There is often a sense in Britain that Americans don’t care too much about their sports franchises uprooting and heading for pastures new, seemingly at the drop of a hat. Nothing could be further from the truth.
If anything, it is true to say that some franchise owners have shown scant regard for the consequences of their actions in relocating, often ignoring the damage done to people and communities when they decide that their relationship with a city is broken beyond repair or find the lure of easy money elsewhere too great to resist.
In the past 30 years, the cities of Baltimore, St Louis, Los Angeles (twice), Houston and Cleveland have all felt the bitter sting that comes with watching your NFL team load up the trucks and head out of town.
And others, most notably Minnesota, Buffalo and Jacksonville, have spent the past 10 years in almost constant fear of being next on the chopping block, with the vultures circling, waiting for the smallest indication of weakness.
Now it is Miami’s turn and as with so many of the previous hit-list, I find my initial reaction to be ‘nah, that will never happen’. That belief however, is based on nothing more than historical sentimentality and if there is one thing NFL owners don’t have a great history of doing it is sentimentality.
But still, don’t you find yourself thinking about the name and trying to imagine it being transplanted to another city, a place where the famous mammal might not sound so appropriate? The Memphis Dolphins? The San Antonio Dolphins? The Oklahoma Dolphins? For some reason I just can’t thinking of an NFL Dolphin being anywhere except in Miami.
But now that the team’s relationship with the state’s governing body has fallen into serious disrepair, the future of the club is very much on the table for discussion and, as usual, it all boils down to money, lots of money.
The Dolphins want a stadium renovation to be paid for in a private-public partnership that would cost around $400million and would amount to a substantial rebuild but the state legislature has baulked in these austere times, so much so that house speaker Will Weatherford wouldn’t even allow the stadium bill to be brought to a vote.
And if this is the opening salvo in the final chapter on the Dolphins life in south Florida, it will be one that has been on the cards for a long time but one which, right up until its final act, and just like the situation two decades ago in Cleveland, will remain one that none of us will really believe will happen. Until it does.
The Dolphins have claimed they still have no immediate intention to quit and find somewhere else to play but they also made it clear this week that owner Stephen Ross, who is 73, intends to sell the club some day and that a new ownership may look differently on that question if they can’t get a stadium upgrade.
Dolphins CEO Mike Dee said of the future of the team in their current home: “The Dolphins are one of the only franchises in the NFL that don’t have a long-term lease with their community. At some point, somebody’s going to buy the franchise from owner Stephen Ross, and clearly the stadium is the first thing they would need to address.”
From their birth in the mid-1960s up until the late-1980s, the Dolphins were synonymous with the Orange Bowl. They went together just like…well, just like Miami and Dolphins. The Orange Bowl was steeped in history and tradition, a vast horseshoe-arena where the open end had a scoreboard and some palm trees, rather than a sponsored corporate zone or a bleed-fans-dry concession area.
But as the NFL moved toward a more financially-driven age, where some owners saw it coming a lot quicker than others, Dolphins owner Joe Robbie proposed finding a new venue and pushed for the stadium north of the city which has been the team’s home for the past 26 years. It was originally called Joe Robbie Stadium although over the years, it has changed its title to Pro Player Park, then Pro Player Stadium, then Dolphins Stadium, then Dolphin Stadium, then Land Shark Stadium, and finally on to Sun Life Stadium. I say finally, although with Sun Life soon to stop selling insurance in America, it would appear a fresh round of naming-rights sales might soon be underway.
The original stadium cost $115m to build in 1987, a cost which seems remarkably reasonable. But since then it has seen upgrades, most notably around the time of Super Bowl XLI when some $250m was spent on making it a fitter place to hold such a prestigious event.
And boy, it was badly in need of it. The full renovation was not complete by the time the Colts beat the Bears in a downpour, the first time it had rained on an outdoor Super Bowl. And maybe the weather was a prophet of doom. In that stadium, there is very little protection from the elements, with the only shelter being a few rows of seats in the lower deck which are overlapped by those in the upper deck. I was sitting in the Press box right at the point where that protection ends and the rain was dribbling off the top tier right into the seats below, with writers frantically using whatever they could to cover books, bags, laptops and televisions while still trying to watch the game and work.
At one point, having almost given up, I retreated under the overhang to go to the toilet and was horrified by what I saw. There were cracks in the plaster underneath the overhang and water was coming through them. This was February 2007, a mere 20 years after the gleaming new 75,000-seat building had been opened with its boast about there not being a bad seat in the house. And they were right, the sight-lines were magnificent.
Now, two decades on, here it was looking like a sorry imitation of a once-great venue. In fact, it had become just what the Orange Bowl was by the time Joe Robbie decided to move on. If nothing else, it goes to prove the point about how easily a new stadium can fall into disrepair if its operators don’t constantly keep on top of servicing it. The same thing happened to the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona, which was a shadow of its former self within 15 years of hosting the 1992 Games.
And that lack of servicing is going to be costly for Miami’s hopes of hosting either Super Bowl L or Super Bowl LI when those come to a vote at the NFL owners meeting in Boston later this month. It would appear almost nailed-on that the 49ers new stadium in Santa Clara will get the nod for the first of those while Houston is front and centre for the second one, especially now that Florida has rejected the Dolphins proposal for stadium funding.
Ross said: “In the weeks ahead, I will do all I can to convince my fellow owners to bring the Super Bowl back to Miami-Dade. The Bid Committee has done a tremendous job to give us a great shot, and my only hope is that it is enough to overcome the terrible message Speaker Weatherford has sent to the NFL. In addition, I will continue to do all I can to build a winning team for the people of Miami-Dade.”
As with all these situations, there is a lot of posturing going on but when a state blocks funding by not even bringing it to a vote and a team in the modern NFL finds itself falling behind financially because it cannot tap into the revenue sources some of its competitors enjoy from a new building, posturing tends to turn into something far more threatening.
Miami is a great sports town and the people there will care deeply if they find themselves watching the Reno Dolphins on television. You would think the two sides could find a way to settle their differences.
But, as we all know, we have been here before in other cities.
Terrell Owens has been many things to many people over his years in the NFL but I never really had him pegged as The Dude.
Owens is fast approaching his 40th birthday and he hasn’t played in the NFL since the 2010 season when he caught 72 passes for Cincinnati. He did sign with Seattle last summer but was released before the season began.
Clearly, the man who has more than 1,000 NFL catches and a hugely-impressive 153 touchdowns, still has an itch for playing in the NFL. He recently worked out with New England quarterback Tom Brady and, despite downplaying that session as being nothing significant, he couldn’t resist throwing out a juicy bone on the question of an NFL revival.
He first said: “We happened to be on the same field at the same time, and it obviously created a big buzz with the two of us being on the field throwing the football around. There was really nothing organised about it as far as me trying to get with the Patriots or him pursuing me or anything like that.”
But when asked if he would like to be back in NFL pads, particularly with the Patriots, he added: “I think that’s a no-brainer. You look at what they’ve done over the years. Under the tutelage of Tom and coach Belichick, I think the sky would be the limit in terms of what I’d be able to do. Considering my body of work and my history of playing the game.”
In case it doesn’t happen – and the Pats are reported not to be interested – Owens seems to have already developed an alternative sporting career, one that age would not wither. T.O. has taken up bowling.
Owens is an owner of the Dallas Strikers, one of eight teams playing in the Professional Bowlers Association League, a semi-professional set-up, and he has just made his debut on the lanes, rolling games of 185, 129, and 161.
And this wasn’t just for a gimmick. He has been working with coaches to get his game up to speed. Owens said: “I have a lot of stuff going on right now, but there happened to be a break in my schedule. I wanted to experience this tournament, and the experience was good. I’m really into bowling, and I like it a lot.”
T.O. will never roll as well as he caught. You could show me him rolling a perfect 300 and I would still say he was a better receiver than being cut out for The Big Lebowski.
As for an NFL return? I have learned in this game never to say never. However much of a pain in the backside he could be, T.O. was a dude as a football player.
And The Dude abides, man. The Dude abides.