Politics and divorce don’t mix well. This is something Stephen M. Ross is likely keeping in mind as the billionaire owner of the Miami Dolphins navigates a newly filed divorce from his wife of 18 years.
Ross’s Influential Position
Ross not only owns 95 percent of the Dolphins football franchise, but he is also the developer for New York’s Hudson Yards, the largest development in American history. Ross is also the founder of Related Companies and an investor in SoulCycle and Equinox. Besides Ross’s high-profile business interests, he has also emerged as a major influencer in the upcoming 2021 New York City mayoral election. With current mayor Bill DeBlasio not seeking another term, the seat is open and there is significant interest in the race.
While Ross is known as a friend of former president Donald J. Trump (for whom he held a $100,000 per seat fundraiser in 2019 in the Hamptons), he has recently turned his attention to the mayoral race, particularly the Democratic primary. Ross is said to be forming a super PAC to influence the primary and encourage New Yorkers to vote in the opener to the election. In March, he held a luncheon for New York business leaders to discuss what he called the most important election in New York City’s history. He is purportedly investing tens of millions of his own funds to locate and support a pro-business candidate. Ross told the New York Times he wants to support a candidate “who is the best and can help all New Yorkers.”
Because of his interest in the election, Ross is likely trying to keep his divorce from becoming headline news. Instead, he may be hoping to keep the focus on the mayoral election and not on the division of his empire. His personal brand value must survive the divorce news if he is to remain influential in the mayoral race.
What’s at Stake
Eighty-year-old Ross and his 55-year-old jewelry designer wife Kara Gaffney Ross have been married for 18 years and have two children from previous relationships. Ross is worth about $8 billion. The couple owns a penthouse at Time Warner Center with Central Park view which is on the market for $62.5 million. They also own a 10,000 square foot home in Southampton and The Reef, a Palm Beach oceanfront home, valued at a minimum of $31.8 million. With a net worth near $8 billion, Ross has significant assets that will be affected by the divorce.
The Divorce Proceedings
The couple has quietly filed for divorce, with neither making any public statements. The couple reportedly has a prenuptial agreement which almost assuredly provides significant protection of Ross’s assets and lays out a water-tight division of assets and spousal support payments. Based on that, experts believe his business holdings will be protected as separate property and not divided in the divorce. However, his wife still stands to receive anywhere from $100 to $300 million as a settlement, which would be one of the most expensive divorces ever in New York history.
Because Ross is highly invested in the mayoral contest, it is likely his goal is to keep the divorce as private as possible. At the moment, his brand as an influential businessman with his eyes on the top seat in the city is probably his key concern. Fortunately, the prenuptial agreement will doubtless protect his business holdings and ensure that the negotiations take place in private. Sources have said the split is amicable, which is often the message conveyed when a couple wishes to downplay their split and keep prying eyes away from the intense negotiations.
Brand Protection in a Divorce
When a high-profile couple divorces, their assets are at stake, but so are their personal brands which are generally invaluable. There are key steps the couple must take to protect those brands and ensure the divorce does not tarnish them. Working with highly experienced legal counsel is the most important step. Having a prenuptial (or postnuptial agreement) is a significant way to provide protection.
Negotiations must be kept private, and it is key that the spouses agree they will protect each other’s privacy. That being said, strategic leaks from “sources” can plant the information one or both spouses want the media to cover. This can be done to create an appearance of civility and amiability, or it can be strategically to apply pressure and influence how the negotiations proceed. It is also important to provide information to the press that they can report on. Ross’s role in the upcoming election can provide a significant distraction and provide a topic the press can cover.
Although a prenuptial agreement can provide significant protection in a divorce, when personal brand is at stake, the non-moneyed spouse can find significant leverage in their access to the press. In these situations, settlements above and beyond the amount guaranteed in the prenuptial agreement can occur, often to buy silence. While there is no indication this is happening in Ross’s case, it is certainly an issue his legal team is paying attention to.