H. Wayne Huizenga, businessman, former Miami Dolphins, Florida Marlins, Florida Panthers owner, dead at age 80

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(AP Photo/J. Pat Carter)

H. Wayne Huizenga, a businessman and entrepreneur who at one time simultaneously owned the Miami Dolphins, Florida Marlins, and Florida Panthers, died Thursday at age 80 at his home in Fort Lauderdale.

Huizenga’s death was confirmed by his daughter, Pamela Huizenga Alexander. The cause of death was not released.

Harry Wayne Huizenga was born Dec. 29, 1937 in Highland Park, Ill., the eldest of two children. His grandfather, Harm, emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in the early 1900s. Harm Huizenga used a horse and wagon to start a trash hauling service, Huizenga & Sons Scavenger Co. in suburban Chicago.

Huizenga’s father, Gerrit, made his money in the construction business. Gerrit Huizenga moved his family to Fort Lauderdale in 1954 in order to take advantage of the real estate boom. After Huizenga graduated from high school in 1956, he returned to Chicago where he still had many friends and family. He enrolled at Calvin College but dropped out after three semesters. He briefly served in the U.S. Army Reserves before embarking on making his own fortune.

Huizenga borrowed $5,000 from his father to start the Southern Sanitation Service in 1962. He then used his powers of persuasion to get a rival trash hauler to sell him a used truck and toss a few accounts his way. After five years, he merged his company with the company founded by his grandfather. The resulting company, Waste Management, eventually became the nation’s largest waste disposal company with revenue valued at more than $1 billion by 1984.

Huizenga got out of the waste removal business but expanded his portfolio to include lawn-care services, hotels, and, most notably, the fast-food chain Boston Market.

In 1987, after the release of one of actress Jane Fonda’s fitness videos, Huizenga developed Blockbuster Video. What started as a $7 million business with 19 stores grew to a $4 billion global brand with more than 3,700 stores in 11 countries. Huizenga eventually sold Blockbuster to Viacom for $8.4 billion.

Using the proceeds from the sale of Blockbuster, Huizenga started AutoNation, the country’s first nationwide automobile dealer, in 1996. AutoNation has more than 400 car dealerships and 4,000 car rental locations worldwide.

Huizenga is the only person in history to launch three Fortune 500 companies. He was a five-time Financial World magazine CEO of the Year and the Ernst & Young 2005 World Entrepreneur of the Year. Forbes magazine reported Huizenga’s net worth was more than $2.8 billion in 2017. However, he will be best remembered for his contributions to professional sports in south Florida.

In 1990, he purchased a 15 percent stake in the Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium. Dolphins founder and owner Joe Robbie died after the 1989 regular season and the team was in financial turmoil.

Huizenga bought the remaining stake in the team for $115 million in 1994 after convincing the NFL to waive its ban on owners with ownership stakes in other professional leagues. He changed the name of Joe Robbie Stadium, selling the naming rights to Pro Player for 10 years at $2 million a year. The stadium has been renamed six times since then, including its current Hard Rock Stadium moniker.

Huizenga, a Dolphins season ticket holder since their inaugural 1966 season, wasn’t quite finished. He was responsible for bringing both Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League to south Florida and became the first person to own three teams in the North American major sports leagues at the same time.

In 1991, Huizenga paid a $95 million expansion fee for the Florida Marlins. The following year, he shelled out $50 million for the Florida Panthers. Both teams began play in 1993. Huizenga also purchased the cable network SportsChannel Florida to air his teams in the region.

Their success was immediate. The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, losing to the Colorado Avalanche in a four-game sweep. The following year, the Marlins defeated the Cleveland Indians in a seven-game World Series.

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Although Huizenga had success with the Panthers and Marlins, he couldn’t replicate it with the Dolphins. The Dolphins reached the postseason eight times under Huizenga’s ownership but never advanced past the Divisional Playoff round. The team also had to deal with the retirements of Don Shula and Dan Marino.

The NFL is a bottom line business: it’s championship or bust. This was not lost on Huizenga.

“If I have one disappointment, the disappointment would be that we did not bring a championship home,” Huizenga said shortly after he sold the Dolphins. “It’s something we failed to do.”

Huizenga took heavy criticism for not naming his baseball and hockey teams after the city of Miami. He was even more of a target for the fans’ ire after quickly breaking up the Marlins World Series team. Fans let him have it with a torrent of boos at Marino’s 2000 retirement celebration.

Huizenga later said he regretted breaking up the team that won the World Series in just the franchise’s fifth year of existence because of money.

“We lost $34 million the year we won the World Series, and I just said, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do that,” Huizenga said. “If I had it to do over again, I’d say, ‘OK, we’ll go one more year.'”

Huizenga sold the Marlins to businessman John Henry in 1998. Three years later, he sold the Panthers to pharmaceutical mogul Alan Cohen. Huizenga held on the Dolphins the longest, selling a 50 percent stake in the team to current owner Stephen Ross in February 2008. Eleven months later, Ross bought out Huizenga’s remaining stake in the team.

Huizenga used some of the money from his professional sports divestment to invest in Swisher Hygiene, a company that specializes in the sale of cleaning and sanitation products.

The Panthers retired the No. 34, the year of Huizenga’s birth and his lucky number, on Jan. 18. It was the only second time the franchise has ever retired a number.

“The Florida Panthers organization is heartbroken by the news of H. Wayne Huizenga’s passing,” owner Vincent Viola said in a statement Friday. “Mr. Huizenga’s lifelong commitment to our community, his philanthropy and his entrepreneurial spirit ensure that the Huizenga family legacy will live on in South Florida.

“I’m continually inspired by Wayne’s example, from his vision and his civic-minded leadership, to his success fostering an environment of on-ice excellence, which continues to have a shaping influence on every step we take in the South Florida community. He will be remembered always by our Panthers family.”

“Wayne Huizenga was an entrepreneurial visionary who possessed boundless energy, drive and imagination, a devotion to his community in South Florida and a passion for sports,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement.

“Wayne Huizenga was a seminal figure in the cultural history of South Florida,” current Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said Friday. “He completely changed the landscape of the region’s sports scene with his purchase of the Dolphins coupled with his pursuit of expansion teams in both Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

“Sports fans throughout the region owe him a debt of thanks for his stewardship of the Dolphins and for his vision and initiative to positivity impacting our community. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.”

“Major League Baseball extends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of Wayne Huizenga,” commissioner Rob Manfred said. “Wayne played a pivotal role in bringing the Marlins to South Florida more than a quarter-century ago and his leadership brought a World Championship season in 1997.”

Huizenga was survived by three sons, Wayne Jr., Ray, and Scott, a daughter, Pamela, and 11 grandchildren. Marti, his wife of 45 years, died Jan. 3, 2017.

– Curtis Rawls is a Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage and covers the NFL and the New York Giants. Please like and follow on Facebook and Twitter. Curtis can be followed on Twitter @CuRawls203.

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