulling out of Miami Open tennis tournament with a virus.