MIRACLE OF MIAMI : They Said Joe Robbie Could Not Do It, but His Stadium Is Proof He Could--and Did

Share via
Times Staff Writer

Seeing Joe Robbie Stadium--the new $100-million home of the Miami Dolphins--rising out of the sand flats of South Florida, one thing comes to mind:

Don’t get Joe Robbie in a poker game and try to bluff him.

That is what the city of Miami tried to do with the 71-year-old Dolphin owner. When civic administrators told him that they wouldn’t build him a new stadium, that he could keep his team in the antiquated Orange Bowl and like it, Robbie called their bluff.

On March 5, 1984, he announced plans to build a stadium in time for the 1987 season, when he would no longer be bound by his Orange Bowl lease. He said that after 1986, the Dolphins would never play another game in the city-owned stadium, which was built in 1937 by the Works Project Administration.


“If Mr. Robbie can do it, he should get a prize as sugar daddy of the year,” Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre said at the time. “The proof of the pie is that nobody in America has built a stadium based on 15 dates a year.”

So meet Joe Robbie, sugar daddy of the year.

The state-of-the-art stadium, the first of its kind built with private funding, will have its grand opening tonight when the Dolphins play the Chicago Bears in a National Football League exhibition game.

The site, 14 miles north of the Orange Bowl in a low-income rural area known as Lake Lucerne, is significant because it is outside the city limits of Miami--thus denying the city tax revenues. It is in unincorporated Dade County.

A council report said that the city will lose $1.2 million in revenue from the Dolphins’ departure. County officials estimated that Dade County will realize about $2 million in taxes.

“The standing challenge in Miami always was, ‘If Joe Robbie wants a new stadium, let him build it himself,’ ” Robbie said. “I suppose that’s what first got my interest. I don’t think I’d have done it if they hadn’t told me it couldn’t be done.”

Although Robbie had to hock the Dolphins, right down to their last jersey and pair of cleats, to keep construction going, he did not skimp in making the stadium a showcase for NFL football. The luxury suites, which lease for up to $65,000 a year for 10 years, are truly luxurious.


Each suite, which seats from 10 to 16 people in theater-type chairs, is fully furnished with carpeting, air conditioning, two TV monitors, refrigerator, ice maker, liquor cabinet, lounge furniture, catered food and beverage service, telephones and, if you want to hear the masses cheering, sliding windows that let in noises from the outside world.

The executive suites were Robbie’s chief source of early revenue to stimulate loans from banking establishments. His plan was to raise $9 million in security deposits by leasing 216 executive suites for $29,000 to $65,000, depending on their size and location, and 10,000 club seats for $600 to $1,400.

The club seats are outdoors but all are directly beneath overhanging boxes, thus giving them shade from the blazing Florida sun. And, to refresh club seat ticket holders from the oppressive humidity--day or night--a 34-inch duct will blow cool air on them.

Both suites and club seats are reachable by private escalator and are located on a hotel-like concourse that circles the stadium. With bars and easy chairs, it has the atmosphere of a private club.

The stadium was designed with the thought that half the fans will be women--a departure from older stadium planning. Thus, there are as many women’s restroom facilities as men’s, 40.

Two gigantic scoreboards, 140 feet wide and 56 feet high, stand like billboards at each end of the playing field. They are capable of showing instant replays, movies, commercials--even scores of other games. Not surprisingly, they are sponsored by those staples of American sports, Winston and Budweiser.


The field is natural grass and, as a concession to the tropical rains, has a drainage system designed to return a firm playing surface within 30 minutes of a one-inch-an-hour downpour.

Once Robbie announced his plans, he and his staff didn’t sit back and wait for people to knock down the door. He organized a traveling show, complete with a film that included pictures of comparable suites in Sullivan Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, and hit the road to service and civic groups, conventions, industrial firms and country clubs. Inside a van, brightly painted in the Dolphins’ aqua and orange, was a model of the stadium, allowing potential ticket buyers a graphic look at their future football home.

When the Dolphins played in the 1985 Super Bowl game against the San Francisco 49ers in Palo Alto, Calif., Robbie offered tickets to the game and transportation on a chartered plane for anyone buying a suite in his new stadium.

He met his goal in less than two years.

Robbie is such a salesman that before the 160-acre site had even been cleared, using only architect’s renderings, he had booked the 1989 Super Bowl into his stadium.

One of his lures to NFL owners was that each would have his own luxury suite to use at the Super Bowl. He accomplished that by limiting box holders to half their normal seats for Super Bowl games and having them double up.

And one cannot walk into the almost square facility without seeing the immediate possibilities of converting it for baseball. With major league baseball, the 15 dates a year that Mayor Ferre scoffed at could be expanded by at least 81 regular-season games. Home plate will be in the southwest corner of the field.


The stadium didn’t carry Robbie’s name when it was announced. Then, it was Dolphin Stadium, but last April the name was changed by his children.

“We have seen our father lay everything he owns and everything he has accomplished on the line to build the stadium, putting himself in a real bind,” said Tim Robbie, vice president in charge of public affairs and one of four offspring on the Dolphin staff.

“If he had flunked the marketing test or the private financing test, the project would have been Joe Robbie’s folly. So why not Joe Robbie Stadium?”

Workmen will still be crawling over the stadium tonight, even as the Dolphins and the Bears kick off, fixing those pesky new-construction problems that always seem to arise. But the stadium, all 74,993 seats color-coded in aqua and orange, is a reality.

Twenty months ago, the 160 acres were a sandy blight, a garbage-dumping area for local residents where motorcyclists and three-wheel riders came on weekends to spin doughnuts and do wheelies in the barren sand. The Snake Creek canal borders the property on the north, with the Calder Race Track, for thoroughbred racing, on the other side of the canal.

It is 16 miles from downtown Miami, but also only 18 miles south of Fort Lauderdale and less than an hour’s drive from the Gold Coast region of West Palm Beach-Boca Raton. Robbie rightly anticipated that he could sell more of his high-priced seats to the affluent residents of Broward and Palm Beach counties to the north than he could in Miami.


Robbie leases the property from Dade County for $1 a year on a 99-year lease. The site was donated to the county by the property owners, Lawrence and Emil Morton of Miami, with an understanding that it would be used as a stadium site. The Mortons still own 270 acres adjacent to the stadium and plan to develop the land with hotels, restaurants, offices, shops and condominiums.

The plan did not please everyone, however. As was Walter O’Malley’s takeover of Chavez Ravine for the Dodgers in 1958, Robbie’s was met with resistance by residents of neighboring tracts.

On several occasions, groups of homeowners in the predominantly black neighborhoods sought to block construction of the stadium. One suit, claiming that their civil rights were being violated, asked for $100 million in damages.

Another suit charged that Dade County had illegally conspired to rezone the 160 acres from residential to commercial, basing the suit on a 1977 land-use restriction that was supposed to protect the neighborhood against commercial development. The restrictive covenant had been the Mortons’ idea when they wanted to rezone the property from agricultural use to residential.

The restriction prevented the land from being used commercially unless developers obtained permission from a majority of the homeowners living within 350 feet. Rather than fight the suit, the Mortons and Robbie revised their plans so that the project was at least 351 feet from most of the homes.

The restriction also said that consent had to be granted by landowners who held more than 50% of the acreage adjacent to the property. That added up to 104 acres, far more than would have been obtainable from homeowners.


So the Mortons and Robbie enlisted the help of Dade County, which owned a library and 17 acres of road rights of way; the South Florida Water Management District, which owned the Snake Creek Canal; and the state Department of Transportation, which owns the Florida Turnpike and Northwest 27th Avenue.

The homeowners cried foul, but it didn’t do any good. Betty Ferguson, a leader of the Rolling Oaks Homeowners Assn. and an outspoken opponent of the stadium, said, “We’re fighting a giant and sometimes we feel like we only have a slingshot.”

The zoning change was made by a 7-1 vote of the Metro Dade Commission after an eight-hour meeting that lasted until 1:15 a.m. The carnival scene included stadium supporters from the North Dade Chamber of Commerce who wore orange Dolphin jackets, and a predominantly black group wearing green T-shirts with “Save our Community” on the backs.

The homeowners cause was pleaded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who flew in from Washington for the meeting.

Although the homeowners lost the zoning fight, their suit did manage to hold up an $85-million issue of tax-exempt bonds that the Dade County Industrial Development Authority had approved for building the stadium. Robbie’s three financing agencies, Citibank of New York, Marine Midland Bank of Buffalo, N.Y., and Southeast Bank of Miami, would not release the bond money while the lawsuits were pending.

So Robbie put up his team as collateral on an estimated $25-million loan to keep construction moving--at a slightly higher interest rate--from CenTrust Savings Bank of Miami in May, 1986. To secure the loan, CenTrust asked for, and received, as collateral the Dolphin team, including the NFL franchise agreement, player contracts, all TV and radio rights, concessions, all equipment such as furniture, uniforms and supplies, and all playing and practice facilities used by the team.


That loan was repaid when the bond money was released.

Then there were the two acres that archeologists claimed were an Indian burial ground more than 1,000 years ago. They said that the Tequesta Indians had used the site about 800 A.D., and the Seminole Indians in the mid-19th century. The burial grounds were excavated in 6-inch increments as experts sifted through the diggings.

Such tribulations were nothing to new to Robbie, a crusty South Dakota native who mortgaged his home in Minneapolis in 1966 to come up with his share of $7.5 million needed for him and entertainer Danny Thomas to buy into the old American Football League. The Dolphins’ first game attracted only 26,700 to the Orange Bowl and when things didn’t improve, Thomas sold out.

Robbie bought out lesser investors one by one until only two owners remained, himself and South Florida Sports Corp., which is composed of his wife, Elizabeth, and four of their children.

When Joe Robbie Stadium was opened for a “Family Night” look-see two weeks ago, the reviews ranged from raves to rage.

Traffic was the foremost problem. There are only 14,970 parking places--plus 254 for buses--and they weren’t enough to handle the 35,000 to 40,000 lookie-loos. Mike Robbie, Joe’s son and the team’s general manager, quickly pointed out that the Orange Bowl had only 3,600 spaces. Still, there was plenty of neighborhood parking available at the Orange Bowl, and there is none at the new stadium.

The other complaint was seat assignments for longtime ticket holders. That’s not hard to understand. The Orange Bowl has 35,000 seats between the goal lines and there are only 28,000 at Joe Robbie Stadium. But even the critics agreed that improved sight lines made the new seats more desirable.


“Once anyone goes in (to the new stadium), it’s going to be tough to get them back to the Orange Bowl,” said Edwin Pope, sports editor of the Miami Herald.

Robbie was more succinct: “The Orange Bowl has 75,000 seats of equal quality--none of them is any good. I maintain that any seat in the new stadium is better than every seat in the Orange Bowl.”

All that is left is for Don Shula to get the Dolphins winning again so that fans will fill the stadium and help Robbie pay off his $100 million in loans.

“I figured it out on my little pocket computer,” Robbie said. “I’ll have everything paid for by 2016.”

On July 7 that year, Joe Robbie will be 100.