Miami Open balks at deal to move tennis to Hard Rock. “Grave risk” of leaving county

It was supposed to be a moment of triumph, as Miami-Dade commissioners voted to approve a deal allowing the Miami Open tennis tournament to break its county lease on Key Biscayne and move to Hard Rock Stadium with a $1 million yearly subsidy.

But Tuesday’s decision saw tournament representatives rushing out of the commission chambers, refusing to say whether they would accept the relocation plan amid a last-minute dispute with the county mayor over an outstanding audit of what the event allegedly owes Miami-Dade.

“We’re going to regroup,” Wendy Elkin, senior vice president of the Miami Open, said on the escalator in her lone reply to media questions asking about the vote. Minutes earlier, she told commissioners: We are at grave risk of not staying in Miami with this deal.”

The developments left even more questions hovering over the future of Miami’s premiere tennis tournament, which has threatened to move from Key Biscayne once its lease at the county’s Crandon Park expires in 2024.

A long-standing agreement governing the parkland, despised by Mayor Carlos Gimenez and some county commissioners, has prevented the tournament for implementing a $50 million expansion to boost revenues and prize money for the springtime event.

County voters endorsed the expansion in 2012, but the tournament lost a court fight to overturn the rules. The restrictions are tied to a legal settlement with the Matheson family, which had traded the land decades ago in exchange for the county building a bridge to link their land holdings with the mainland.

Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross wants to build a $53 million tennis campus outside of Hard Rock to house the tournament, and Miami-Dade commissioners approved the arrangement Tuesday. The deal includes a $1 million yearly subsidy for the tournament, as part of a 2014 agreement with the Dolphins that pays the team up to $5 million in exchange for major events recruited to Hard Rock. The 2014 deal was linked to Ross agreeing to privately finance stadium renovations valued at roughly $500 million by the team.

Before Tuesday’s vote, Elkin warned the Miami Open opposed the deal since the county wouldn’t stick with an earlier provision allowing the Miami Open to pay $1.3 million to cover money allegedly owed for tournaments through 2017.

That is a “deal breaker,” Elkin told commissioners. “Our management is extremely frustrated.”

Gimenez said he did not realize until late last week that county auditors had not produced their results for the 2015, 2016 and 2017 tournaments, and that the Miami Open may owe significantly more than $1.3 million. He revised the proposed agreement Tuesday to withdraw the $1.3 million settlement amount, and said all alleged obligations covered by audits would be subject to arbitration if the two sides couldn’t agree. Commissioners approved that deal, after Elkin had said the Miami Open does not support it.

Now the fate of the long-awaited relocation rests on Miami Open taking Gimenez’s offer.

The tournament, owned by sports and entertainment giant IMG, is obligated to continue playing on Key Biscayne through 2023. It pays about $2.5 million in rent, but parks officials say county expenses related to the event amount to a wash in terms of county finances. Gimenez noted rejecting the Hard Rock move would still leave the Miami Open facing county audits for the next six years.

“We’re going to get paid what we’re owed. I’m not being unjust,” Gimenez said. “All I want is for Miami-Dade to get paid what it is owed by contract. I’m not even saying we need to get paid what we say we are owed. I said let’s put it to an arbitrator.”