SBJ/January 24 - 30, 2005/This Weeks Issue

In 100 years, Australian Open fasions itself into an economic powerhouse

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Wanna buy a T-shirt and look cosmopolitan?

It’s a 52-weeks-a-year proposition for the Australian Open now. You don’t have to show up during the 14-day tennis extravaganza at Melbourne Park. Just pretend you were on hand by outfitting yourself, skull to soles, in the easily identifiable garb of the initial major of 2005. Easy. All sorts of tournament merchandise other than clothing is available online (australianopenshop.com).

“We’ve developed an iconic brand, opening a year-round shop,” says the boss, Paul McNamee, pleased that the tourney’s 50-week disappearing act is no more. He wants the Aussie Open on your mind all the time as “The Grand Slam of Asia/Pacific.”

One of the hooks is the centenary celebration. Back in 1905, a future World War I aviator, Rod Heath, and 16 other chaps gathered on the turf of the Warehousemen’s Grounds, not far from the present location, for the tourney’s debut as the Australasian Championships, a joint effort of the tennis associations of Australia and New Zealand. Heath won, women weren’t welcomed until 1922, and in 1925 the Aussies and Kiwis parted company. The rest of the world didn’t give a duck-billed platypus’ damn.

That’s changed. Decidedly. Today the Aussies tell you about Mr. McNamee’s neighborhood, stretching across the Orient. Considerably larger than “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” used to be, but the idea in part is to appeal to kids. Evangelizing in the belief that the Aussie Open belongs to everybody from Melbourne to Beijing, Tokyo, Jakarta and Seoul, the proprietors operate an Asian Junior Championship for 14-year-olds. They also dispatch coaching teams led by ex-Davis Cupper Peter McNamara throughout the region, and this year have flown in ball boys and girls from Thailand, India, Korea and China to work the Open.

Wild-card entries to the Open have been awarded to promising Asian players, one of whom, Sania Mirza, an 18-year-old Indian out of Hyderabad ranked No. 166, won her first two matches in the current tourney.

The hope is that the youngsters will act as grassroots PR agents, spreading the commercial and athletic reach of an event that not so long ago was isolated, even backward.

McNamee feels justifiably good as well about the ever-increasing numbers of ticket buyers thronging the gorgeously landscaped complex. A banner first Tuesday drew 57,045 customers (41,431 for the matinee), at the time the second highest single-day attendance for tennis anywhere. McNamee hopes to break the local record, 543,843, set by the 2001 Open.

Garnier took over for departed partner sponsor Heineken.

Particularly enticing are the ticket prices and availability, more within the grasp of everyman fan than the other three majors: French, Wimbledon and U.S. Open. Grounds passes are $25 and $20 ($40 to $46 at Flushing Meadows). Family grounds admissions (two adults plus two children, or one adult plus three children) are $57.

A brief, painful blip was Heineken’s departure as a partner sponsor. Rob Dassie, the new general manager of commercial affairs, deftly filled the hole with Garnier (skin and hair-care products) and added Aviva (investment services), Optus (telecommunications) and the state government of Victoria. Principal angel Kia Motors is signed up through 2008.

TV coverage continues to expand as ESPN Star, a Pan-Asian network with a huge range, and Fox Australia have come aboard. “We have the possibility of a half-billion homes,” says Dassie. “At one time TV was the dominant underwriter, but it’s spread out now among TV, corporate and merchandising.”

Altogether TV and sponsorship revenue will amount to close to $100 million. Profits should run between $15 million and $20 million. The prize money, $14,250,000, is a distant cry from the first Open Championship in 1969: $ 25,000.

Rod Laver, launching his second Grand Slam, and collecting $5,000 for that title, is glad that his homeland has upgraded spectacularly. “But,” he says, “that seemed like a million then.”

Bud Collins writes occasionally for SportsBusiness Journal.

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