Ross says he likes team's direction

Updated: September 22, 2009, 4:23 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross predicts Bill Parcells will be back next season. The franchise's moldy fight song is staying, too. But empty seats are on the way out, Ross hopes.

In a wide-ranging interview, Ross also discussed his courtship of celebrities, NFL labor negotiations and the U.S. Open tirade by new Dolphins limited partner Serena Williams.

The team's first home game with the glitz-minded Ross as owner had Hollywood trappings without a happy ending Monday night. Jimmy Buffett performed at a tailgate party, the Dolphins' celebrity limited partners made VIP-style entrances and fans swooned before Miami lost to the Indianapolis Colts 27-23.

There's been speculation Ross' pursuit of glamour might turn off Parcells, the football operations boss whose blue-collar approach revived the franchise in 2008. But Ross said Parcells and coach Tony Sparano support the efforts to improve attendance.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Buffett
AP Photo/J. Pat CarterA pregame concert by Jimmy Buffett was one of the changes new Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has instituted to draw new fans.

"Bill is aware of everything we're doing, and certainly very positive," Ross said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Having the stadium filled with fans -- that's the most important thing, that 12th man. That's what they want to see. Whatever it takes to do that they're solidly behind."

The 68-year-old Parcells can leave at any time and collect the balance of the $12 million due him under a four-year contract that expires after the 2011 season. Ross said he's optimistic Parcells will stay beyond 2009.

"Living in South Florida, I think everybody would choose to do that, especially at this time in his life," Ross said. "What he's building here, he wants to probably see it succeed and be here to bear the fruits of what he's doing. ... He came home to a place that I think is probably going to be where he makes his last mark, his last stand, so to speak."

Parcells doesn't do interviews, but last week Sparano said he likes the direction Ross has taken the franchise.

"This is no small thing: Anything that gets this community excited about the Miami Dolphins and gets people in the stands excited about our football team is a positive thing," Sparano said. "I think that is what is happening."

After Ross completed his purchase of the team from Wayne Huizenga in January, the Dolphins sold 46,131 season tickets last year, their lowest total since 1992. Hastening the slide was a 1-15 record in 2007, which led to the hiring of Parcells.

Ross decided the business side of the franchise needed a similar upgrade.

"In any organization, when you've been doing the same type of thing for a long time, I think new blood is important," Ross said. "I think Wayne felt that when he sold it to us."

A 69-year-old billionaire real estate developer, Ross fulfilled a longtime dream when he became an NFL owner, and he quickly reached out for help with rebranding the Dolphins. He hired Boston Red Sox executive Mike Dee as CEO. He forged a partnership with Buffett, and brought aboard as limited partners the Williams sisters, Gloria and Emilio Estefan and Marc Anthony.

The Dolphins introduced hand-held wireless TV units at games. They opened a private stadium club for VIPs. They hired artist Romero Britto to put his colorful touches on the stadium. They sought alternatives to the banjo-driven fight song, which dates to the glory years of the early 1970s.

That last move brought a backlash. Ross conceded he was surprised by the response when the Dolphins introduced a new rendition by rapper T-Pain.

"A lot of people weren't happy," Ross said with a chuckle. "We want to try different things. We're not discarding the fight song. It's an important part of the tradition."

Musical discord aside, season-ticket sales rose to nearly 50,000 this year. The long-term goal is at least 62,000.

"The adage that you have to win to sell tickets here -- I could make as compelling an argument that you have to sell tickets to win," Dee said. "The two feed off one another."

The game against the Colts sold out, but there were clusters of empty seats, and tickets remain for the seven other home games.

Chief salesman Ross seemed to be everywhere Monday night -- greeting his celebrity guests, leading a tour of innovative technology at the stadium, and speaking to the crowd at the Buffett tailgate concert.

"They're not doing this in Indianapolis," he said.

Ross said his celebrity partnerships stir excitement and reflect the vibrancy of the region. He envisions the Dolphins as a glamour team.

"Everybody loves a great party," he said. "What we're trying to do is create game day to be a party."

On other subjects, Ross said:

• He expects there to be no NFL salary cap next year, given the lack of progress toward a collective bargaining agreement. "As an owner, I don't think any of us want to see a strike," he said. "We're trying to work out something that will work for everybody."

• He watched Serena Williams' loss in the U.S. Open final, when a code violation cost her the final point after she screamed profanities at a lineswoman who called her for a foot fault. "I can understand her feelings, the emotion she had behind it. It was an unfortunate call, I think, by the linesperson."

• Buffett considered an offer to become a Dolphins limited partner, but he can't because he has an ownership stake in casinos in Connecticut and Mississippi. "The NFL prohibits that," Ross said.

• Ross has no interest in buying a team in another sport. "Football is my main passion, and I think this is where I'll keep it," he said.

He's plenty busy as it is.

"I've learned an awful lot," Ross said. "The whole idea was to create the best sports franchise in the country. I think we're on the way."


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press