Without tax dollars for stadium renovation, Ross must decide whether to spend own cash

Without tax dollars at his disposal, how much money will Stephen Ross spend on Sun Life Stadium?

That’s the question looming over the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins in the wake of the Florida Legislature denying his request for both state and county dollars to fund about 45 percent upfront of a $350 million stadium renovation. The team claims the 1987 stadium will be rendered all but unusable in the next five to 10 years without a major rehab, including removing the former Florida Marlins dugouts. Ross’s top aide last week said public dollars were mandatory for the project to proceed.

“I was asked was there a chance Mr. Ross will go forward without a private-public partnership,’’ Dolphins CEO Mike Dee told reporters on April 26. “My answer was no.” In April, Ross told CBS 4 of the Tallahassee bill: “If it stumbles … there won’t be a renovation.”

While Ross has preemptively rejected funding the full $350 million project — which included a canopy to shield the seats from sun and rain — he has not said whether a more modest renovation is possible. One portion of the proposal involved ripping out about 9,000 cheap seats in the top rows of the stadium and adding about 3,000 pricier ones near the field.

Those changes would reduce Sun Life’s capacity by 13 percent to about 65,000, which could help the Dolphins avoid television blackouts that the NFL imposes when the stadium has too many seats to sell on game day.

“He needs to look at the [upgrades] that will pay for themselves’’ said John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University economics professor who studies stadiums. “I don’t think the roof is going to pay for itself. Cutting back on the marginal seats in the upper deck … creates excess demand [and] inflates the prices for the other seats. That is a positive move” for Ross.

Ross and other team executives were not granting interviews Friday evening in the wake of a bitter defeat in Tallahassee that ended a five-month campaign marked by a string of political victories. Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez negotiated a deal that would have handed the Dolphins between $7 million and $16million annually for the next 26 years, provided the team could win approval by both the Legislature and Miami-Dade voters in a May 14 referendum.

Ross’ predecessor in the owner’s box, Wayne Huizenga, financed a $210 million renovation with private dollars in 2007. That effort added to the Dolphins’ estimated $380 million in debt, making it the third-most leveraged team in the NFL, according to Forbes. With tax dollars, Ross could have qualified for an NFL program that frees up league money for renovations, provided the public is helping fund part of the work.

In exchange for tax dollars, Ross would sign a 30-year deal preventing the Dolphins from leaving Miami-Dade. Ross, whose net worth is estimated at more than $4 billion, said the team would stay put even if the tax plan failed. But the 72-year-old raised the specter of other future owners moving in pursuit of a modern stadium in another market.

Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor who specializes in sports, said the Dolphins would have plausible scenarios to flirt with another home base but that South Florida is probably too lucrative a market to leave.

“The NFL has been keeping Los Angeles in its back pocket so teams could threaten to move there,” he said. But Miami “has been a great NFL town. It is a wealthy area.

Friday’s defeat most likely ends South Florida’s chance to host the 50th Super Bowl in 2016. Last fall the NFL pitted Sun Life against the $1.2 billion stadium under construction for the San Francisco 49ers as the two finalists for the marquee game, and league officials then warned that the aging Miami Gardens facility was an underdog without the renovation.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell visited the Senate to watch lawmakers pass the Dolphins-backed bill on Monday. The San Francisco area contributed taxes to their new stadium, and it would be a stunning snub for the NFL to deny that region the 50th game after Florida voted against sending taxes to South Florida’s football franchise.

Whichever region loses the 50th game would take on Houston for the 2017 Super Bowl. Houston’s Reliant Stadium opened in 2002. Both games will be awarded by league owners on May 21.

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