Glitz, glamour of Dolphins' owners bring NFL to new fans

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. ? New Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is bringing diversity to the NFL as it has never been done before.

In adding limited partners who bring celebrity and cultural appeal ?Marc Anthony, Venus and Serena Williams and Gloria and Emilio Estefan ? he is not only reaching out to the Hispanic, African-American and Cuban-American communities but attempting to give the Dolphins the cachet they need to sell tickets in a market filled with sun-splashed diversions.

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"We've eliminated the exclusivity of it being an all-white man's club," Ross says. "That's what I want people to feel. We want you."

Ross, 69, purchased 95% of the team for $1.1 billion Jan. 20. Previous owner H. Wayne Huizenga, one of six limited partners, retained 5% of an investment that initially cost him $138 million in 1994.

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The billionaire real estate developer has not worried about blending in and becoming another white male owner in a sports landscape filled with them.

"I don't know how they think. I'm not looking to be where everybody else is," Ross says of NFL counterparts. "I want to write my own script."

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sees Ross' innovative approach to a challenging market as an example of the league's effort to build its minority fan base.

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"Steve is providing tremendous leadership," he says. "I think he is bringing an ownership together that reflects the diversity and spirit and determination of the South Florida community."

When the Dolphins hosted the New York Jets on Monday night and Cuban-born singer Gloria Estefan teamed with Hank Williams Jr. in a bilingual version of Are You Ready for Some Football?, it culminated the NFL's celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. The pregame also included a taped appearance by President Obama, who concluded by speaking in Spanish and translating: "We are all Americans."

Hope for future generations

The American dream might be the same, but progress minorities have made in coaching and front-office ranks is not usually reflected in sports ownership.

The Los Angeles Angels' Arte Moreno, who bought the club in 2003, represents the first Hispanic owner of any U.S. professional franchise. Robert Johnson, who has operated the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats since 2003, was the first African American to own a majority stake in an NBA franchise. Charles Wang came to the USA from Shanghai and taught himself about the nuances of hockey before purchasing the New York Islanders in 2000.

While Ross will not identify the level of commitment made by his new partners beyond saying they are "all seven-figure investments," his actions are charged with meaning.

"You've got thousands of kids all over the world saying, 'This is something I could add to the list,' " says singer/songwriter Anthony, whose parents are Puerto Rican and whose wife, Jennifer Lopez, shares his interest in the team. "I can be an NFL owner."

Says Venus Williams via e-mail, "It's a first step to introduce such a diverse group of people to ownership of a professional sports team, and hopefully it will lead to additional minority owners in the NFL."

Goodell noted that the last three teams to enter the league, the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars in 1995 and the Houston Texans in 2002, involved minorities as limited partners.

"Diversity is important to us on all levels," he says.

Former running back Curtis Martin, eager to be part of NFL ownership since his playing career ended with the 2005 season, does not think Goodell is all politically correct talk.

"People at the NFL have gone above and beyond to assist me," says Martin, an African American. "The opportunity has always been there. The bigger problem has been finding people who have the wherewithal. It's a big check."

Texans owner Robert McNair thought it logical to seek investors with diverse backgrounds.

"I wanted the city to feel this was their team," he says, "so I wanted to bring in people who were representative of the community."

His limited partners include Javier Loya (Hispanic), Kirbyjon Caldwell (African American), Harry Gee (Asian) and Fayez Sarofim (Egyptian).

"They are very small percentages," McNair says while declining to specify amounts. "The main thing is to give them a seat at the table."

The celebrity aspect does not interest him, however.

"It's not the sort of thing we'd be doing here because our fans are crazy about football already," he says. "You don't need to do anything to stir them up."

Bringing back the fans

In the South Florida melting pot, stirring is necessary.

"The entertainment dollar is so spread out, how you market is important," says former Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, a Fox analyst. "The entertainment dollar in Green Bay is going to go one place, and that's the way it is in many NFL cities."

According to figures provided by new Dolphins CEO Mike Dee, season-ticket sales fell to 46,179 in 2008, their lowest level since 1992. The drop from 54,647 season tickets in 2007 followed a league-worst 1-15 mark. With Bill Parcells taking over football operations before last season, Miami improved to 11-5 and won the AFC East. Dee said 49,187 season tickets have been purchased this year with sales continuing through October. He estimated fewer than 25,000 seats remain for five games. The Dolphins' average ticket price of $65.61 is below the league average of $74.99, according to Team Market Report.

The outlook is not as encouraging for the 2-3 Dolphins when it comes to the enormous revenue typically generated through the renting of suites. Miami has leased 145 of the 190 available.

Arun Sharma, professor of marketing at the University of Miami, believes Ross' business strategy is aimed at attracting the most affluent in a market that, based on the 2005 U.S. census, has a wide mix of white, Hispanic/Latino and black population.

"It's much more about the high end because skyboxes are in trouble all around the country," Sharma says. "People will buy skyboxes if there are going to be celebrities. People will say, 'Serena Williams' skybox is two away from me,' so the value rises."

Venus Williams emphasizes that nothing boosts attendance more than winning, but she also writes, "I'm hopeful that the attendance at our games reflects the makeup of our community."

Fan Rick Holton, who is black, says the Williamses' involvement sends a powerful message. "You don't need to hold a racket. You can hold a pen," he says.

Ross also took on Jimmy Buffett as a business partner after Buffett's financial interest in casinos in Connecticut and Mississippi precluded him from becoming a limited partner, according to league guidelines. The stadium has been renamed Land Shark Stadium, for this season, to help promote Buffett's beer. The team would not reveal deal details.

Ross is looking to Buffett and his celebrity investors with backgrounds in entertainment to turn home games into events, beginning with the carpet colored in Dolphins orange that celebrities walk on to enter the stadium.

Ross is convinced the game is not enough. "Competing for the entertainment dollar, you've got to offer them more," he says.

Linebacker Jason Taylor, who has spent all but one of his 13 seasons in Miami, says it's beginning to feel like "Hollywood South. It's like going to a (Los Angeles) Lakers game," he says. "There's a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding games, and it increases entertainment value for fans."

Some fans see the glitz and glamour and struggle with mixed emotions. "I am in favor of it. I'm living in the new millennium," says Phil Kappes, adding that his family has held season tickets for at least 40 years. "But I'm an old gridiron guy who says it has nothing to do with the game."

Anthony resents any suggestion that Ross is motivated primarily by the bottom line.

"We're not tokens. It's not, 'We've got one for the Latin community.' No, no, no," he says. "We are people with a passion for the game. We have a vision for the team, and we love the sport."

The Estefans helped produce and choreograph Monday night's halftime show.

"I always wanted to be a model for new generations," Emilio says. "It's about telling people, 'Yes, you can do it.' "

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones describes Ross as a breath of fresh air.

"He has an outsider-looking-in enthusiasm," Jones says. "He doesn't have some of the things that happen to all of us, that we get set in certain ways of operating our franchises."

Edited by JediXAngel
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