Miami Open’s big move
For the past seven years, Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has run RSE Ventures, an ever-expanding portfolio of sports and entertainment properties that stretches from football and soccer to concerts and restaurants. His Hard Rock Stadium is the home to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and college football’s Miami Hurricanes, but it also has hosted international soccer matches, including the Real Madrid-Barcelona “El Clásico,” and shows from the likes of Beyonce and Jay-Z.
Yet, the company record for best one-day sales push came not in advance of one of those headline-grabbing acts but rather before one that is readying for its initial turn in the spotlight next week: tennis’ Miami Open, which did $4.5 million in sales at a May 2018 event called Cocktails on the Court held at the stadium’s 72 Club.
Ten months later, a new $71 million tennis venue will debut that primarily hugs Hard Rock Stadium but also features — in a first for the sport — its center court located in the middle of an NFL stadium.
■ Founded: 1985
■ 2019 dates: March 18-31
■ Estimated attendance: 350,000
■ Number of courts: 30
■ Architect: Rossetti
■ Presenting sponsor: Itaú
■ Total sponsors: 34
■ Total commitment to players: $18.3 million
■ Defending singles champions: John Isner (USA), Sloane Stephens (USA)
Though the concept may have seemed strange to some, when Ross first proposed such a unique idea to his staff in the summer of 2016, “They didn’t look at me funnier than they usually do,” he jokes.
One Ross employee who not only knew his boss was serious but was energized by the possibility was Dolphins President Tom Garfinkel. “He said, ‘I have the next big idea,’ and I said, ‘What is it?’” Garfinkel recalled. “He said, ‘I want to bring the Miami Open to the stadium.’ I said, ‘Amazing. Let’s do it.’”
They did. Hard Rock Stadium is now at the center of a reimagined Miami Open, a new marriage of luxury and sports and the latest success for RSE Ventures. Ross, a billionaire developer, is famously engaged in design details and picked out the countertop surfaces in the suites and the turf for the gathering areas on the tennis grounds. In what is believed to be a sports first, 1,000 premium customers will enter the grounds through an art gallery tent that features original works from artists such as Picasso and Warhol that can be bought at prices of up to $1 million. Once inside the venue attendees can sample a series of new, elite concessions offerings including Kiki On the Roof, a takeoff on the city’s popular Kiki On The River.
Then there is Stadium Court, located inside the 32-year-old building that is best known for having hosted Super Bowls, World Series and the Orange Bowl. It is surrounded on one side by temporary stands, and on the other by the stadium’s recently upgraded seats, suites and clubs and features a total capacity for tennis of roughly 14,000.
On a sunny, 80-degree day last month, Garfinkel settled into a cushy lower-level seat with a personal television and looked out toward the middle of the field. All around him, construction crews were hard at work readying the surface for the start of competition.
“This will be the best seat in all of tennis,” he boasted, before gesturing toward a row a few yards away. “Except for that one.”
It is a stadium full of possibility, and it speaks to the renewed potential of the Miami Open, which had lost the luster that once led organizers to brand it as the fifth Grand Slam.
“The luxury experience we have created here at Hard Rock is going to translate especially well to tennis, in a way that hasn’t been experienced,” Garfinkel said.
The Miami Open had once been a sparkling jewel on the ATP and WTA circuits. But in recent years, the words tired, outdated and crumbling were frequently being used to describe Crandon Park, a public park on lush Key Biscayne that hosted the event from 1987 through 2018. A local environmentalist had stymied IMG’s $50 million expansion plan, leaving the agency the prospect of taking the event out of Miami. The company seriously eyed the USTA’s new training complex in Orlando and was even rumored to be considering moving it to the Middle East or China.
Compounding matters was the fact that the Larry Ellison-owned BNP Paribas Open, an annual event held in early March in Palm Springs, Calif., had surpassed its Sunshine Tour companion in prestige and attendance. Last year the 10-day tournament attracted 450,000 fans, or 50 percent more than Miami had drawn in 2018.
A tennis fan and casual player, the 78-year-old Ross said he had the idea of bringing tennis to a football stadium after reading about the risk of the tournament leaving his hometown. He owns the 265 acres of land that include Hard Rock, knew he had the space and could sacrifice the necessary parking lots.
“I’m good friends with Mark Shapiro, who is now [president of Endeavor],” Ross said. “Based on that relationship, he got his people involved in looking at it. I think they thought he was crazy, too, you know, but he got them looking at it.”
Gavin Forbes, the head of IMG tennis events, has been in the sport his whole career, and he is still an ATP board member. He won’t disagree when asked if some within IMG might have wondered about a football team owner promising a tennis venue in a parking lot, but any misgivings about Ross’ initial 2016 proposal have long since been forgotten.
On a tour of the still-under-construction venue last month, Forbes seconded the Dolphins executives who said the level of hospitality — from wide, cushioned courtside seats with TVs, to giant video screens to cabana suites — is unmatched in the sport.
“Players are going to have three times the space [that they had last year], we have quiet lounges, the gym is a joke, the parking is unlimited,” he said.
Asked if the long-running storyline that Miami had fallen behind billionaire Ellison’s BNP Paribas Open is over, Forbes stared at the stadium court while standing in a suite and smiled.
“I do, I do,” he replied. “Look, we wanted to keep it here. We got lucky that Mr. Ross and Tom and the team saw the vision and engaged to keep it in Miami. This will compete with [BNP Paribas Open], and that’s what we needed to do.”
To make the move to Hard Rock possible, IMG entered what Ross described as a 50-50 partnership with the Dolphins. Ross does not own any part of the event, but he said he has a profit-sharing agreement and agreed to finance most of the complex. The price ultimately rose from a projected $60 million to $71 million. Ross has owned a majority stake in the Dolphins since 2009. Asked whether he might buy the Miami Open, he said that the agreement with IMG is for 30 years.
IMG remains in charge of player operations and sells event sponsorships. The Dolphins handle suites, tickets, marketing and the overall experience. Though it might seem surprising that a football team could teach tennis something about hospitality, the apparent success of this project simply underscores Garfinkel’s stewardship of one of the great business turnaround stories in the NFL.
“We have a very methodical sales and service process here where we kind of work backwards from the number we are trying to get to, and we know exactly how many calls we have to make, how many appointments we have to set, how we have to sell the tickets on a daily basis,” Garfinkel said. “And we track and measure these things daily so if we get off the mark we adjust accordingly.”
That’s why Garfinkel, whom Ross hired from the San Diego Padres in 2013 to turn around a flailing business, described himself as unsurprised that the Miami Open is expected to top 350,000 fans in year one at Hard Rock. That’s an 18 percent increase for an event moving from a public park near white-sand beaches to a former parking lot sandwiched between a football stadium and a highway.
The event last month passed the revenue mark for the 2018 farewell on Key Biscayne. That was not unexpected for Garfinkel, who confidently projects the tournament will reach its goal of drawing 500,000 fans in its fifth year at Hard Rock.
Part of the increase will come from the fact that the tournament is easier to get to for Broward and Palm Beach county residents who previously were turned off by the long drives and traffic to the island of Key Biscayne. But it’s also because of the stadium’s best-known tenants. Twenty five percent of the luxury customer sales so far are also Dolphins customers, the team said.
The team also has developed a rich database from putting on concerts, a move that might bring a younger fan-set to a typically graying tennis crowd. While he did not have figures, Dolphins CMO Jeremy Walls said there is definitely a more youthful fan coming than in past years.
With the tennis tournament approaching, Garfinkel took a moment to boast as he showed off the facility. “Bringing the Miami Open tennis tournament to Hard Rock Stadium was really Steve Ross’ big vision and initially a lot of people thought, well, ‘How are you going to do a tennis tournament in a stadium?’” Garfinkel said. “People will be blown away when they see what we have created.”
Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.