Miami Open commits to playing tennis at the Dolphins’ stadium – if the county approves


The Miami Open tennis tournament would move from Key Biscayne to Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens in 2019 under a deal that would eventually include a $1 million annual county subsidy from an existing agreement that pays the Miami Dolphins up to $5 million a year for major sporting events.

Miami-Dade commissioners must approve the agreement, but the parent company of the long-running tennis event has already signed paperwork with the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez to make 2018 the last year for the tournament on Key Biscayne. The for-profit International Players Championship wants to build more tournament facilities at Crandon Park to increase revenue, but existing rules prevent the expansion.

While Gimenez backs the expansion, a legal agreement tied to the Matheson family, which once owned the parkland, has foiled the effort to expand, with courts rejecting lawsuits by the tournament to overturn the rules. Tournament executives have promised to leave Key Biscayne without expanded facilities.

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is pursuing adding tennis to the football and soccer matches that are his stadium’s main draws. He proposes building a $53 million facility to host tournament events in parking lots outside the stadium, while the marquis tennis matches would be held in Hard Rock Stadium itself.

The deal would end one of the oldest traditions of professional sports in the Miami area. Once known as the Lipton International Players Championship, the tennis tournament debuted on Key Biscayne in 1987 — coincidentally, that’s the same year the Dolphins started playing in what was then called Joe Robbie Stadium — and drew spectators from around the world to the lush, waterfront county stadium built for the event.

If all goes as planned, the final Key Biscayne tournament will be in March 2018 and then switch to the inland stadium site off of Florida’s Turnpike in Miami Gardens.

The Miami Open is one of the oldest sporting traditions in Miami

Tournament organizers under parent company IMG say without larger facilities, they can’t offer the prize money that keeps star players competing at the Miami Open.

In 2014, the county commission agreed to pay the Dolphins up to $5 million a year in bonuses for major sporting events in exchange for Ross privately funding a more than $400 million renovation of the stadium. The 20-year deal pays $4 million for a Super Bowl and less for smaller events.

Under the agreement on the agenda for the commission’s Dec. 5 meeting, the relocated tennis tournament would qualify for $1 million towards each year’s $5 million cap. The payments would begin in 2024 and are expected to total $13 million.

The Crandon Park Tennis Center has hosted Miami's largest tennis tournament since 1994.

In a memo, Gimenez said the county and the tournament owner have entered into a termination agreement for the original 1986 lease for Crandon. In exchange for leaving before the lease expires in 2023, the tournament will pay the county $1.3 million and agree not to leave Miami-Dade for 20 years.

His memo shows the county losing money each year hosting the tournament, with parks needing about $1 million a year to cover the event’s expenses.

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