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Putting on the show
Published August 25, 2008
The U.S. Open Tennis Championships is the top stand-alone annual sporting event in the world. It expects to draw more than 700,000 fans and rake in about $200 million in revenue and more than $100 million in profit. The grounds of the 46.5-acre USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York boast two stadium courts, 20 side courts and a soon-to-be-completed $60 million indoor training center, which will also house a new hospitality complex.
Operating the tournament is a major endeavor, with 10,600 people staffing the event. The Open may be the only event that has its own Federal Aviation Administration deal to divert airplanes (the first call the tournament referee makes before play each day is to the control tower at LaGuardia Airport, and the last to the same tower). It also has its own on-site meteorologist.
The following is a look at some of the behind-the-scenes challenges the event confronts.
Description: The Open has worked hard to be more than just a tennis event. Indeed, despite there being few top Americans in tennis, the spectacle continues to be a major draw. Some say it has a Disneyland appeal. There are more than 100 types of plants, including three kinds of chili peppers. Three upscale restaurants, a wide-ranging food court and a Heineken bar keep fans fed, and the Polo, Wilson and Lacoste stores are usually packed. Fountain displays, a hall of fame area, an interactive zone (open next year), and musical bands are part of the fun.
What’s new: Part of the new $60 million, 245,000-square-foot U.S. Tennis Association training center will be open, including a spacious membership office; clearer wayfinding signs have been added through Infinite Scale Design; green initiatives; a new wine bar.
Our request: Hard to find fault, but what about an Internet cafe, business center or meeting rooms?
Fun fact: Legend has it that the idea of moving the Open from its ancient home in Forest Hill, Queens, to the current site in Flushing came when USTA President “Slew” Hester noticed the property while landing on a flight into LaGuardia in January 1977. The center, the largest public tennis facility in the world, opened 20 months later.
Description: 240 singles players, 240 doubles players, not to mention girls and boys junior singles and doubles tournaments, and that’s a lot of egos, nationalities and languages. The tournament spiffed up the locker rooms last year in an $8 million renovation, added a new workout room, and, in a nice touch, put the name of past champions on their lockers. Players can request their own music when they go on court, and the tournament downloads it from iTunes. If a player requests a song with offensive lyrics, a clean version is played.
What’s new: The entire scheduling system is finally going digital. Until this tournament, the figurative man-behind-the curtain followed the action by using magnets and moving them ahead through the brackets, and at the end of the day figured out the next day’s schedule, which players and media eagerly awaited. While it sounds simple, with only five courts available to TV, scheduling courts with foreign media in mind is a complicated process. This year, the control room has 16 large computer screens managing the action.
Our request: The players already got the media kicked out of the locker rooms last year, so if we were a player, we’d say more prize money.
Fun fact: In 2002, Pete Sampras complained to tournament director Jim Curley about being scheduled first on semifinals day before Andre Agassi, ranting that the last time he played so early he was a junior. The extra rest is largely credited with giving him an edge the next day over Agassi in Sampras’ final match.
Description: In addition to 90 luxury suites in the main stadium, the U.S. Open has a $5 million corporate hospitality business that will entertain 140 companies this fortnight, with 80-100 staff members. For the third and final year, the current tent complex is located outside the grounds, a short walk from the southern entrance. Next year, hospitality will be moved to the new training and entertainment building.
What’s new: The hospitality center is stepping up the foliage with 3,000 plants this year.
Our request: The temporary hospitality village has proved so popular, the USTA looked at staying put instead of moving into the new training center building. Maybe it should do both.
Fun fact: The number of companies using Open hospitality has tripled in recent years.
Description: Transporting players and VIPs between Manhattan and the site is a major undertaking (most of the USTA employees stay at the nearby Crowne Plaza). The 150 cars, provided by tournament sponsor Lexus, travel an estimated 94,468 miles during the event. That’s not to mention the 64,378 miles the buses for media and other credentialed holders the USTA estimates will cover. As for the average fan, 57 percent arrive via mass transit.
What’s new: More than 60 percent of the cars are hybrids this year.
Our request: How about arranging with the city for a U.S. Open express subway to run once an hour, the way Long Island Railroad does?
Fun fact: Each year, tournament referee Brian Earley is on the phone four or five times talking to cars stuck in the midtown tunnel with players late getting to the grounds.
Description: The U.S. Open will sell about $12 million in merchandise this year through its own branded apparel and third-party vendors like Nike, Polo and Lacoste (the Open’s net is about half). New this year is Under Armour. The merchandise business is handled by Facility Merchandising Inc. Its CEO, Milt Arenson, is there each day of the tournament, including tallying up the receipts deep below Louis Armstrong Stadium, usually at 5 a.m. He then lets USTA merchandise chief Sarah Cummins know what needs to be restocked.
What’s new: With the U.S. Open carrying 850 products with its own brand — aside from, say, the Polo and Lacoste products — it’s always hard to figure out what the hot item will be. Our bet is on the baseball cap made from two Coke bottles, part of the USTA green initiative.
Our request: How about a tennis version of the dollar store, say the $10 store: Nothing costs more than $10. And for good measure, put it up by the cheap seats in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Fun fact: Almost every year, electricity problems knock out one vendor’s cash register, leading to much counting of handwritten receipts.
Description: With more than 1,300 credentialed media, the Open is a major global happening. There is no main broadcast center; instead, television production and feeds run through trailers or modules parked outside between the stadiums and next to a railroad track. This area is city land that can only be used during the tournament.
What’s new: The modules are essentially upscale TV trailers. A small cafeteria is now alongside them, and next year, on the USTA side of the road, several trailers will be stacked and kept there year round in an effort to accommodate new partner ESPN, which begins coverage in 2009.
Our request: The main media room, where hundreds work, has one men’s and one women’s rest room. Enough said.
Fun fact: The USTA’s advanced media unit during the two weeks is housed beneath the stands of 44-year-old Louis Armstrong Stadium, which is the second show court. Because of a history of flooding, the floor is made of thick wood squares and there is no carpet. Beer dripping in from the stands continues to be a problem. On the plus side, the space, which will be crammed with 60 to 70 staffers, may have the coolest temperature on the often hot and humid grounds.
Description: You can’t talk U.S. Open without gabbing about the food, considered among the most upscale in sports. There are more than 60 concessions and the Open expects $18 million in sales. Concessionaire Levy Restaurants anticipates selling 230,000 hamburgers, 4.5 tons of crab and lobster, and 26,000 pounds of beef tenderloin and steaks. With three exclusive restaurants, one of which is open to general ticket holders, take your appetite and your wallet (yes, American Express is the official card of the Open).
What’s new: The biggest change is what fans won’t see, or taste, as the case may be. The national training center, with its 15,000-square-foot food commissary, is now attached to the main row of restaurants in the food court. Previously, refrigeration was limited to concessions just for beer, and now it should handle most needs. This should improve stocking and freshness.
Our request: Limited vegetarian and organic food offerings. With New York City full of these kinds of trendy restaurants, the USTA should find one to set up shop for the two weeks.
Fun fact: Ben and Jerry’s expects to sell $1 million in ice cream and shakes on-site this year, up from $850,000 last year.
Description: The Open boasts 22 sponsors and each year they seem to promote more than ever at retail and on-site. The years of companies sponsoring the Open because the CEO liked tennis are over, said Pierce O’Neil, the USTA chief business officer. JPMorgan Chase, perhaps the top sponsor, gave away 16,000 tickets in New York this summer as part of a promotion. American Express on-site will hand out free TVs and radios featuring the tennis action. Evian will boast more than 80 large Evian bottle recycling bins around the grounds (all recycling sorting had been done by trash collectors previously).
What’s new: New sponsor Juvéderm has a booth on-site for anyone desperate to hear about getting rid of their wrinkles.
Our request: It’s not a sponsor issue, but the full name of the site is the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Spelling out USTA, that’s 63 letters, and tennis is used twice. Something should give.
Fun fact: U.S. Open sponsor contracts are written so that companies with courtside signage have their lettering within 24 inches of the exterior doubles line. One year a CEO sitting courtside insisted his company’s sign was farther. The Open measured it and the USTA was right.
Description: When the USTA in 1999 hired former Radio City chief Arlen Kantarian to run pro tennis, it was not hard to figure out that music would be part of his plan. Now the USTA has an opening night ceremony — The Jersey Boys will sing tonight and the host is Forest Whitaker — and a finals act. Staff led by Kantarian, managing director Michelle Wilson, and general manager of entertainment Michael Fiur make the choices. Celebrity fans are booked through Flying Television, and between 100 and 200 are expected this fortnight (70 percent come unsolicited).
What’s new: One of the entertainment acts on the grounds during finals weekend will be teams of rope jumpers. Wilson concedes it is not the most obvious fit for the Open’s 35-and-above demographic, but says people love watching young people having fun.
Our request: The smaller music acts on the grounds can bother the players competing, who are the core product. Perhaps more nonmusical entertainment, like comedians, author Q&As, acrobats?
Fun fact: The nine video boards on the grounds have their own production team and TV trailer.
— Compiled by Daniel Kaplan