When news leaked last week about Stephen Ross' revised plans to renovate Sun Life Stadium, most taxpayers had the same knee-jerk reaction: Victory! Just a year after public outrage helped sink Ross' request for $127 million from the county, the Dolphins' owner was now ready to open his own wallet to the tune of $350 million to spruce up the place.
Of course there was a catch: He's asking Miami-Dade County to eat about $4 million a year in taxes. Though that still sounds like a pretty sweet deal, the devil will be in the details. And as usual, it's a fair bet the billionaire will come out just fine in the end.
Ross made the media rounds pitching the deal as something pretty close to charity, and at face value, he is putting more skin in the game. Last year's failed deal would have sent between $7 million and $16 million from annual hotel taxes toward construction for 26 years. The new package would mean just $4 million in lost revenue every year.
Stephen Ross' New Sun Life Stadium Proposal Is Still a Rip-off
But unlike those hotel taxes, that $4 million is real money that's already being used to pay for stuff Miamians need. About $1.3 million of it goes to the school board, while another $1 million goes to the city government of impoverished Miami Gardens.
That's why both Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert have pushed back hard, with Gilbert telling the Miami Herald: "I can't pay my police officers, I can't pay FPL, I can't pay teachers we use for after-school activities" without the Dolphins tax revenue.
The deal's problems go even deeper. No one has worked out just how long a tax-free deal the Fins would get. If it's a 30-year deal — not far out of line from many other national stadium projects — taxpayers will end up handing over almost the same $120 million Ross asked for last year.
"You're basically pushing the can down the road for taxpayers," says Neil deMause, author of Field of Schemes, a book about how stadium deals bilk taxpayers. "I think it's fair to say that this is in the same ballpark as the old deal in terms of public subsidy."
And if the team signs on for a shorter term, that just gives the franchise more leverage to threaten to leave Miami-Dade. In fact, just one day after making his friendly media rounds, Ross was already pulling out that old trump card.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"If I sell the team, I can assure you, with the viewpoint of the politicians and what they want to do, the new owner is going to move the team," Ross told the Herald.
That gets to the rotten heart of the matter. Ross can dress up his request however he wants, but in the end he's still playing the same game with taxpayers: Give me millions of your dollars or I'll take my ball and go somewhere else.
The result, always, is politicians making huge financial commitments based on fear, not on sound economic policy. It's emotional blackmail, plain and simple, with a beloved franchise as the bait, and coming from an owner who is worth $5.4 billion by Forbes' last estimate. That generous $350 million renovation will affect his personal finances roughly the same way buying a used car would affect yours.
Fins fans have emphatically said no to billionaire welfare once already. There's no reason to say yes this time just because Ross has flipped around a few cups in the everlasting NFL subsidy shell game.