SBJ/September 12-18, 2011/Events and Attractions

Cost concerns washed away USTA roof plans

In 2008, the U.S. Tennis Association’s then-head of professional tennis, Arlen Kantarian, strode through the U.S. Open media room and stopped to boldly pronounce that a roof over the main stadium at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center “is a question of when and not if.”

“We believe this tournament,” Kantarian continued, “has reached the point where we are looking seriously at putting a roof on the Arthur Ashe Stadium.”

GETTY IMAGES
Rain played havoc with the U.S. Open’s schedule for the fourth straight year.
Plans soon after were presented to the USTA board of directors. Those plans included financing options for a roof, including the use of personal seat licenses and redoing the lease between the USTA and New York City, which owns the tennis center, sources said. But within months of Kantarian’s bold proclamation, the tide began to turn within the boardroom, and today, the idea of a roof for the U.S. Open is dismissed outright.

“A roof on Arthur Ashe is technologically a challenge and financially cost-prohibitive,” U.S. Open tournament director Jim Curley told
NEWSCOM
reporters last week during one of the sessions wiped out by rain.

For the fourth straight year, rain wreaked havoc with the Open’s schedule. Star players blasted the USTA for its rain policies, arguing that the tennis group was pushing to play in unsafe conditions (see box).

So what happened to that roof, which once seemed inevitable? According to sources, new members on the board and in the executive ranks decided in 2009 that the cost was too high and that money should instead be spent on pushing grassroots tennis more aggressively. Indeed, the signature initiative this year of the USTA under Executive Director Gordon Smith has been 10-and-under tennis. Smith assumed his post in 2008.

The idea of using PSLs to fund the roof construction — a project priced from $100 million to more than $200 million — might have significantly limited the USTA’s financial contribution, depending on the sales outcome. Wimbledon since 1921 has used debentures — essentially short-term PSLs — to fund capital projects, and more than $1 billion of projects, including its Centre Court roof, has been funded in this manner.

The USTA’s current major capital project is a $300 million renovation of the tennis center that involves tearing down and replacing the second court, Louis Armstrong Stadium, but the new venue will not have a roof either. Smith has said repeatedly that it is the mission of the USTA to promote tennis and that a few rainouts at the Open should not mean pulling hundreds of millions of dollars from that goal.

One board member, when asked about the fact that the three other Grand Slam tournament sites would all have roofs over their main courts by 2014, responded that the groups that owned those events have different missions.
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