Dolphins owner wants to move Miami Open tennis to Hard Rock Stadium site

A full house greets as Roger Federer and Frances Tiafoe during a men's singles match at the Miami Open Tennis tournament at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida, on Saturday, March 25, 2017.
A full house greets as Roger Federer and Frances Tiafoe during a men's singles match at the Miami Open Tennis tournament at Crandon Park Tennis Center in Key Biscayne, Florida, on Saturday, March 25, 2017.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has proposed building a state-of-the-art tennis complex adjacent to Hard Rock Stadium and partnering with Miami Open owners to move the 32-year-old tournament from Key Biscayne to Miami Gardens, according to sources familiar with the talks.

Ross and Tom Garfinkel, president of the Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium, were at the Crandon Park tournament grounds on Thursday, where they met with Miami Open executives to discuss their plan and were given a tour by tournament director Adam Barrett.

READ MORE: Future of Crandon Park could be in balance

Their proposal, which would be privately funded, would include a Stadium Court inside the football stadium for marquee matches, a smaller permanent Grandstand Stadium, permanent match courts and permanent practice courts.

It would also feature a hospitality area with permanent dining and entertainment facilities that could be used not only for the tennis tournament, but also for fans attending Dolphins games, soccer matches and other events at the stadium.

Butch Buchholz, the founder and longtime director of the Miami Open before retiring two years ago, would “strongly prefer” the event stay in its present home but says the Ross plan is a better alternative than losing the tournament to another city.

“I have heard that Steve Ross has an interest in building a facility and moving the tournament there, and I think that would be an excellent alternative, but only if it doesn’t work out in Key Biscayne,” Buchholz said. “The reason I chose Key Biscayne back at the beginning was because of the island atmosphere, the idea that you drive over the bridge and see that view, and it sets the tone that you are entering an island paradise.

“The No. 1 priority has to be to keep the tournament in Miami. Don’t let it leave. The players and fans love coming here, and it is a jewel in our community. If they can get the improvements done on Key Biscayne that they need to do to keep up with other top tournaments, that would be the best scenario because you have the best of both worlds — great facilities and a view of the ocean, bay and Miami skyline from the top rows of the stadium.”

But if a continuing lawsuit keeps the tournament handcuffed from making necessary upgrades, “then the Dolphins option would be welcome. Thank goodness we’d have Steve Ross, who would do things first-class, if it comes to that.”

Ross said, “I would continue to explore it if it meant keeping the tournament in Miami.”

PHOTOS: See a photo gallery of weekend action at the Miami Open

For many years, the Key Biscayne event was referred to as “the Fifth Grand Slam” and set the standard tour-wide as far as facilities and fan experience. The players voted it Tournament of the Year six out of seven years, but the last time Miami won the award was 2008.

The past three years, the award has gone to the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, where Oracle founder Larry Ellison has poured $200 million into the event since buying it for $100 million in 2009.

Indian Wells is the only event in the world with electronic line calling on every competition court. It has jumbo video screens showing up to five matches at once in the common areas, viewing areas for practice, a regulation soccer field that players use in their free time and a Nobu restaurant in the players’ dining area.

The Miami Open has not been able to keep up.

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The Ross overture comes as Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez wants to explore a potential court fight over the strict controls that the owner of the Miami Open tennis tournament failed to get tossed in court last year.

The rules were established in a 1993 settlement with the Matheson family, which in the 1940s provided the 975 acres for Crandon in exchange for a bridge connecting the mainland to the family’s real-estate holdings on the island. Restrictions on the land gift prohibited significant construction on the park, and the settlement stemmed from a Matheson court fight over the original tennis facility built to house the tournament.

The rules established a four-person committee to govern the park, with a Matheson-picked charity controlling two of the seats. An heir, Bruce Matheson, holds one of them and has fought to maintain strict controls over expansion at Crandon, including allowing new tennis facilities that were endorsed in a countywide referendum in 2012.

Recently, another Matheson heir, Christine Matheson Andersen, has proposed winning consensus from her relatives to overrule Bruce, a cousin, and renegotiate the 1993 settlement. Key Biscayne, home to Crandon, endorsed the move and offered to pay the Mathesons $20 million in exchange for a more permissive deal. Gene Stearns, a lawyer for the tennis tournament who led the fight against the current restrictions, said the payment offer was his idea.

In a Friday memo to county commissioners, Gimenez said he wants Miami-Dade lawyers to pursue a new settlement and excoriated the current restrictions as “giving a single individual, Bruce Matheson, governing power over the park — one of Miami-Dade County’s crown jewels.”

Gimenez cited “burdensome” examples of the 1993 agreement gone awry, including: a ban on advertising in the park, making charity tournaments impossible because of the inability to promote sponsors; removal of a statue of Marjory Stoneman Douglas from a nature center that once carried the environmentalist’s name because of a ban on naming facilities after people; ripping up a decorative fountain in place of a shade tree. He also said the plan restricts safety improvements, such as bike lanes and new ocean-rescue facilities.

“I remain committed to the operation and programming of Crandon Park for public purposes and am committed to working together to ensure that Crandon can become the great public park that our residents expect and deserve,” he said.

The agreement gives the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington-based nonprofit organization, the authority to appoint two of the four committee seats, with a staffer, John Adornato, holding one and Matheson the other. Miami-Dade appoints the other two seats, currently held by tourism chief Bill Talbert and the head of the Miami Foundation, Javier Soto.

“The county has a 50 percent vote,” Matheson wrote in a text message Sunday. “I have a 25 percent vote.”

The park expansion rules have foiled efforts to bring major golf tournaments to Crandon and also proved a daunting obstacle for President Donald Trump when he tried to take over the waterfront links at the park shortly before his presidential run.

Then a real-estate mogul with one of the largest hotels in Miami-Dade, Trump played Crandon with Gimenez in 2013 before formally launching a bid to negotiate a management agreement to run the course as a public park. In exchange for $10 million in improvements, the Trump organization would gain control of tee times and have a waterfront option for its lucrative Doral golf resort. The arrangement violated the park rules enforced by the Crandon committee, and Trump sought exceptions — including one that would allow his name to be featured on the golf course, according to county documents released once the negotiations became public in 2015.

Facing resistance from the county commission, Trump’s organization pulled the proposal that year — shortly before the mogul entered the GOP primary.

Lifting the restrictions could tempt the Trump organization to make another bid for Crandon. Looser rules also could lead the PGA Tour tournament once housed at the president’s Doral golf resort to return to Miami after leaving last year for Mexico. Gimenez tried to negotiate a switch to Crandon but said the park rules made such a move impossible.

With Ross offering a route to move the Miami Open out of Key Biscayne, the offer seems likely to add urgency to Gimenez’s efforts on a new Matheson deal. Such a move also could boost subsidies Miami-Dade must pay the Dolphins for large events lured to Hard Rock.

In exchange for Ross funding a $400 million renovation of the stadium and a 30-year agreement not to move the franchise, Miami-Dade in 2014 approved paying the team up to $5 million a year in bonuses for large events, including the Super Bowls and international soccer matches. The payments in the 20-year deal can be delayed for 10 years and canceled if hotel taxes, the source of the subsidies, fall short of forecasts.

Asked whether he thinks the tournament has a future on Key Biscayne, 18-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer said: “It depends on the importance of growth of the site. I don’t think they can improve much in terms of capacity the way it is now. So the question is, is everybody happy this way or not?

“If you want to go bigger, clearly you have to move. But is the grass always greener on the other side? I’m not sure. It’s a hard one. I know this tournament from a long time ago. I even played the juniors on this very court back in ’98, so in a way, you wish it goes on here. But I think at this point, everyone would also understand if it were to move.”

Swiss team-star Roger Federer talks to the media about the Miami Open on March 21, 2017.