SBJ/Aug. 26-Sept. 1, 2013/In Depth

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  • What's next for the USTA?

    It’s been a roller-coaster 12 months for the U.S. Tennis Association, owner of the lucrative U.S. Open starting this week, and the governing body of tennis in America.

    There have been big wins, like the announcement two weeks ago of a long-awaited roof plan for the main stadiums, and in May a record-setting TV deal with ESPN.

    USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith earlier this month outlined upgrades planned at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    But 12 months ago player discontent roiled the Open, which ended with a rain-delayed men’s final, the fifth straight one.

    Then, responding to player demands for significantly more prize money, the USTA in December announced that the 2013 purse would be far below what the players were demanding.

    Yet less than 100 days later, under what sources said were realistic threats of a player walkout, the USTA reversed course and indeed said it would handsomely hike prize money, despite avowals never to do so because it would threaten the group’s core mission of promoting tennis in the United States.

    That was not the only setback on the professional side. After moving to reject claims by a group of officials seeking class-action status for back pay, a federal judge so far has ignored the USTA’s legal pleas to even allow it to file a motion to dismiss the case.

    On the grassroots front, the USTA’s costly effort to remake how the game is played for children 10 and younger has engendered resistance from critics who contend that the so-called “Quickstart” tennis is ruining the game and will ultimately hurt the emergence of American pros.

    The following stories look at the main issues confronting the USTA, including prize money, grassroots, venue development and a class-action lawsuit by referees.



    Change of heart on prize money

    The ATP led the charge on prize money increases at the Grand Slams, which based on a percentage of revenue, had dramatically underpaid athletes compared with other sports. And none more so than the U.S. Open because it has the top revenue in the sport.

    In December, the Open announced a modest increase in prize money to $29.5 million, yet three months later, the
    event pivoted and said prize money would reach $34 million, with commitments to grandiose increases in the future.

    A few developments happened in the interim period, including the Australian Open meeting player demands for higher purses. But the U.S. Open, because of its long schedule, rain delays and overt commercialization, had particularly drawn the players’ ire. Several key sources said the ATP had let the USTA know that players were willing to play a new, alternate event if the Open continued to resist serious prize money increases.

    Gordon Smith, USTA executive director, said no such threats were made, but he did concede that the USTA had concerns about a player walkout in the future. With the USTA now in the market for up to a half-billion dollars in financing for venue renovations, Smith explained, the USTA did not want lenders spooked by potential labor strife.

    “Someone looking at long-term financing wants to know whether we have stable arrangements going forward,” Smith explained.

    The USTA had long taken the stance that the player demands would defund grassroots programs and stifle American tennis growth. Now, apparently the USTA can pay the players more and keep funding tennis programs.



    Finally raising the roof

    A model unveiled this month shows a roofed Arthur Ashe Stadium and a new Louis Armstrong Stadium.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    The USTA is self-financing a $550 million remake of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which while at the forefront of tennis facilities when renovated in the 1990s, has fallen behind not just other Grand Slams but other tennis events like the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif.

    Rain tormented the U.S. Open for five straight campaigns, aging stadiums are showing their wrinkles, and the layout of the grounds is not accommodating to the now 700,000-plus fans who stream through a fortnight.

    By 2018, there are set to be roofs over Arthur Ashe Stadium and a new Louis Armstrong, with a third stadium relocated to the other side of the campus to reduce congestion on the grounds.

    That should allow the number of fans to rise from 40,000 to 50,000 for day sessions, cementing the event’s claim to the highest annually attended sporting event in the world. Perhaps most importantly, at least for USTA public relations, is they no longer will have to await the questions about roofs during the next rain delay.



    A slow embrace for Quickstart?

    Over the last four years, the USTA has ushered in a virtual revolution in how the game is taught to children younger
    Quickstart uses soft, foam balls and smaller courts to give children 10 and younger a taste of tennis. Critics, however, say the program dumbs down the game and hurts the sport’s growth.
    Photo by: USTA
    than 10 by literally inventing a new sport for them to play. Soft foam balls, tiny courts and nets are the result of a new business driven by tens of millions of dollars in investment by the USTA.

    The idea of what is branded Quickstart is that children get frustrated by the game and leave in droves. Quickstart is not without its critics, however. In fact, many believe the USTA is retarding the growth of the sport, especially for future professionals.

    “By getting tennis to be the fastest-growing sport, they have dumbed it down, which makes it challenging for some to attempt to be elite,” said Rob Castorri, who runs Ivan Lendl’s tennis academy in South Carolina. “They have overlooked a major component of what makes a competitor, and doing what they are doing, I don’t see an American player coming along that will dominate.”

    Castorri’s and others’ critiques are severalfold. First, Quickstart is a one-size-fits-all approach that requires kids younger than 10 to play, whether they are ready to move up or not. Castorri believes by the time children are 6 or 7, it’s time to move them to the full court.

    And by making the game easy (some Quickstart sessions start out with kids hitting balloons with rackets) it actually loses kids who grow frustrated with its simplicity, the critics contend. The USTA’s requirement that Quickstart be used at all of its tournaments for children younger than 10 has had a powerful effect on how tennis clubs and pros teach the game to the young.

    USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith dismisses the complaints, saying that except for a handful of gifted youngsters, Quickstart is great for children. He said those children who want to play regular tennis tournaments can compete in 12-and-under events. Castorri, for one, rejects that assertion, saying that pitting 8-year-olds against
    12-year-olds is silly.



    Officials fault USTA over pay

    Is the USTA ripping off U.S. Open officials, the line judges and chair umpires? That’s the allegation of a class-action lawsuit, filed two years ago and recently certified by a federal judge.

    Officials are challenging a system in which they can earn as little as $200 a day, no matter how long they work.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    The tournament officials can make as little as $200 a day, no matter how long they work, and do not receive overtime. The USTA maintains the officials are independent contractors and not entitled to extra pay; the officials claim otherwise.

    “Are you entitled not to be paid because it is such a great job, because you are standing on the court and it is so exciting?” asked Judith Spanier, the lead lawyer for the class-action lawsuit and a partner at Abbey Spanier. “Why they [the USTA] fight this particular thing, frankly I don’t understand it.”

    The amount of money owed the officials is not a tremendous amount by class-action standards, Spanier said, but is outrageous when compared to how much the event earns and how much the USTA executives are paid. She declined to say how much, or if she knew, what the officials are allegedly owed. An amount would likely be set at the damages stage of a trial.

    USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith counters that it would create a poor precedent if officials were declared employees of the organization, and that was a fight worth having. If the USTA wins the lawsuit, he added, the group can then consider the level of officials’ pay.

    Not all officials are part of the lawsuit, with about 10 percent of the more than 300 eligible having opted out of the case.



    Tennis documentary draws lawsuit

    The lawsuit by line judges and chair umpires is not the only one the USTA confronts in the southern New York
    The disputed film features Serena Williams’ infamous meltdown.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    federal court.
     
    That is where the USTA has sued the filmmakers who made a documentary on the life of Venus and Serena Williams. The issue is allegedly unlawful use of U.S. Open footage, including Serena’s infamous meltdown against a lineswoman over a foot-fault call.

    USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith said it is not about the foot-fault scene, claiming that in a 90-minute film there are 20 minutes of footage.

    “We are protecting our intellectual property,” Smith said.

    The filmmakers, in federal court documents, claim First Amendment protections, and contend that the USTA gave them permission to film in 2011 at the U.S. Open, which the USTA denies.



    Making way for ESPN

    The start of fall for many means a doubleheader on CBS Sports on the first Sunday after Labor Day: an NFL season-opening game followed by the men’s U.S. Open final. While rain delays have disrupted that routine in recent years, CBS, with its 40 years of broadcasting the Open, has made an indelible mark on TV culture.

    CBS has broadcast the U.S. Open for 40 years.
    Photo by: Getty Images
    But ESPN’s power and money talk, and for $80 million a year, starting in 2015, the sports giant will have the entire tournament (it currently shares the event with CBS and Tennis Channel). CBS will lose the Labor Day weekend and the finals weekend, and from first ball strike to last, it will be largely ESPN’s event (Tennis Channel retains some rights).

    The U.S. Open follows other events like Wimbledon and the British Open that have migrated off broadcast to full cable. That means losing the 15 percent to 20 percent of the TV-watching universe that does not have cable, but the USTA is not concerned.

    “We will be at the center of American sports culture for the next decade or more,” said USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith.

    Those who don’t subscribe to cable will lose one other option for event coverage. The USTA has streamed for free all TV court matches during the event at USOpen.org. Starting in 2015, however, the site will have a link to the watchESPN app, which is available only to those with a cable subscriber that carries ESPN. USTA members will also have access.


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  • Key USTA executives

    Gordon Smith
    Executive director
    Smith manages all aspects of the USTA, covering grassroots programs to promote tennis, and the professional, including the U.S. Open, National Tennis Center development, and Davis Cup and Fed Cup.





    Danny Zausner

    Chief operating officer
    USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center
    The man of the moment at the USTA, Zausner has overseen the arduous four-year process with outside architect Rossetti of coming up with a plan to cover Arthur Ashe Stadium. Now he’s in charge of executing the plan, and the renovation of the site, with minimal interruption to the U.S. Open.



    Lew Sherr

    Chief revenue officer
    Sherr is in charge of corporate partnership sales and business development at the U.S. Open, the Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series and grassroots programs.






    Sue Hunt

    Chief marketing officer
    Hunt oversees all of the USTA’s marketing and branding for the U.S. Open and other events, professional and grassroots.






    David Brewer

    Chief professional tennis officer, USTA
    U.S. Open tournament director
    Brewer oversees all competitive aspects of the USTA’s professional tennis operations, including the U.S. Open, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, Olympic Games, Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series, U.S. Open National Playoffs, USTA Pro Circuit and USTA officials.



    Dave Haggerty

    President, USTA
    The USTA’s newest president, Haggerty’s role is a volunteer position that serves two years. The paid staff of the USTA report to the volunteer USTA board, which Haggerty oversees.

    — Daniel Kaplan

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  • Open highlights social with digital features

    With a hyper focus on social engagement, the U.S. Tennis Association will introduce several new digital features for U.S. Open fans this year, both at the event and at home. Applications for mobile devices and tablets, a revamped USOpen.org and an enhanced live stream are among the multiplatform offerings for 2013.

    This year’s event marks the fifth version of the U.S. Open’s free mobile app, which will once again include an interactive map of the grounds along with video highlights and on-demand content for fans. In addition to a smoother user experience, new this year is a scrolling event timeline combining live score updates and editorial content in a central location on the app’s home screen.

    This rendering shows the Social Wall that will be on the grounds for the U.S. Open.
    Photo by: USTA
    Socially speaking, those at the event won’t miss the new Social Wall presented by Chase, Esurance and Xerox. Displayed on the grounds of the Open, this 50-foot-wide by 8-foot-high structure will showcase feeds from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, integrating unique sponsor hashtags in addition to #usopen. A digital “wall” also will be featured on USOpen.org.

    “We wanted to take the live event experience and integrate that with the chatter and the discussion and the engagement that happens globally,” said Nicole Jeter West, director of digital strategy and partnerships at the USTA.

    “The wall being on the website allows us to bring our global fans right there into the Open and have them engage with everybody who’s on the ground, so we’re excited about what this will bring to us.”

    In partnership with SnappyTV, U.S. Open fans will be able to watch near real-time clips of match action and
    memorable moments on Twitter. This element will be sponsored by Heineken.

    American Express will present Trendcast for iPhone, Android and iPad again this year, a feature that aggregates the top five trending U.S. Open topics being discussed on social platforms. A heat index will display this content to fans, encouraging them to submit questions and comments throughout the event.

    “We want to make sure we’re taking the steps to showcase the depth of information that we have and provide that to our audience in order to have them engage socially,” Jeter West said.

    The 2013 U.S. Open live stream, powered by IBM, will be available 24/7, for free and without authentication, on USOpen.org and within the U.S. Open iPad app. During CBS broadcast windows, fans can watch the stream within the mobile app.

    The main differentiator from the on-air broadcast is that the live stream will showcase six courts, allowing fans to toggle between matches and view statistics and predictive analysis of each match alongside the feed. Within the free iPad app, social media discussions will be broken out by court, giving fans more focused platforms for discussion.

    “It was really important for us to be able to serve all of our various audiences,” Jeter West said. “We wanted to make sure the fan who is at home, be it domestically or internationally, has the ability to participate and engage with the U.S. Open as well as the fans that are on-site. We wanted to take those conversations that are happening in all the various places and have them live in one place so that everybody can be part of the conversation.”

    U.S. Open 2013 for mobile was made available for download on iPhone and Android beginning the week of Aug. 19. Live streaming of the matches was set to begin with the qualifying tournament on Aug. 20, and was set to include the draw ceremony on Aug. 23.

    Amie Sheridan is a writer in Philadelphia.

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