SBJ/August 27-September 2, 2012/In Depth

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  • U.S. Open looking for cover

    The U.S. Tennis Association is in advanced discussions with structural engineers about ripping out much of the upper bowl of Arthur Ashe Stadium and rebuilding it with lighter-weight materials that could support a roof, the organization’s top two officials said.

    The absence of a roof on the 15-year-old structure has bedeviled the U.S. Open Tennis Championships the last four years, with rain pushing the men’s final from Sunday to Monday, and the women’s final in different years into a Sunday from Saturday, creating havoc for television and on-site spectators.

    Rain has plagued the U.S. Open in recent years, keeping on-site spectators and television viewers waiting.
    Photo by:Getty Images
    The idea of building a roof has been discussed for years, and the USTA has suffered withering criticism for not having one in place. When the group announced in June a half-billion-dollar redevelopment plan that did not include adding a roof, the media focused on what the effort did not have rather than what it did.

    “They clearly had fallen behind in quality in so many ways, and we were somewhat taken aback they had not gone the whole hog and put a roof on the whole thing,” said Neil Harman, a tennis correspondent for the London Times who is writing a book on the 2012 tennis season.

    The USTA plans to press on with its redevelopment plan while it studies the roof option. But in addition to the engineering obstacles posed by a roof, the USTA must overcome organizational obstacles that have put such a project on hold in the past.

    Without a roof, the Open would stand out from the three other Grand Slams. The Australian Open already has a roof over each of its top two stadiums, with plans for one over a third venue. Wimbledon has one roof and has talked about a second. The French Open announced redevelopment plans that envision a roof by 2016.

    The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center faces a challenge because it sits on swampy ground. Arthur Ashe
    Stadium, at least as currently constructed, would sink under the added weight of a roof.

    Over the last decade the USTA and its master planner, Rossetti, have considered several options, including building a new stadium or erecting a structure around Ashe Stadium that itself would hold up the roof.

    In 2008, Arlen Kantarian, then the USTA’s chief executive of professional tennis, strode into the media room during an Open rain delay and, responding to a reporter’s question about a roof, replied it was a “question of when and not if.” That was the first time the USTA had gone that far in support of a roof.

    But when Kantarian left the organization later that year, so apparently did the will to build a covering. Over the next few years, USTA executives said a roof would be too expensive to build and would detract from spending money on grassroots tennis. The USTA’s mission is to promote tennis play.

    Now once again, at least publicly, that attitude appears to be shifting.

    “Every USTA board I have been on wants a roof and we are going to get there,” said Jon Vegosen, the USTA’s current president, who is in the last few months of his two-year term.

    Gordon Smith, the USTA’s executive director, said: “We are coordinating with a number of external structural engineers, people who have the materials, and they are in the coordinating role with many, many other entities who would frankly love to have the feather in their cap of solving this very difficult technological problem.”

    The idea under consideration would involve removing most of the stadium’s upper bowl and replacing it with lighter materials and a roof.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    Under the proposal, the shell of Arthur Ashe Stadium’s upper bowl would remain, but the seats, and the concrete that attaches them to the shell, would come out. The seats and the attached materials account for about 40 to 50 percent of the upper bowl’s weight. The idea behind the current proposal is that lighter-weight replacement seats, plus a roof, would weigh the same as the portion of the stadium that would be replaced.

    Vegosen and Smith declined to say if a decision is near, saying only that the technological progress in the area is rapid and had speeded the possibilities greatly. No cost estimates have been released.

    “We are a lot closer than a year ago,” Vegosen said.

    If that moment does come, Smith said, it will not affect the earlier announced plans to redo the tennis complex. That plan includes tearing down the current No. 2 stadium, moving the No. 3 stadium, and building a viewing platform adjacent to the practice courts.

    How to pay for it

    The USTA plans to tap the Open’s operating profit of more than $100 million annually to cover the initial costs of improvements. But signaling that the USTA does not want the redevelopment project to reduce aid to grassroots tennis, Smith said the organization would take on a decent amount of debt to fund the renovations.

    He ruled out the sale of personal seat licenses to fund the redevelopment. “The cost will not be done on the back of our ticket holders,” he said.

    Wimbledon has funded the bulk of its renovations over the years with debentures, which are PSLs that expire every five years.

    Noting the difficulties the New York Jets encountered selling their cache of PSLs at MetLife Stadium, Smith said that the Open’s ticket prices are already high enough.

    For sure, upgrades are needed. Last year the USTA shut down the No. 2 court, Louis Armstrong Stadium, midway
    The U.S. Open is playing catch-up with other Grand Slams that already feature roofs, including Wimbledon (above) and the Australian Open.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    through the tournament when water bubbled up from beneath the court during a match. The tournament dispatched workers to sop up the water with towels and then sent the players back on court, infuriating one of them, Andy Roddick. USTA cameras caught his furious exchange with tournament referee Brian Earley, broadcasting the argument into the media room. Earley, left little choice by Roddick, moved the match to a lesser court, and Armstrong Stadium remained shuttered the rest of the tournament.

    Built in 1964, Armstrong Stadium has long been in poor shape, with the USTA just last week denying a rumor that several offices in the stadium had been condemned by the city of New York. The Open’s information technology team used to be housed in offices under the stadium, but moved out in recent years after the space became all but unusable, with beer even occasionally dripping down onto the computers from the seats above.

    Arthur Ashe Stadium itself has been widely derided for its enormous size, far and away the largest in tennis. Seats in the upper bowl are widely panned for their distant view of the court. The other three Grand Slam main courts hold about 15,000 spectators, while Ashe Stadium seats 22,547. Questioned if the USTA might consider simply ripping off the top bowl, Smith replied that 97 percent of the tickets are sold, and the Open would not turn away customers.

    Some in the tennis world believe the USTA’s organizational structure prevents the Open from moving forward with plans for a roof. With a board of directors controlled by volunteers, and a new president elected every two years, gaining consensus is not always easy, said one insider, who requested anonymity.

    Under Kantarian, his pro tennis group broached the possibility of spinning the Open out of the USTA and operating it separately from the volunteers, said a source familiar with that time at the USTA. The idea got no traction, and in recent years, Smith has done the opposite, seeking to break down the distinction between those who work on the pro sports side of the USTA and those in the grassroots.

    Vegosen and Smith rejected the premise of the whole debate, contending that Tennis Australia and the French Tennis Federation operate under similar restraints.

    The current Open redevelopment is not scheduled to begin until after next year’s event. Gaining the necessary approval from the city of New York is time consuming, Smith explained.

    And the major part of the plan, the demolition and rebuild of Armstrong Stadium, does not occur for another six years, he said.

    But the demolition of the adjacent Grandstand court, which seats 6,000, will occur sooner. The court will be moved across the grounds and built near the new Court 17, with both venues connected.

    The USTA executives rejected the notion that the Open has somehow fallen behind the pace of the other Slams. “We will maintain ourselves as a world-class event in a world-class facility,” Smith insisted.

    And Vegosen said the plans the U.S. Open formally outlined in June were in development long before the French Open announced last year a major redevelopment plan of its own.

    “This is something we are always trying to do, and so are some of the other Grand Slam tournaments,” Vegosen said. “I don’t see it as keeping up with the Joneses.”

    Paul McNamee, the former Australian Open tournament director, said that if the U.S. Open does not get a roof, in an odd way it could positively set the event apart from the other three as the only truly outdoor Slam.

    “It could become a unique asset,” he said, admitting his take was more of a traditionalist angle. “It might be more of a strength than a weakness.”

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  • Courtside connections

    From maintaining the grounds, to stringing rackets, to keeping the entertainment on schedule, many people will play key behind-the-scenes roles at this year’s event. Here are a few who will make their mark.

    Michael Fiur

    Fiur with Justin Bieber
    Photo by: USTA

    If someone’s doing something on center court in Arthur Ashe Stadium other than playing tennis, Fiur likely isn’t far away. From selecting the music, to the videos on the big screen, he likely came up with that day’s rundown. As executive producer of entertainment, Fiur produced the opening of Arthur Ashe Stadium featuring Whitney Houston in 1997, and since then has produced dozens of ceremonies including the dedication of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Open. Fiur produces live events and television specials, having founded his own company after 10 years at Radio City/MSG Entertainment. For the NFL, Fiur will produce the Super Bowl postgame ceremony in New Orleans in February, his 18th Super Bowl production in all.





    Barbara Paddock
    Photo by: JPMorgan Chase

    In New York sports, there may be no greater hospitality tradition than JPMorgan Chase at the U.S. Open. At the center of it is Paddock, the bank’s point person with the tournament. She will spearhead the effort to shepherd thousands through the bank’s hospitality space, a key two weeks for the bank as it entertains some of its most important clients and executives. The bank will spend tens of millions of dollars on the Open’s sponsorship, and it is the hospitality far more than the branding that is key to the deal. Officially senior vice president of the bank for strategic philanthropic initiatives, Paddock has an unofficial role in tennis circles: the person to know for the best food and relaxation while at the Open.



    Roman Prokes
    Photo by: USTA

    Prokes arguably has the most important job this fortnight at the U.S. Open — racket stringer. Players often take six or seven rackets onto court, and the show can’t go on unless those rackets are strung to the preferred tensions. That job falls to Prokes, who is the official U.S. Open racket stringer and works on site during the event. During last year’s Open, Prokes strung 3,521 rackets. That’s enough racket string to lay the entire course of a marathon, and a bit more. During the rest of the year, Prokes can be found in one of his three metro New York stores. A Czech who fled communist oppression in 1981 for the United States, Prokes played, too, and is always in high demand by recreational players and pros alike. Especially over the next two weeks.



    Danny Zausner
    Photo by: USTA

    If a flower is trampled on the grounds of the U.S. Open this week and not immediately replaced, chances are Zausner will not be happy. The head of facilities for the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Zausner is the point person for merchandise, food and beverage, coordinating with city authorities, and even the luxury suites. He oversaw the effort last year to essentially strap down the site the weekend before the tournament began when Hurricane Irene blew in, then got the facility ready to open as usual. And not a flower was out of place.



    Roy Fugazy
    Fugazy greets Billie Jean King.
    Photo by: Roy Fugazy

    Fugazy doesn’t work for the USTA, but one could argue there is no one more important to the U.S. Open running effectively. His Fugazy Sports & Entertainment operates 240 vehicles that will transport players, officials and VIPs from Manhattan to Queens and back. Unlike the other Slams where players usually stay near the venue, that is not the case with the year’s last Slam. Hotels are limited in Queens, and not up to the caliber many players demand. Each day Fugazy will transport about 7,000 passengers, including family members of players. Those vehicles will log 1.1 million miles this fortnight.





    Jason Bernstein
    Photo by: ESPN

    Bernstein has almost completed a Grand Slam of his own in the past year, securing extensions to the Australian and French Opens on top of bringing Wimbledon rights to ESPN. The executive has been with ESPN since 2002 and now is senior director of programming and acquisitions. He oversees all content acquisition and scheduling strategy for ESPN’s tennis business. He also handles contract discussions for competitive eating, watching the July 4 Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest every year from ESPN’s broadcast compound at Wimbledon.

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  • U.S. Open story lines

    RAIN RAIN GO AWAY

    Roger Federer looks on after play was suspended for rain during the 2011 U.S. Open.
    Photo by: Getty Images

    Rain has wreaked havoc on the schedule four years running. Will the event get soaked again and force matches to be rescheduled?

    SUPER SATURDAY
    This could be the last year of the format of having the men’s semis and women’s final on the same day. The Open is committed to giving men a day of rest between their semis and final starting next year, and the only way to do that may be to scrap the popular, at least for fans, “Super Saturday.”

    PLAYER DISCONTENT
    At last year’s Open, player discontent with the Slam bubbled over, whether it was prize money, water seeping onto the playing surface, or the scheduling of the men’s final. In July, the USTA hiked prize money, but we hear players are still unhappy and want more pay.

    LOUIS ARMSTRONG STADIUM
    The days are numbered for Louis Armstrong Stadium, which battled water seepage in 2011.
    Photo by: Getty Images

    In the next decade, the venue will be replaced, but for now, it’s the No. 2 court. Last year the stadium had to be shuttered when water seeped up onto the court. Here is hoping there is no repeat.

    AMERICAN MEN
    It’s been eight tourneys since an American last won the Open (Andy Roddick in 2003). American fans have become more accustomed to non-American names, but no doubt getting an American in the final would make CBS Sports very happy.

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  • Event to build in a day of rest for men prior to final

    The U.S. Open will ensure that male players have a day of rest between their semifinals and final starting next year, said Gordon Smith, the U.S. Tennis Association’s executive director, which could mean the end of the decades-long “Super Saturday” format.

    The U.S. Open has staged the men’s semifinals and women’s final on the second Saturday of the fortnight, but that means the men have to play their final the next day. It is a larger issue for the men because they play best-of-five sets, instead of the best-of-three for the women players, whose semifinals are the second Friday.

    Playing in the men’s final could get a little less exhausting starting in 2013.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    “Inside the business, it is puzzling the semifinal issue with the men,” said Paul McNamee, the former Australian Open tournament director. “It is the standout issue we all should think would have been addressed by now.”

    The USTA is examining what economic model works best, having the men play their semifinals on Friday, or keep the Saturday semifinals and play the final Monday, Smith said. He conceded that the players, some of whom could have Davis Cup commitments that week, far prefer to keep the final on Sunday. “We have told players we understand the game has changed and there needs to be a day of rest,” he said.

    Whatever the USTA decides will significantly change the TV schedule. For example, the USTA could choose to move the women’s final into the scheduled men’s slot on Sunday afternoon on CBS Sports (it is currently in prime time on the second Saturday). Or it could stage all of the semifinals on Friday, but in two different sessions.

    McNamee said whatever the Open chooses to do, it is likely to hurt ratings and revenue having either the men’s semifinals or final on a weekday.

    The U.S. Open is the only one of the four Slams not to offer a day of rest between the semis and the final. Ironically, the last four years the men’s final has occurred on Monday anyway because of rain interruptions.

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