Sure, Miami has an empty stadium. And sure, Bruce Frey has pigskin on the brain. But that's no excuse for the Canadian football league.

The Dolphins were still for sale, despite the unexplained failure of Frey's first effort. Undeterred, he tried again, this time with a new partner, commodities trader John Henry. Together they bid $142 million for Dolphins ownership. Some members of the Robbie family heatedly lobbied their brother Tim, the team president, to accept the high offer, and to give each of them a few extra dollars to play with. But on this bid, Huizenga's presence was out in the open. The video king wanted to secure the stadium for his Marlins baseball team, so he took his option for the team and also purchased the remaining 50 percent of the stadium. Huizenga became the first man to own professional sports teams in three of the four major leagues. Frey owned sports teams in none of them.

At what could have been Frey's lowest moment, a man in Tampa died. His name was Hugh Culverhouse and he owned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, of the National Football League. Culverhouse was practical; he didn't want the sale of his team to tear apart his family the way the sale of the Dolphins had torn apart the Robbies. Culverhouse put the team in a trust designed to transfer ownership smoothly.

Frey found yet another partner and once again set out to leave his mark. With a concentration that bordered on madness (Frey admits he spent "every minute of the day" considering the deal), he attempted to buy the team. But the bidding, which reached $191 million, was out of his league. Frey was a three-time loser.

That's why, as he flipped through the cable channels one evening, the sight of the Canadian Football League was so alluring. Frey could purchase a team for only three million dollars. He could try to move the Las Vegas Posse down here or put in a bid for one of the many expansion teams. Through the CFL, he could find something to do with himself.

If everything were to go according to plan, the Miami Manatees would take the field in June 1996. And they would be Miami's own team, Frey says. While every other sport in South Florida seems to be moving north to Broward County, the Manatees would swim against the tide by staying in the heart of the city. Frey would call the team the Manatees -- those lumbering sea cows best known for running into motorboat propellers -- because they are local. A friend already designed a logo, a manatee holding a football under its right flipper. "We're not too thrilled with the logo choice," CFL Commissioner Larry Smith admitted as he pointed to a Manatees poster in an Orange Bowl elevator. "Look at that guy. There's no way he's going to run very fast."

Before the Manatees could run at all, they needed a stadium. That was a no-brainer. In March, Frey approached then-Orange Bowl stadium manager Max Cruz to see if the city might be interested in helping bring a new football team to Miami. This was roughly the equivalent of bringing a keg of malt liquor to an AA meeting. Miami has been desperate for a tenant at the Orange Bowl, long one of the area's most identifiable landmarks, as well as an economic engine.

The stadium opened in the early 1930s as the 4000-seat Wooden Bowl. In 1937 the federal government transformed it into the concrete-and-steel Orange Bowl, a name that became synonymous with the New Year's Day football game that had been added to the Festival of the Palms to bring tourists to town a month earlier.

Professional football's first team to inhabit the bowl failed miserably. The Miami Seahawks lost every game in their inaugural 1946 season and moved immediately to Baltimore, where they became the Colts. The Miami Dolphins, who began to play in the Orange Bowl in 1967, had more success. For twenty years they were one of the best teams in pro sports, winning Super Bowls and making Miami a championship town.

Then they left. Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, tired of waiting for improvements to the Orange Bowl, built his own stadium near the Broward County line. The structure included luxury skyboxes, modern lockers, updated electronics, and such other amenities that the National Collegiate Athletic Association pressured the Orange Bowl Committee to move its annual game there as well, beginning January 1, 1997.

Now city officials were ready to throw themselves at the Canadian Football League. Not only were they eager to let Frey use the stadium without charge for the exhibition, they also were willing to waive any rent for the next three years should he snag a CFL team. "We are willing and able [to host the CFL] if the league wants us and if Mr. Frey works out the finances," Miami City Manager Cesar Odio told reporters. "Miami is behind the effort 100 percent, both in the political and civic realm." Adding to that ringing endorsement was the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, which formally made the acquisition of a CFL team a top priority.

For the exhibition game, the International Trade Board kicked in some money. So did the Sports and Exhibition Authority. The city, the county, and other governmental bodies handed over more than $150,000 of taxpayers' money, according to City Commissioner Victor De Yurre, chairman of the Sports and Exhibition Authority. "We might take a bath with this game, but it's something we have to do," De Yurre said. "We're trying to bring events into the city."

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