Tennis tournament closing in on move from Key Biscayne to Dolphins stadium

Douglas Hanks and Michelle Kaufman, Miami Herald on

Published in Tennis

Roughly six months after Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross proposed moving Miami's premier tennis tournament from Key Biscayne, Fla., to his stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., both sides appear to be getting closer to a deal.

Talks continue between the Dolphins and IMG, the owner of the for-profit tennis tournament, which says it needs modern tennis and entertainment facilities to remain competitive with rivals around the world. But a global tennis authority that oversees the springtime Miami Open tournament has already endorsed a potential move, and several sources close to the talks described the negotiations as being on the verge of a deal.

"I do think it's imminent," Key Biscayne Mayor Mayra Pena Lindsay said of an agreement for the tournament to leave its longtime island home. "But it hasn't been officially made."

Lindsay has no role in the negotiations, but said she has talked to multiple people involved in the island's largest annual event. Sources close to the talks caution more discussions are needed to reach a deal, and Miami-Dade has not yet received a request to release the tournament from the remaining six years on its lease at the county's Crandon Park.

The 2018 tournament would continue as planned at the waterfront Crandon complex, with the possibility of 2019 being the event's debut inland at Ross' Hard Rock Stadium.

Ross offers the tournament a way to stay in the Miami area while securing the growing room it failed to win in court during a complicated battle with Miami-Dade rules governing the Open's home in Crandon. A 2014 deal with Miami-Dade tied to Ross' $500 million renovation of Hard Rock brings extra sweetener to the deal, since the county agreed to pay the team up to $5 million a year for landing the Super Bowl and other major sporting events.

While the agreement does not contemplate payments for a tennis tournament, the Dolphins' negotiating team has already said the Miami Open should qualify for at least $2 million a year, based on the 2014 deal's criteria.

IMG wanted to spend $50 million on new grandstands, player facilities and entertainment areas, and a 2012 countywide referendum endorsed the plans with more than 70 percent of the vote. But rules tied to a 1993 settlement over the stadium's original construction give the Matheson family, which once owned the park, the right to appoint two seats on a four-person panel that must approve all expansion plans at Crandon.

Unable to secure three votes, the tournament tried to have the rules overturned in court. When that failed, the Open began looking for new places to play.

In March, Ross' interest in snagging the tournament became public. His privately owned stadium grounds would be converted into a tennis complex for the March event, which used to be called the Lipton and each year brings some of the biggest stars in tennis to Crandon. Major matches would be played within Hard Rock Stadium itself, with new courts and spectator areas constructed in parking lots outside.

ATP, the tennis organization that oversees part of the tournament, has already tentatively endorsed a move, according to several sources. Locally, Miami Gardens would need to approve the building plan, and the city's mayor said some details still need to be resolved.

"The deal is not done," Mayor Oliver Gilbert said. "They are working on it."

A Dolphins spokesman declined to comment. Samuel Henderson, IMG communications director for tennis, declined to comment beyond saying "We are looking forward to hosting the 2018 tournament at the Crandon Park Tennis Center."

The Crandon restrictions helped foil President Donald Trump's bid to take over the park's golf course in the months before he launched his presidential campaign. They also made Bruce Matheson, the heir holding the family's seat on the Crandon panel, the tournament's top foe. While Miami-Dade lawyers defended the 1993 settlement with the Matheson family that established the rules, Mayor Carlos Gimenez declared the restrictions too cumbersome and sided with the Open.

Gimenez has already endorsed the Open's move to Hard Rock, saying he doesn't want the tournament to end its local run. A spokesman Thursday said the mayor still embraces the idea.

"Mayor Gimenez is supportive of any agreement that keeps the Miami Open in Miami-Dade County," spokesman Michael Hernandez said.

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