ROOM TO MANEUVER: Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., the site of Sunday’s Super Bowl, sits on a 275-acre site. (Getty Images)

Hard Rock Stadium site provides ample space with a few twists

The Super Bowl returns to South Florida for the first time since 2010, and recent developments to the expansive property surrounding Hard Rock Stadium have led to some creative planning for Sunday’s 54th edition of the game.

The 275-acre site gives the NFL and Populous, the league’s logistical consultant, ample space to work with for the most part, but the relocation of the Miami Open tennis tournament in 2019 to Hard Rock Stadium resulted in adjustments for pro football’s crown jewel event.

In addition, the Miami Dolphins, whose owner, Stephen Ross, owns the stadium and land surrounding the building in Miami Gardens, Fla., are constructing a $135 million practice facility west of the venue that will open in 2021. The 125,000-square-foot complex, to include a sports medicine clinic, removes some key real estate for mapping the Super Bowl.

Plus, Cirque du Soleil’s extravagant “Alegria” production, set up adjacent to the practice facility site, is in the midst of a two-month run under the big top. The show goes dark from Friday through Monday over Super Bowl weekend, and the NFL will use Cirque’s tent for hospitality, said Todd Barnes, a senior principal with Populous’ events group in Denver.

“We have been able to fit the overlay of all the temporary setup the NFL has within that footprint and feel we’ll have a successful day come (Sunday),” Barnes said.

Barnes, who is working his 28th Super Bowl, knows the layout well at Hard Rock Stadium. He’s working his fifth Super Bowl there, dating to 1995, the last year the 49ers won it. The Niners will get a chance for another title Sunday when they play the Kansas City Chiefs. 

Some tennis courts outside the stadium are permanent installations. To accommodate the Super Bowl’s multiple hospitality functions, the NFL built temporary platforms with tents over the top of those courts to minimize the risk of damaging the surfaces.

MAPPING IT OUT: Todd Barnes, principal with Populous’ events group, goes over Super Bowl plans with marketing manager Lindsay Santee. (Courtesy Populous)

“It’s a bit of a trick,” Barnes said. “They’re using the majority of the tennis center. There are special protections taken in advance. The NFL has one of their large game-day checkpoints set up straight across an entire tennis court as well. Almost 30 days after the NFL loads out, the tennis tournament starts (March 23). It’s a quick time frame.”

The gondola installed outside Hard Rock Stadium as a permanent attraction is another new development. It’s part of the On Location Experience VIP package, and those premium patrons can ride the sky tram out to a parking lot and back to the stadium. Access to the gondola is inside  the secured perimeter, Barnes said, which extends 300 feet from the stadium’s edge.

As the Dolphins develop the site into a year-round destination, the number of parking spaces outside the stadium has been reduced. But with the growth of ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, it’s been close to a wash, according to Barnes. The Dolphins themselves experience a large percentage of patrons for the services, he said, and for the Super Bowl, officials expect more than 10,000 fans will use it, resulting in fewer parking spots needed for personal vehicles.

“You actually gain space back by the fact that you don’t have as many cars parked on site as much,” Barnes said. 

Ride hailing, depending on the market, has grown over the past several years at the Super Bowl, Barnes said.

“In Atlanta (last year), everything is so close to downtown that ride sharing wasn’t as high,” he said. “MARTA drops off at the stadium, so public transportation and walking was something that was a variable. But we’re starting to experience it more with remote stadiums, and they’re planning for large transportation hubs (for ride booking) in Los Angeles as the NFL gets into planning there (for 2022). Same thing next year in Tampa.” 

In Florida, weather greatly affects outdoor sports events, and Hard Rock Stadium is no exception. During the 2007 Super Bowl there, a steady rain fell throughout the game and soaked fans in the seating bowl. After playing host to the 2010 Super Bowl, which South Florida was awarded before the 2007 game, the Dolphins built a roof canopy to help put the stadium back into the Super Bowl rotation. 

Lightning is the biggest concern in South Florida. The NFL has adapted the Dolphins’ emergency procedures for regular-season games to move fans to the concourses in the event of lightning strikes, Barnes said.

“With the Super Bowl footprint taking up a larger area, we’re amending it,” he said. “That’s one of the great unknowns for what could happen on game day as well as the final score. If it’s just a steady rain like 2007, fans are staying dry for the most part. If there’s wind, some fans closer to the overhang of the canopy may get a little wet.”

(For what it’s worth, the game-day forecast for Miami Gardens is sunny with temperatures in the low 70s.)

The roof canopy is part of a $600 million makeover the stadium went through over the past several years. The building now seats about 65,000 after the upper deck was reduced by 10,000 seats for Dolphins games. The NFL no longer requires a venue with 70,000 seats to play host to the Super Bowl, league spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

“These days, (the NFL) is targeting where they want to go, rather than bidding where they want to go,” Barnes said.

After the Super Bowl, Barnes heads to Las Vegas for meetings on the NFL draft, to be held there April 23-25. The league has some over-the-top plans befitting the glitzy site, such as transporting draftees to a center stage outdoors by boat across the large fountain plaza fronting the Bellagio Hotel and Casino.

It’s just another logistical puzzle for Populous to solve for a massive audience to consume on site. Some predict the Vegas draft, which will close down sections of the Strip, could top last year’s attendance of 600,000 in Nashville.

“I look at the challenges as the best part of my job … and the NFL is best at bringing the biggest challenges to us,” Barnes said. “There are some that can be fairly significant, but I like to think of it as the ‘MacGyver’-type problems where you work through all the minute details to develop a solution, no matter what it might be.”