He took it a step further, offering up the first million himself.
— Marcus Lemonis (@marcuslemonis) November 21, 2015
But there are a lot of complexities involved. So I decided to do a deep dive into the stadium issue.
Sun Life Stadium
In order to understand this issue, we need to start at the strengths and weaknesses of the current situation at Sun Life Stadium.
There is a lot to like about the stadium from a UM standpoint. It’s amid a $400 million facelift, which will make it one of the nicest (nicest, not best) stadiums in the world. When you go to most college stadiums, you are essentially sitting on bleachers.
More importantly, though, is that by tying the Canes’ fortunes to the Dolphins’ fortunes, they’re getting all this for free. And that is not just about this round of renovations. Ten, 15 and 20 years from now, the Dolphins will not play in a dump and have to maintain the stadium at an elite level to be eligible to host Super Bowls.
UM has essentially fallen ass backwards into a situation where they will have their home stadium perpetually renovated to keep up with elite standards for free.
In that same vein, playing in a NFL stadium is a selling point in recruiting. There are other things about this specific stadium (distance from campus) that are deterrents, but being able to tell high school kids that they are playing where the Dolphins play is great. Ron Meyer, former SMU coach, said they moved from their campus to Texas Stadium (where the Cowboys used to play) precisely because recruits loved to envision the “next step.” Miami does have that going for it.
The parking situation is more of a mixed bag but that’s a school issue, not a stadium one. Having parking lots situated outside the stadium that are easy to access from three major highways (the Palmetto, the Turnpike, and I-95) should be a huge feature. And it is, right up until they ask you for $30 to park your car so you can go watch Clemson beat the Canes by eight touchdowns. This is a massive oddity in college football. With most stadiums on campuses, parking is just way cheaper, if not free. I go to Miami’s away loss in Charlottesville every other year and park for free. It’s still nice to have easy parking, but the magnitude of the cost knocks the shine off.
And that is just the beginning of the problems.
Let me start with the biggest gripe most people have with Sun Life Stadium. One that we will never be able to fix, there or anywhere else — it’s not the Orange Bowl.
Going from a historic stadium that seemed to be alive to an anti-septic, cavernous mausoleum was a slap in the face that I don’t think most Canes fans ever truly recovered from. Sun Life Stadium will forever be compared to the Orange Bowl, and will forever not hold up well in those comparisons.
I was trying to figure out what the best football moment in Sun Life Stadium is, and I really can’t. The Dolphins and Canes have largely wallowed in mediocrity since moving there. If the Canes had moved to Sun Life in 1998 instead of 2008, and the 2000-2002 run had happened there, we might have better feelings about it.
But the Sun Life Stadium problems extend far beyond the intangible.
The seats are too damn far away from the field. Period. They renovated it, tried to make it more intimate, it just didn’t work. It has no character. Which then leads to a stale gameday atmosphere. Once again, though, this is something that can be mitigated by gameday production. Not fixed, but at least improved.
I went to the Dolphins-Cowboys game on Sunday and the Dolphins’ presentation is superior. From the players in the tunnel on the video board, right through to in-game work, it was just executed better. There were also fans there, which helped, but you do have to wonder why the Canes are not availing themselves of the production value that the Dolphins can generate. It still won’t fix the structural issues with the stadium, but it can at least do something.
The last problem is the location.
It’s just so far away from campus. The Orange Bowl was seven miles from campus. Sun Life Stadium is 21 miles from campus. It does make a difference, although I’d be interested to see an analysis of where fans attending games are actually coming from, since most don’t come from campus. Still, no doubt closer to campus is better.
Paradise Lost. Paradise Regained?
When I think of the Tropical Park solution to these problems, the first thing that comes to mind is that we have the gnawing desire to go back, but can’t go back. That’s not just in this context, but in life. I was reminded of this scene from Malcolm in the Middle where Malcolm jumps in a bouncy house when he’s too big because he wants to “go back.”
We can’t go back.
Some of the problems with Sun Life Stadium can be addressed, but we can’t go back to the Orange Bowl. It’s gone, replaced by a monstrosity (with the Marlins still looking for a name sponsor for their stadium, how has Banana Republic Park not happened yet? The fit is so natural). Any new stadium will not have the OB’s charm, character, or history. At best, you’ll get a cheap knockoff. That’s just reality.
Point is this: you don’t want to complain about going from Ken Dorsey to Brock Berlin, move stadiums to fix that situation, then find yourself with Kirby Freeman completing one pass against North Carolina State.
But there is plenty to like about this that will erase some of the issues with Sun Life.
The first is location, location, location. Four miles from campus. This is by far the closest to campus that they could feasibly put a stadium (Coral Gables will never allow it on campus). Traffic might be a nightmare (anyone who has ever driven on the Palmetto when Santa’s Enchanted Forest is open can attest to that), but it’s workable and there is highway access from the Dolphin and the Palmetto. This is a massive improvement over the current location.
Second, and more importantly, they get a blank slate. The Dolphins sunk $400 million into improving their stadium and they’ve done a great job with it, but they can’t replicate the freedom of starting over. The opportunity to custom build every feature to fit specifically to the Canes’ needs would be outstanding.
So right away, this stadium does resolve two issues with the current setup: (1) location and (2) atmosphere.
But it also opens up a whole new host of issues that don’t currently exist.
The first is cost. Lemonis very generously offered to donate the first million of what would presumably be a privately funded stadium. But how much would a stadium cost?
UCF dropped $55 million on what looks like an Erector Set. You would think at minimum Miami would need to spend $100 million (probably more). That’s a lot of money.
The second is Tropical Park. It’s not private property. I guess there could be some situation where the Canes lease the land the stadium would sit on, and then pay to build their stadium on it, but that wouldn’t make much sense to invest in something you don’t own. They can’t really buy Tropical Park. So, it would take some cooperation with Miami-Dade County (more on that later).
The third problem is upkeep. Back to that UCF Stadium… it opened in 2007 and in 2014 they already sunk an additional $8 million into renovations. Who is paying for the maintenance?
The good: building and maintaining a stadium allows you to keep 100 percent of the revenue coming out of the stadium.
The bad: building and maintaining stadium forces you to have a continuous stream of revenue coming in to put back into the stadium.
Deal with the Devil
One of my favorite quotes from Voltaire is “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
The Canes go in search of the “perfect” stadium and leave a good one, only to find themselves in a worse and possibly untenable financial situation.
Which is why we’ve actually come back full circle to where we were in the summer of 2007. Faced with the same dilemma, having to deal with Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami to avoid a potential fiscal time bomb.
Except the ground has changed a lot. I think Donna Shalala and Paul Dee grossly underestimated the importance of the Orange Bowl. It was worth fighting for, and they basically abdicated that responsibility. The lease deal ran out, and they went for the shiny new toy. All the window dressing they put on it won’t change that.
With that said, the decision was probably not in their hands. And that’s because the city had designs not only on the Orange Bowl land, but on the bond money that had been raised to renovate it. This article does a good job of discussing the move-out decision ramifications, but here are the highlights:
With the University of Miami Hurricanes officially out of the Orange Bowl by this football season’s end, the City of Miami is free to pursue the Florida Marlins as a tenant for the site.
Now that a UM-tailored revamp has been nixed, city and county commissioners most likely will need to reconsider allocation of the $50 million in earmarked bond money, Mr. Hernandez said — including possible funding of the city’s share of a new stadium for the Marlins.
The Canes were offered a dubious Orange Bowl renovation plan, with much of the funding up in the air, as well as a lease deal that could bring in $2 million less in revenue versus the lease deal offered by Sun Life.
When UM did the only responsible thing, which was to say, “we can’t live with this” and moved on, magically that allowed the city and county to not only have land for the new stadium (“hey, we can knock down the Orange Bowl”) and money (“well, we can reallocate that Orange Bowl renovation money”)… all their problems were solved. They prioritized the Marlins over the Canes.
The reason this is important is these are precisely the people (new politicians, but same problem) that the University of Miami would have to deal with. And there are certain things that need to be in place:
- The county would need to provide the land at Tropical Park for the stadium free of charge.
- UM would get control over design decisions and all revenue generated by the stadium from naming rights as well as parking and concessions during Miami games. The county/city could split the revenue for non-UM events.
- There would be a long-term lease in place with extensions that UM could take to keep the existing revenue model in place. That way, if the other parties decided to “force UM out” again, the Canes would at least have the option of continuing the existing agreement.
- There is an agreement to have a renovation fund that gets filled over time and is used as necessary so the Canes don’t end up “under the gun” again.
Now, UM can contribute to some (not all) of the construction costs. The Marlins Park split was 59.4% County, 20.9% City, and 19.7% Marlins.
UM could live with that equation. And that is where Lemonis’ contribution and other private donations would be put to use and UM could move back to Miami proper, near campus.
The truth is there is nothing wrong with Sun Life, other than the product on the field. The University of Miami will be fine playing their home games in a state-of-the-art stadium for the foreseeable future.
But part of being great is being opportunistic, and always looking for ways to improve. It will take a lot of political will, not just on the University’s side but also on the part of the county and city. If the will is there (I don’t think it is), and if the money is there (I also don’t think it is), then obstacles can be overcome.
We will never regain our nirvana, as the wrecking ball took it away, with the city, county and University’s fingerprints all over said wrecking ball. But at some point, hopefully we have a place where we can go watch games and feel at home again.
Maybe that will be a souped-up Sun Life with better gameday atmospheres or maybe it will be Tropical Park. Whatever it is, “sterile” is not a good adjective for a stadium, and that’s precisely how the current situation feels.
Follow Vishnu on Twitter @VRP2003