SBJ/20101115/This Week's Issue

USTA OKs overhaul of U.S. Open home

The U.S. Tennis Association has approved a sweeping overhaul of the National Tennis Center over the next eight years, including tearing down and replacing Louis Armstrong Stadium and building two mini-stadiums.

The total redevelopment cost exceeds $300 million, though only the first $30 million has been formally budgeted.

Despite three straight years of rain pushing the Sunday U.S. Open men’s final to Monday, the construction plans do not include a roof over the main stadium or over the planned new one. That new stadium, which will retain Armstrong’s name, will be, in the words of the USTA, “roof ready,” meaning that it would be easier to add a covering to that venue later than it currently is to do so over the larger Arthur Ashe Stadium, where the Open’s final rounds are played. The new stadium, however, would not be built for another six to eight years.

“We will continue over the next 10 years to research a roof over Arthur Ashe,” said USTA President Lucy Garvin. “It remains technologically and financially challenging, but we are going to continue to research the technology that may allow for a roof.”

Plans call for tearing down Louis Armstrong Stadium and
Grandstand Court, seen at top center on a map of the grounds.

This year, for the first time, CBS Sports, which broadcasts the Open finals, publicly questioned the wisdom of not having a covering over the main venue, which opened in 1997. The network is in negotiations with the USTA over extending their contract for the event beyond 2011.

A CBS spokeswoman declined to comment in response to questions about the redevelopment. Garvin said she had not been in touch with CBS to apprise them of the new plans, which were approved by the USTA board of directors last month.

Architectural firm Rossetti is managing the redevelopment.

Immediately, the USTA will start construction of the first of the plan’s mini-stadiums. That 3,000-seat stadium will be built adjacent to the hospitality building that opened last year on the property’s southeast corner and aims to provide additional capacity for the Open as well as divert some of the grounds’ notorious fan congestion to a less-trafficked part of the facility.

The stadium may be open as soon as next year’s tourney, but certainly by 2012, and would be the fourth-largest venue on the grounds.

Work also will begin soon on widening the concourses on the upper levels of Arthur Ashe Stadium to add more rest rooms and concession stands.

The budgeted $30 million is to cover these initial parts of the overall project.

The U.S. Open Tennis Championships is one of the most financially successful annual sporting events, bringing in $200 million in revenue and more than $100 million of profit during its two-week run. The event, however, faces commercial challenges in both declining TV ratings, brought on in part by rain delays plaguing its finals, as well as the tournament being near 100 percent capacity for attendance, with more than 700,000 fans attending annually.

In the last few years, the USTA considered building a new main stadium on the site of the current Louis Armstrong Stadium complete with a roof, and tearing off the top of the cavernous Ashe stadium. That idea, hatched under previous USTA leadership, is not in the present plans.

The problem with that plan, said Danny Zausner, the National Tennis Center’s managing director, is that the marshy surface the 10,200-seat Armstrong facility is built on will not support more than a 15,000-seat stadium. Meanwhile, the 22,547-seat Ashe stadium cannot support the weight of a roof, so supporting pillars would need to be constructed around the stadium to accommodate that addition, Zausner said. That step would drive up the project cost.

If a roof is eventually built over a new Armstrong stadium, the USTA could confront the possibility of rain wiping out the Open finals with a smaller, covered court sitting empty next door.

Plans for the new Armstrong stadium call for a venue between 10,000 and 15,000 seats. It’s clear that work is needed on the existing facility. According to Zausner, recent engineering studies commissioned by the USTA showed that the current building is in such disrepair that within a few years, maintenance costs will exceed depreciation costs. The building opened in 1964 for the World’s Fair, and the new NTC, now formally known as the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, consumed it upon opening in 1978. Armstrong served as the main stadium until Ashe opened two decades later.

A demolition of the current Armstrong stadium would also include tearing down the 6,100-seat Grandstand Court, which is connected to Armstrong. That venue would be replaced by the second of the two planned mini-stadiums at a to-be-determined location, though the two main choices are the current spot or the southwest corner of the grounds.

The USTA has not begun talks on how to finance the longer-term elements, but Zausner said a strong possibility is the way in which Ashe was funded: selling tax-exempt bonds through the Industrial Development Agency, a public bond conduit. Zausner said it’s unlikely the USTA would use some form of personal seat license. The All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club has paid nearly all of the capital improvements for Wimbledon — including last year adding a roof to its main stadium — through a recurring type of PSL called a debenture.

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