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Our Region’s Greatest Threat Is Also The No. 1 Threat To Future Super Bowls In Miami

Jan 30, 2020

The Super Bowl is at Hard Rock Stadium, but the real party is 15 miles south at Bayfront Park.

That popular stretch of green space that abuts the bay is the home of Super Bowl Live, where concerts, food festivals and water shows will entertain the hundreds of thousands of tourists who will soon pack our hotels.

A message for visitors and locals alike: Enjoy the circus now.

There’s no telling when — or more importantly, how many more times — it will be back.

Because the lapping water in downtown Miami that makes for such an idyllic backdrop is, year by year, inching closer to the top of the sea wall.

At some point, assuming experts’ projections are correct, the wall will be breached, the ocean and land will become one, and Miami will be forever changed.

ALSO READ: As Seas Rise, Your Coastal Home In Florida Could Lose Value. One Report Says 15% By 2030

Climate change and sea level rise are an existential threat to our region — and our region’s ability to attract the massive events that are a major part of our economy.

Miami gets the big games because of the weather, yes. But also because it has the population, economy and infrastructure to support it. What happens if — or as many believe, when — that changes?

“The same thing that any visitor wants, our residents want, which is a navigable, dry city that is beautiful and cultural and safe,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said at a Super Bowl 54 kickoff event Monday.

Gelber added: “We have to make sure that our streets are navigable, that our streets are above sea level and that rising tides don’t impair our quality of life. By the way, that’s exactly what the Super Bowl wants, or any event. They don’t want to come to a place that’s underwater. This is a surmountable challenge.”

Surmountable, perhaps. But also dire.

Rising seas could displace people, swamp businesses and even shake the real estate market that keeps the economy afloat.

By 2060, the region is expected to see more than two feet of sea level rise. By the end of the century, it’s more like six feet.

“Eventually some places along the coastline could be permanently inundated,” said Jayantha Obeysekera, head of Florida International University’s Sea Level Solutions Center.

And it could get hotter. Much hotter. Scientists say Miami-Dade could go from seeing a few weeks of 90-degree days a year to several months by mid-century.

ALSO READ: New Projections Show That South Florida Is In For Even More Sea Level Rise

Extreme heat has caused the cancellation of sporting events all over the globe. The Tokyo Olympics begrudgingly moved its marathon to the cooler town of Sapporo over heat fears. The organizers of tennis’ U.S. Open, held annually in Queens, in 2018 implemented an extreme heat policy after temperatures flirted with triple digits, offering competitors 10-minute cool-down breaks mid-match.

Research shows that Miami-Dade, which already has about 41 days a year where it feels like 100 degrees, could face 134 days at that temperature by mid-century.

The highest recorded temperature in Miami on Feb. 2 — the date of Super Bowl 54 — over 82 years was 87 degrees in 2007, according to applied climatologist Andrew Grundstein, a professor at the University of Georgia. The weather is expected to be downright chilly this Feb. 2 with lows near 50, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

More and more, hot days will replace cool ones, Grundstein said. And that’s not ideal for football players or their fans.

In all, our changing climate is a serious problem local governments are grappling with already — to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

And South Florida isn’t the only NFL market facing this crisis. New Orleans and Houston have faced devastating flooding at the hands of hurricanes, which research shows climate change is strengthening. Phoenix is already dealing with days so hot they melt the tarmac at the airport. Los Angeles is grappling with the possibility of retreating from the encroaching sea and eroded cliffs.

Tampa, the next destination for the Super Bowl, is considered the most vulnerable city in the country to storm surge, which sea level rise is expected to send higher and higher.

But in Miami-Dade, the home of this year’s Super Bowl, the stadium where the 49ers and the Chiefs will play Sunday, actually sits on some of the highest ground in the county.

Even with the couple feet of sea rise expected by 2060, Miami Gardens will remain mostly high and dry.

That’s cold comfort, of course, to business owners like the Dolphins’ Stephen Ross, who need a growing population and a vibrant economy to thrive.

Ross, whose Related Companies is the force behind New York’s $25 billion Hudson Yards Real Estate Development, understands the threat posed by climate change.

ALSO READ: Super Bowl Miami Campaign Highlights South Florida Environmental Challenges

In response, he established the Ross Center for Sustainable Cities at the World Research Institute, which supports sustainable city building and urban planning on a global scale in many of the areas with the greatest challenges.

Hudson Yards, a mixed-use neighborhood in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is the borough’s first LEED Gold Certified neighborhood and the new economic engine for New York City. Developers incorporated a state-of-the-art microgrid with two eco-friendly cogeneration plants, as well as a 60,000-gallon storm water collection tank.

Ross’ top lieutenant with the Dolphins, Tom Garfinkel, is just as committed to the cause.

Through sheer force of will, he has virtually eliminated all plastic products at Hard Rock Stadium, a reduction of 2.8 million pieces of plastic trash annually that not only often end up at the bottom of the ocean, but also directly contribute to climate change.

According to the World Economic Forum, roughly six percent of annual global oil consumption is associated with the production of plastics.

If 500 stadiums globally follow the Dolphins’ lead, it will eliminate some 1.4 billion pieces of plastic a year.

While no one company can solve the environmental crisis, the Dolphins hope to “set an example for other businesses by showing that getting to 99 percent reduction in plastics is possible,” Garfinkel said. “If we show the world that that is possible, what else is possible?”

But despite Ross’ awareness of the problem, he has also used his considerable wealth to support one of the most anti-climate action politicians on the planet: President Donald Trump.

Ross caught flack last year for hosting a multimillion-dollar fundraiser for Trump, who has backed out of the biggest global climate change treaty and undone or delayed most regulatory and executive actions to slow climate change. Only recently did the President walk back his longtime statements calling the acknowledged scientific reality of climate change “a hoax.”

Miami’s future depends on strong action at the federal level.

Long before rising tides reach the doors of Miami Gardens residents, it will get much pricier to live here. Flood and hurricane insurance premiums are expected to spike in response to climate change upping the chances of a devastating flood or storm.

Already, research shows that the risk of sea rise is slowing down the increase of property value in flood-prone areas. Lower property values means the city collects less in taxes and has less money to spend on protecting the city with sea walls and pumps, as well as everyday expenses like garbage pickup and paving roads.

If prices go up and quality of life goes down, fewer and fewer people will want to come here, both to live and visit. And the less appealing the area becomes to tourists, the less appealing it becomes to the NFL, which decides where to host its signature event.

The host committee estimates Super Bowl 54 will generate more than a half-billion dollars in positive economic impact for South Florida, although economists argue those numbers are notoriously inflated. Still, it’s fair to say that hosting the game brings tens, and perhaps even hundreds, of millions of dollars of taxable revenue to the region.

Miami hosted the Super Bowl 10 times in the game’s first 44 years. But this is the first time in a decade the NFL selected South Florida. That had nothing to do with the weather, even if a freak rainstorm in 2007 made for a soggy experience for the league’s richest customers.

Rather, the NFL tried to play a bit of political hardball with county and city government. The league and most of its membership wants teams to play in new, if not drastically updated, facilities, and prefers taxpayers to help defray some of the costs. Joe Robbie in 1985 built the Miami Gardens stadium now known as Hard Rock with private dollars, and sold it along with the team to Wayne Huizenga. Ross bought both from Huizenga in 2009.

The Dolphins for years tried in vain to secure public funding for improvements before Ross finally decided to pay for them with private funds. But he did secure a pledge from Miami-Dade County to pay a bonus if Hard Rock hosts major events; the Dolphins are expected to receive $4 million from the county for hosting Super Bowl 54.

Ross and the league have since directed upwards of three-quarters of a billion dollars to modernize the stadium, build a tennis complex that hosts the annual Miami Open and break ground on a new training facility.

Those upgrades, according to Fitch Ratings, “have played an instrumental role” in the stadium being selected for marquee events that include Super Bowl 54 and the College Football Playoff National Championship in 2021.

Stadium revenues were up 2 percent in 2019 after spiking by 40 percent the year before, according to Fitch, which makes no mention of climate change when assessing Hard Rock’s ability to service nearly $200 million in team-backed bonds sold through a financing arm of the county.

And yet, that investment, plus Miami’s tourist-friendly infrastructure and great winter weather, are not enough to guarantee that South Florida will host a Super Bowl once every five or six years.

The league essentially invites cities to host in a certain year, and will then grant the game to that region if logistical and financial terms are met. The next four games will be in Tampa, Los Angeles, Phoenix and New Orleans. It’s basically a fait accompli that the game will be held in Las Vegas — the NFL’s newest city — after that.

So even the most optimistic estimate for the Super Bowl’s soonest return to Miami is 2026. But that’s no sure thing. Houston hasn’t had the game since 2017. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones will surely try to convince the league to come back to his opulent AT&T Stadium soon. The Redskins could have a new stadium in the next decade.

In other words, Miami might find itself at the back of the line and shouldn’t expect to get the game more than once every six or seven years going forward.

From there, it becomes a simple matter of math.

No one can say for certain how many more times South Florida will be awarded the game because no one knows for certain what South Florida will look like in 30 years.

“I’m optimistic that the leaders in this country, the public and private sectors and the voices of the people in this country are going to be loud enough to create the change that needs to happen so the prognostications of the next 50, 60 years now will be different in 10 years,” Garfinkel said.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.