MIAMI — As Dan Marino campaigned for Miami to be chosen the site of the 50th Super Bowl, he made no pretense about being objective on the subject.
“In my opinion,” the former Dolphins quarterback said, “every Super Bowl should be here.”
Instead, the NFL championship game might not return to Miami for a long time. Last week the Dolphins were denied public money for a stadium upgrade by the state Legislature, which removes South Florida from serious contention for the 50th Super Bowl and perhaps subsequent NFL and college title games as well.
The defeat in Tallahassee also raises questions about the future of the Dolphins under multibillionaire owner Stephen Ross. He contends $350 million in stadium improvements are badly needed, but he’s unwilling to foot the entire bill himself, and ruled out a less expensive, scaled-down renovation.
The Dolphins say they’re already heavily in debt and one of the NFL’s most leveraged teams, making upgrades impossible without taxpayer help.
“I don’t think there is a clear alternative at this point,” chief executive officer Mike Dee said. “I don’t think there is a road to a Plan B without legislative action in Tallahassee.”
Ross, 72, hasn’t indicated any desire to bring aboard a co-owner to help finance a stadium project. He hasn’t threatened to move the Dolphins, and it’s unlikely the league would abandon South Florida, with several NFL franchises in smaller markets more logical candidates for relocation to Los Angeles or elsewhere.
The Dolphins could try again next year for legislative approval, but they may have burned that bridge with their criticism of House Speaker Will Weatherford, who killed the plan by not putting it up for a vote.
“He’ll still be the speaker of the House next year,” Dee said, “and I don’t see him changing his opinion.”
The stadium owned by Ross opened in 1987, and the Dolphins have argued upgrades are essential to keep Miami competitive in Super Bowl bidding. The city has hosted the game 10 times, and Miami and San Francisco are finalists for the 50th Super Bowl in 2016.
“The House leadership has made our efforts to bring the Super Bowl back to Miami and South Florida much more difficult,” said Rodney Barreto, chairman of the South Florida Super Bowl Host Committee.
Without legislative approval, the Dolphins were unable to go forward with a planned May 14 referendum on the issue in Miami-Dade County. The team had sought up to $289 million from an increase in the county hotel tax, and up to $90 million in state sales tax rebates. The bill would have also allowed other professional sports teams in Florida to compete for a share of state tax dollars.
The referendum outcome was uncertain, with opponents complaining the plan constituted corporate welfare. The Dolphins had already spent millions in campaign money, with such former players as Marino, Bob Griese and Jason Taylor lobbying on their behalf, arguing voter approval would significantly strengthen Miami’s Super Bowl bid.
Now San Francisco’s the heavy favorite when NFL owners choose the host city May 21. The site of the 2017 Super Bowl will also be chosen, with owners selecting either the runner-up city for the 2016 game or Houston.
“This is not the stadium we had hoped we could include in the bid,” Dee said. “But we will be there when the NFL owners vote, and we’ll put our best foot forward.”
Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said his city won’t become complacent about its chances of hosting the 2017 game.
“Certainly what happened doesn’t help Miami’s bid. There’s no doubt about that,” McNair said. “But that doesn’t say that the owners couldn’t decide to still go to Miami.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said stadium upgrades would help keep Miami competitive in Super Bowl bidding. He visited Tallahassee last week and lobbied legislators to pass the Dolphins’ bill.
The league declined to comment Monday on the stadium situation.
Miami has hosted the Super Bowl 10 times, most recently in 2010, and league owners love the destination. But the multipurpose stadium can’t compete with more modern NFL counterparts.
Joe Robbie built the stadium with his own money for $115 million, and former owner Wayne Huizenga spent $250 million on renovations in 2007. The latest improvements envisioned included adding about 3,600 seats close to the field, along with a partial canopy roof to shield fans from sun and rain.
Now those plans are in limbo. Might Ross seek to move the franchise?
“He has said he will not, and he stands by that,” Dee said. “Long-term for a subsequent owner, without a solution to this, the prospects are challenging in Miami-Dade County.”
Does Ross want to sell the team?
“I don’t think that’s where he is today,” Dee said. “But this is still raw. He loves this team. He loves the community. But long-term, the prospects are uncertain.”
In a statement released after last week’s legislative defeat, Ross said nothing about selling or moving.
“I will continue to do all I can,” he said, “to build a winning team for the people of Miami-Dade.”