H. Wayne Huizenga, first to own teams in 3 major sports, dies at age 80

H. Wayne Huizenga, the founding owner of the Florida Marlins and Florida Panthers, as well as the former owner of the Miami Dolphins, died Thursday night at his home. He was 80.

Valerie Hinkell, a longtime assistant to Huizenga, told The Associated Press of Huizenga's death when reached at the family residence Friday. She gave no details on cause of death.

Huizenga, a billionaire who made his fortune creating Fortune 500 companies such as Waste Management Inc., Blockbuster Video and AutoNation, simultaneously owned all three sports teams from 1994 to 1998 -- the first man to own teams in three major sports leagues.

His net worth in 2017 was reported to be $2.8 billion, according to Forbes Magazine.

Huizenga brought Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League to South Florida via expansion with the Marlins and Panthers, respectively. For the Marlins, he paid $95 million in 1991, while he shelled out $50 million for the Panthers in 1992. Both teams began play in 1993.

By 1996, the Panthers had reached the Stanley Cup Final. A year later, the Marlins won the World Series.

After buying 15 percent of the Dolphins and 50 percent of the team's stadium from the family of team founder Joe Robbie in 1990, Huizenga became the sole owner of the NFL team in 1994 for $168 million after persuading the NFL to waive its ban on cross-ownership of teams in other leagues.

Huizenga's first sports love was the Dolphins -- he had been a season-ticket holder since their first season in 1966. But he fared better in the NFL as a businessman than as a sports fan. The Dolphins made the playoff eight times under his ownership but never reached the Super Bowl.

He turned a nifty profit by selling the Dolphins and their stadium in 2008 to New York real estate billionaire Stephen Ross for $1.1 billion, nearly seven times what he paid to become sole owner. But Huizenga knew the bottom line in the NFL is championships, and his Dolphins perennially came up short.

"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 earned a reputation as a hands-off owner and won raves from many loyal employees, even though he made six coaching changes. He eased Pro Football Hall of Famer Don Shula into retirement in early 1996, and Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, interim coach Jim Bates, Nick Saban, Cam Cameron and Tony Sparano followed as coach.

For a time, Huizenga was also a favorite with South Florida sports fans, drawing cheers and autograph seekers in public. The crowd roared when he danced the hokey pokey on the field during an early Marlins game. He went on a spending spree to build a veteran team that won the World Series in the franchise's fifth year.

But his popularity plummeted when he ordered the roster dismantled after that season. He was frustrated by poor attendance and his failure to swing a deal for a new ballpark built with taxpayer money.

He sold the Marlins to John Henry in 1998. Three years later, he sold the Panthers to Alan Cohen. 

The Panthers retired the No. 37 jersey in Huizenga's honor on Jan. 18. It's just the second number to be retired by the franchise.

Many South Florida fans never forgave him for breaking up the Marlins' championship team. Huizenga drew boos when introduced at Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino's retirement celebration in 2000, and he kept a lower public profile after that.

In 2009, Huizenga said he regretted ordering the Marlins' payroll purge.

"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.'"

Starting with a single garbage truck in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1968, Harry Wayne Huizenga, a college dropout from the Chicago suburbs, built Waste Management Inc. into a Fortune 500 company. He purchased independent sanitation engineering companies, and by the time he took the company public in 1972, he had completed the acquisition of 133 small-time haulers. By 1983, Waste Management was the largest waste disposal company in the United States.

The business model worked again with Blockbuster Video, which he started in 1985 and built into the leading movie rental chain nine years later. In 1996, he formed AutoNation.

"You just have to be in the right place at the right time," Huizenga said of his business acumen. "It can only happen in America.''

Huizenga was a five-time recipient of Financial World magazine's "CEO of the Year'' award, and was the Ernst & Young "2005 World Entrepreneur of the Year.''

The Associated Press contributed to this report.