Miami Dolphins founder Joe Robbie forever changed stadium deals
4:10 | NFL
Miami Dolphins founder Joe Robbie forever changed stadium deals
Monday November 23rd, 2015

As part of our countdown to Super Bowl 50, is rolling out a series focusing on the overlooked, forgotten or just plain strange history of football's biggest game. From commercials to Super Bowl parties, we'll cover it all, with new stories published every Wednesday (or, in this case, Tuesday) here.

Men were peeing on the Super Bowl.

Well, not literally on it, but on a hill behind the bleachers at Stanford Stadium, a venue that had no business hosting America’s premier sporting event in 1985. But here we were nonetheless.

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had wanted a Super Bowl in Northern California, and San Francisco’s Candlestick Park was too small. The league went instead with the 64-year-old college venue, with its capacity of more than 84,000, and spent $2.3 million on upgrades. The stadium’s bench seats were covered with seat cushions, courtesy of a rising Silicon Valley company called Apple. The week before that 19th Super Bowl, between Dan Marino’s Dolphins and Joe Montana’s 49ers, the league installed two large Diamond Vision scoreboards. Temporary lights were brought in.

Organizers even figured out how to provide light inside those port-a-potties. But few fans wanted to wait in line, and by the time the U.S. Air Force completed its halftime show, “The World of Children’s Dreams,” some attendees were simply urinating wherever they wanted.

It’s easy to imagine Miami’s general manager on that hill, relieving himself. Michael Robbie may have been the most eccentric person in the league. He would walk into his team’s draft room, roll a piece of paper into a telescope and survey the draft board like a pirate scouring the open sea. But that didn’t really matter. Michael’s title, GM, was misleading. He didn’t draft players or make trades. Coach Don Shula did all that.

Michael’s father, Joe, owned the Dolphins; Michael just helped run the business. Tall and gaunt, with a beard, and often decked out in an ill-fitting black suit with a white shirt, Michael resembled Abe Lincoln, people said. Still, he was the Dolphins’ GM, and you expect a GM to do certain things.

Like show up when his team is in the Super Bowl. But Michael Robbie was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished without warning.

Fellow NFL execs had an idea that something was wrong after the Dolphins whipped the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game two weeks earlier. When a team reached that point, someone in the front office typically called the league to talk big-game logistics. Then they sent someone to the Super Bowl site to scope out team headquarters, practice facilities, overflow hotel-room sites. But the Dolphins never called. That would have been Michael’s job, and Michael was gone.

Back at Stanford, as his Dolphins fell into a 28-16 first-half hole, Joe Robbie sat with his daughter, Deborah, who joked that she was rooting for a fog to roll in. That was Miami’s only chance to stop Montana. 

The Dolphins lost, 38-16. Joe flew home knowing that he owned the second-best team in football, and not knowing where his son was. But he had something else on his mind, too. It was a billion-dollar idea.


Joe Robbie knew a lousy stadium when he sat in one. His Dolphins had played in the Orange Bowl since their inception in the AFL, in 1966. That venue had since hosted five of the first 13 Super Bowls, and Miami city officials believed it could host more.

Robbie disagreed. For years he’d asked the city to pay for stadium improvements, and repeatedly he was declined. In 1984, when Miami tried to rope in its sixth Super Bowl, Robbie finally stood up in an owners’ meeting and said that he would not support the bid. The Orange Bowl, he said, was not worthy of a Super Bowl.

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Joe Robbie was used to pissing people off. He frequently berated employees—sometimes in person, sometimes in memos. People called him a tyrant. Others mocked him for having the tightest fist in the NFL. Dolphins employees understood: You did not so much as order a box of paper clips without Robbie’s approval. The owner once blanched at a $110 bill for press-box food, then fired the caterer and reduced the fare to hot dogs. When the city of Miami refused to pay for tank repairs for the Dolphins’ live mascot, Flipper, he got rid of Flipper too. Oftentimes, somebody sent Robbie a check to sign, and he returned it with notes on it, determined to negotiate better terms.

Robbie could be argumentative and nasty, even when he was sober, which often he was not. The man could out-drink a small Irish town. Sometimes at dinner he would pass out drunk, then pop up 15 minutes later and rejoin the conversation as if nothing had ever happened.

At road games, a Dolphins employee would bring a fifth of Wild Turkey bourbon (Joe’s favorite) and a fifth of vodka (his wife Elizabeth’s preference) to Robbie’s booth in the press box, along with some cups and ice. By the end of the game, both bottles would be empty. But Robbie was not done. On the plane ride home he would settle into seat 2B, with miniature bottles of alcohol stuffed into the seat pocket in front of him. Eventually he would pass out with his drinking glass resting on his chest, and no matter the turbulence, that glass stayed there, like it was attached to his body.

One young Miami player once saw his owner looking catatonic and asked, “Is something wrong with Mr. Robbie?” To which Shula muttered, “F------ rookies. They all have to learn, don’t they?”

Tyrant, tightwad, drunkard . ... People called Joe Robbie a lot of things. This is what he called himself: “The idiot who hired all the geniuses.”

He would never get credit for it, but he was one of the smartest men in American sports. Following the Dolphins’ 1969 AFL season, Robbie made one of the boldest and wisest moves in pro football history, luring coach Shula away from the NFL’s Baltimore Colts at the cost of one first-round draft pick. (When Miami’s front office first called Shula, the coach responded, “I can’t talk now”—two Colts assistants were engaged in a fistfight on his front lawn, and Shula had to break it up.)

Robbie and Shula were never close friends. They nearly came to blows once, at a banquet where both men had been drinking. But Shula understood that he had a great owner. Joe would spend on players, and he never meddled with his coach. He rarely even attended practice.

In Shula’s first 15 years in Miami, the Dolphins made it to five Super Bowls, winning two. And yet Robbie’s most incredible achievement was not his hiring of Shula. Or winning those championship rings. It was the fact that he owned the team at all.

Robbie got his very first piece of the Dolphins, essentially, as a finder’s fee for putting together the ownership group that bought Miami’s AFL expansion franchise. He put up just $100,000 of the $7.5 million expansion fee himself; other investors, like comedian Danny Thomas, paid far more. But Robbie, then a trial lawyer, was the one who drew up the paperwork, which gave him the right to run the team for 20 years. At 49, he moved from Minnesota to Miami and went to work.

When the Dolphins started winning, they made money, but Robbie declined to pay dividends to people who owned shares. Instead, he invested that money in the team, or used it to buy out the other owners. Sometimes he cajoled banks into lending him money, against their better judgment.

By 1985, Robbie had parlayed his initial $100,000 investment into sole ownership of the franchise. He was still not a terribly rich man outside of football: He owned a nice house but not a mansion; he rode around in a Lincoln Town Car. (Because of his drinking, his family insisted that he stop driving himself.) He flew commercial until, years later, he finally bought a private plane.

All of which made Robbie’s billion-dollar idea so absurd. His plan: Build a new stadium himself, with his own money, in Miami Gardens. He realized that if he owned a stadium, he could control all the revenue streams, not just the traditional stuff—signage, concessions, parking—but also anything else he could dream up. Yes, cities had typically owned professional sports venues while teams tried to negotiate favorable leases—that’s how it always worked. But Robbie was going to stick it to those South Florida politicians—and anyone else who doubted him.

The problem: The project would cost $115 million, and Robbie didn’t have anything close to that. (For context, the Jets led the NFL in payroll in 1985 at $14.38 million.) 

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To fund this venture, he would lean heavily on two things: luxury suites, which were just becoming popular, and a brand-new creation called the “club seat.” Club seats were luxury without the suite attached—they provided access to a stadium club and were far more expensive than a typical seat. And if you wanted to buy one, you had to sign a 10-year contract. That would give Robbie the guaranteed revenue to secure the loans he needed.

Sure, these 10-year contracts were unprecedented, but fans benefited in two ways: 1) They could lock in a cost for the next decade. 2) They would get the option to purchase tickets for other stadium events, including. ... a Super Bowl in Miami.

Robbie was performing a high-stakes juggling act. He needed to sell his club seats to finance the stadium. He needed a Super Bowl to sell the club seats. And he needed a new stadium to land the Super Bowl.

If he could pull this all off, he would set a new model for all American sports franchises. And if he failed? Well, Shula joked with his staff one day, these wouldn’t be the Miami Dolphins or Joe Robbie’s Dolphins. They would belong to the bank.


When Michael Robbie disappeared right before Super Bowl XIX, Joe and Elizabeth Robbie had already lost two of their 11 children. In 1971, their daughter Kathy drowned in Mexico. Four years later, their son David, a doctor, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. It would be wrong to say that David’s death was even worse than Kathy’s—when two of your children die young, there is no “worse.” But David’s passing brought a different kind of pain, draped in guilt.

“People will always wonder why—the parents especially,” says Deborah Robbie Olson, now 63, who spent the months after her brother’s suicide living with her parents. “What should you have seen? What could you have done? There are so many unanswered questions that will never be answered.”

When David died, Elizabeth went from being a heavy drinker to a full-fledged alcoholic. Some days, she barely got off her couch.

And now a third child was missing. But this felt different. Within the league, people whispered, What the hell happened to Michael Robbie? But the family didn’t see it quite that way. Says Michael’s sister Janet, now 68: “It’s not one of those things where anybody thought anything had happened to him.”

Michael disappeared from time to time. It was his way. As a young hippie, he had drifted around Colorado, Wyoming and then California, trying to live off the land for a while. Sometimes Joe sent private investigators looking for him. Other times he didn’t.

Even later, when Michael ran the Dolphins, you couldn’t be totally sure that he would show up to work. But he was also brilliant—he’d first earned an engineering degree from Notre Dame, then a law degree and an MBA, simultaneously, from the University of South Dakota. And so Joe let Michael negotiate the Dolphins’ contracts and run the business side of the team.

The people he chewed out might not believe it, but Joe Robbie had always wanted to be the patriarch of a big, happy family, with sports at the center. He grew up in South Dakota, listening to baseball and prizefights on the radio; when he was 14, he wrote the sports page for the Sisseton, S.D., weekly newspaper, The People’s Press. Later, as a young father living in Minnesota, he would get tickets to a Twins game and pile a few of his children in the car for a ball game. Then he would get tickets to a Vikings contest, pile some of the other kids in the car and take them. When his group landed the Dolphins, in 1965, he skipped around his law office like a kid who’d just discovered Halloween: “We got the team! We got the team!”

Joe would come to have a few other business interests—he and Elizabeth owned a professional soccer team, for one—but the Dolphins were his baby. And they were a family business in every way. Among the Robbies’ five sons, Tim was a ball boy in the 1970s and an executive in the ‘80s, Dan became the director of sales and promotions and Brian did postgame interviews for radio broadcasts. Over the years, Dad designated a road game or two each season for a family reunion, so the siblings could all get together.

Like many men of his generation, Joe never changed a diaper and didn’t cook many meals. But he still took pride in being a good father. Kathy and David were gone, but he would take care of everybody else.


This story sounds too good to be true, and maybe it is, but here’s how it’s told: One day, not long after that Super Bowl, following weeks away, Michael Robbie walked into the Dolphins’ offices and simply asked, “Any messages for me?” No explanation. No acknowledgment that he’d disappeared.

This much is definitely true: At 2:30 a.m. on Monday, March 11, 1985, a Florida Highway Patrol officer spotted an orange 1981 Ford heading eastbound on a westbound lane of Northeast 172nd Street in Miami. The officer found Michael behind the wheel. There was alcohol on his breath and marijuana on the floor in front of him.

It was Michael’s third arrest for driving under the influence. The first two were not prosecuted; this time he would be convicted. The Dolphins issued a statement saying, in short, Michael had been on a “leave of absence” since January, due to “pressures.”

Three days later, at the league meetings in Phoenix, NFL owners voted to play Super Bowl XXIII, in 1989, at Joe Robbie’s stadium in Miami. Yes, there was the small issue of the stadium not having been built yet—in fact, it still wasn’t completely financed—but Joe, a college debate champion, had convinced his fellow owners to vote for him.

Patriots owner William Sullivan explained at the time, “Joe is the Horatio Alger of our business. He is about to accomplish a monumental achievement. I think we are obligated to help him.”

But not everyone was so sure. Miami officials sought reassurances that the game would be played in the Orange Bowl if Robbie’s project failed. Others more explicitly expressed their hopes that the whole thing would fail spectacularly. Miami’s most beloved and influential sportswriter, Edwin Pope, cracked that the new venue should be called Joe Robbie Memorial Stadium—“and the sooner the better.” Robbie had done things his own way for so long—screw him.

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Most men would have carefully put down their swords and walked away. Joe Robbie was not most men. This was the man who, when he accepted the Horatio Alger Award, for perseverance, in 1979, had said, “This, to me, represents struggle and achievement. The struggle itself is even more important and more rewarding than the ultimate achievement.”

Robbie scrounged up every dollar he could find to build his stadium. He sold his soccer team and his private plane. By the time he broke ground on the stadium, he had sold $8 million worth of club seats. With those 10-year contracts, that meant $80 million in guaranteed revenue. Joe was on his way. His daughter Lynn designed the interiors of the club levels. And in the months leading up to the stadium opening, Michael asked Deborah to help with ticket distribution, so she flew to Florida and helped too.

On Aug. 16, 1987, Joe Robbie Stadium opened its doors for a football game—preseason, against the Bears—for the first time. It was the first new NFL stadium in 12 years, and it was revolutionary. Between the club seats and the seat licenses alone, the Dolphins had guaranteed $120 million in revenue—$5 million in excess of cost. Robbie had become the first owner to use club seats to privately fund a stadium, and the first to use the leverage of hosting the Super Bowl to get that stadium built. And now, unlike his fellow owners, Robbie owned his team’s house.

THE MIRACLE OF MIAMI, blared a Los Angeles Times headline.

Danny Thomas was there at the opening, telling people that he still regretted listening to his business advisors when they told him to get out of the football business. He wished he still owned a piece of the Dolphins.

Meanwhile, Joe walked around in a tuxedo with an aqua-colored cummerbund and bow tie, celebrating his achievement with his family. He was surrounded by sons and daughters; aunts and uncles; South Dakotans, Minnesotans and Floridians. No one in that room could have known that the stadium would blow the Robbies apart forever.


In the middle of signing all the closing documents on the Dolphins’ new home, Joe Robbie turned to his son Tim and cracked, “I guess you’re not a rich man if you’re $100 million in debt.”

The banks had set some strict conditions for their loans. For starters, Joe had to personally guarantee them—his track record was the only reason the banks agreed to lend the money in the first place. The Dolphins were his collateral. And since the loans were in his name, the team had to remain in his name too. Joe Robbie Stadium was in a holding company, the Miami Sports Corporation, but Joe could only put 15% of the team in that holding company. The other 85% was his alone. “He had no choice but to agree,” says Tim, now 60, “but he wasn’t happy about it.”

Janet says the banks set another condition: When Joe eventually named trustees for his estate, Michael could not be among them.

Even after his disappearance in 1985, even after his DUI arrest, Michael had remained the GM of the Dolphins. But he also remained unreliable. In May of ‘89 he would vanish again, at which point Deborah began representing the team at league meetings. “Michael is very, very intelligent,” says Janet. “I think he did a good job—when he wasn’t off somewhere. He just wasn’t dependable. You couldn’t know whether he’d be there or whether he’d flake off.”

In 1986, Joe’s family threw him a 70th birthday party at their 4,000-acre ranch in Montana. When he got sick there, it seemed like a simple case of the flu, but he never really recovered. He was later diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis.

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Sitting in his room at National Jewish Hospital in 1989, he told Janet, “I need five more years.” He’d done the math. He needed five years to get his finances straight—then he could pass the Dolphins along to his family. When that became unrealistic, he negotiated to sell 50% of his stadium and 15% of the Dolphins to waste management mogul Wayne Huizenga, who was trying to bring a major league baseball team to Miami.

Joe Robbie never got those five years. On Jan. 7, 1990, he died of respiratory failure.

At the time of his passing, Joe had just three of his nine living children listed as trustees: Tim, Janet and Dan. Those three would run the team. Michael was demoted to overseeing stadium operations, and Elizabeth, the widow, was named vice president of the Dolphins, in an advisory role. But Joe hadn’t fully explained that plan to his family, and some Robbies were surprised by the deal with Huizenga. They thought Tim, Janet and Dan had staged a power grab and were ignoring the wishes of the rest of the family.

“When Dad died, things fell apart,” says Janet. “There were problems immediately. I mean, immediately.”

Elizabeth was furious at Michael’s demotion, and at the fact that just three of her children were being given all the power. She stayed furious. When she died, 22 months after her husband, she essentially cut Tim, Janet and Dan out of her will.

The fuse had been lit.


When rich people fail, others ridicule. And when rich people’s children fail? That brings out a special kind of schadenfreude. Those spoiled brats! Observers of the unraveling Robbie affair, including some in the media, might as well have ordered up popcorn and sodas as they sat back and watched with glee as the drama unfolded.

At one point, Michael sent a memo to the entire Dolphins organization, declaring repeatedly that “I, alone” would make decisions. “I don’t think Michael ever knew it was part of the stadium deal that he couldn’t be a trustee,” says Janet. “[My dad’s] intentions were really good, but he didn’t tell anybody what was going on.” Mistrust quickly grew into an outright family brawl.

“The main point he made about his estate plan,” says Deborah, “was to leave the team for his family to enjoy forever.” But Joe Robbie’s big family suddenly seemed too big. Elizabeth had delivered her first child at age 20 and her last at 40, so some of her kids had never really lived in the same house. Some grew up in Minnesota, others in Florida. The one thing that had connected them all was the Miami Dolphins, and now they were fighting over that.

Because the team had remained in Joe’s name, every one of his children had to pay estate taxes—and they quickly fought over that too. Tim, Janet and Dan insisted that the Dolphins were worth $68 million—the lower the value, the lower the estate taxes. But the other siblings insisted the value was closer to $88 million—Elizabeth’s estate controlled 30% of the team, and they wanted to maximize the value of that 30% in case they sold it.

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Most businesses are valued based on revenue, profits and growth. NFL teams, however, are not like most businesses—they are worth whatever an incredibly rich person will pay for them. They are toys for billionaires, and this would hurt the Robbie children, who were forced to pay estate taxes based on what the team might fetch on the open market, not based on any business model. They couldn’t figure out how to pay those taxes and keep the team—and they were bickering instead of working together.

In July 1994, Joe Robbie’s children sold his baby. Huizenga bought the 85% of the team that he did not already own. The total proceeds from the sale were reported at $109 million, but $43 million of that immediately went to estate taxes. Each Robbie child immediately received a $3 million check; a bit more would come later.

But the Robbies paid a price too. As Diane, the oldest child, put it: “This whole thing has destroyed [our] family.”


If you wanted to find Michael Robbie in the 1990s, a good place to start was the police blotter. In February ‘94, he was arrested for possession of crack cocaine. A few months later, authorities in Boca Raton, Fla., responded to a call that he was walking in traffic. They chased him back and forth across Northwest 20th Street twice, then arrested him. Again.

In March 1995, a sheriff’s deputy chased Michael’s green Chevrolet for 9.3 miles, at speeds of up to 75 mph, before he finally pulled over. A sergeant found him with his pants around his knees. The sergeant said Michael appeared to be “confused and disoriented.” Michael failed to appear in court twice. Eventually, two experts would declare him unfit to stand trial. By ‘96, he was living at a state-run mental health facility. His attorney said that his condition had been “undiagnosed.” Perhaps more telling of his state: In 2000, a Dolphins’ Super Bowl VII ring appeared for sale on the Internet. Inscribed on one side were the words PERFECT SEASON, in honor of the Dolphins’ 17-0 record in 1972. On the other side, J. MICHAEL ROBBIE, after the fourth-oldest Robbie child, who had worked in Miami’s ticket office that year. The highest bid: $10,000. The auctioneer chose not to sell the ring.

In 2009, Huizenga completed the sale of 95% of the Dolphins, along with Robbie’s old stadium, to New York real estate developer Stephen Ross for $1 billion. Earlier this year, Forbes valued that same team-stadium package at $1.85 billion, more than 17 times what Robbie’s children got for it.


Today, most new stadiums are funded in one of two ways. One is private financing, most of which is paid for with revenue from club seats and suites. The other is public financing, which is often secured with the implicit understanding that the contributing NFL city will host a Super Bowl in the near future.

Joe Robbie pioneered both methods, but his children have not reaped the benefits. Robbie’s kids have been fighting for longer than any of them ever lived in the same house. The youngest, Kevin, died in 2011. Some of the others have barely spoken to each other since their father’s team was sold. They don’t always know where their brothers or sisters live, or what they’re doing. At this point, all they share is a scar.

“I don’t want to villainize my siblings,” says Janet. “They were in pain too.”

As her brother and ally Tim sits down for lunch with a reporter in Florida, it is clear that he too is trying to move on. For a meeting place, Tim has chosen Bokampers, a Dolphins-themed restaurant chain owned by Kim Bokamper, who played on Miami’s Killer B’s defenses of the early 1980s. In the background, televisions play sports highlights and talk shows on an endless loop, but nobody is discussing whether the Dolphins will make the Super Bowl. They have not done so since Joe Robbie sat in Stanford Stadium back in January 1985.

Tim—who recently resigned as president of the North American Soccer League’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers—knows that Michael and his family’s dysfunction will be part of this story. He won’t talk about any of that. But he is too nice to reject the interview request completely, and so he happily talks about Joe Robbie Stadium—which hasn’t been called Joe Robbie Stadium in many years. When the Robbies sold their team to Huizenga, they stipulated that he could not rename it Huizenga Stadium, or Blockbuster Stadium (after one of his companies, Blockbuster Video). But Huizenga could sell naming rights to somebody else. And those rights have been sold several times.

Today that 28-year-old venue (the eighth-oldest in the NFL) goes by the name Sun Life Stadium, after a financial services company that specializes in lifetime security and wealth management. Joe might appreciate the irony. Tim just hopes people appreciate the work of his father, who he calls “the smartest man I have ever met.”


On a beautiful late-September day in Minneapolis, Deborah Robbie Olson walks through a stadium that she helped finance herself. It belongs to the University of Minnesota women’s soccer team. Deborah gave $900,000 to help pay for the venue, which was named after her mother: Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium.

Deborah, too, does not want to rehash her family’s dispute or speak ill of her siblings. She is still close to Michael, who at age 67 lives nearby, on a lake. She doesn’t think it would be appropriate for him to talk for this story.

But she is happy to talk about her parents, and proud to give a tour of the venue. The field is perfectly manicured. The stadium seats 1,000 people, but Deborah thinks it could use another 500; she points out where the new seats could go.

The seventh-oldest Robbie child attends most home games and is close to the team’s coach, Stefanie Golan. Sometimes the players ask Deborah about Elizabeth. She tells them that her mom grew up on a farm in North Dakota and earned her college degree at a time when many of her peers did not even finish high school. She says that her mom basically raised 11 children on her own while her father worked.

Deborah walks up to the press box. She points out a display honoring her mother. She has pledged to replace the photos.

“I told [the school] that it was important to me that they get a picture of my mom up there,” Deborah says. “The old pictures were so faded. I told Stefanie that I would have good pictures made, just so there was something.

“Tell her story,” she says. “Not mine.”

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