The Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series, a collection of nine WTA and ATP hard court events leading up to the U.S. Open, celebrates its 10th anniversary in ’13. While title sponsors have changed and certain markets and tournaments have come and gone, one constant during the U.S. Open Series’ decade of existence has been the man overseeing it all -- GM J. Wayne Richmond. After 15 years with the ATP, Richmond came to the USTA in ’04 to oversee the start of the series. During the opening event, the BB&T Atlanta Open, Richmond took some time in a corner of what was once the Fox Sports Grill at Atlantic Station to discuss the U.S. Open Series' achievements and disappointments, the goals of new title sponsor Emirates and what qualities he thinks the next head of the ATP should have.
Q: After 10 years, has the U.S. Open Series achieved the goals the USTA had at the outset?
Richmond: I think you never get to where you want to be. I think if you said 10 years ago that we’d be sitting here with a major title sponsor like Emirates Airline, with ESPN in for another 11 years (after 2015), with companies like American Express and Chase as major sponsors -- I think you’d say that’s great. We’re in an entertainment business and all sports leagues are fighting to sell tickets. Our biggest challenge is getting people to come out. We had (Nationals COO) Andy Feffer sit in on a meeting recently and he said, "My number one competition is the sofa. We provide so much digital sports for people that they don’t have to leave their home." So we’re working hard to make sure we’re reaching not only the tennis fan, but people who want to be entertained. The Atlanta event is an example of that. We’re in Atlantic Station. This is a place where people come to spend their entertainment dollars. They can go to the movies or one of the many restaurants. So we put this event in the right place to attract a new audience. We’ve also gone through two Summer Olympics and that’s been challenging. We’ve gone through a tough economic stretch. I’d say if you knew all those challenges were going to be in front of us in 2004 and this is where we’re at in 2013, I think we’d feel pretty good about our report card, but there’s still a lot to be done.
Q: Do you think Emirates is seeing a good return in year two of their title sponsorship?
Richmond: The fact that someone has to stop and think about Emirates being part of the series -- instead of some other well known brand -- is the objective. They decided they want to be a worldwide brand and to be a worldwide brand, you have to be significant in the U.S. market and Canada. For the amount of TV exposure that we get, it’s a really strong branding exercise for Emirates. The other piece of it is that the series has so much international coverage. In their second (year), they’ve done a little bit more with us in charity. In each market, we’re picking a local charity -- usually something youth- or tennis-based. And before signing the U.S. Open Series deal, Emirates also looked at some other major sports in the U.S. Some of our friends in the other leagues were sort of jealous that Emirates chose us. So we’re pleased with the deal.
Q: Talk about the biggest successes and biggest disappointments during your time with the series.
Richmond: The first of the successes is that all the factions are working together. If you would have told me that a Grand Slam, the two tours, all the tournaments, all the people who broadcast tennis would all come together for one project, you probably would have bet against it. The two tours work with us on a day-to-day basis. We want to build our sport. A second success has been with our business partners. In the business climate we’ve been in over the last 10 years, to still have those partners -- both broadcast and corporate -- is amazing. Third, we’ve taken a series and really used it as a platform to talk about who we are as a sport. We use it for kids’ days and outings with the military or different ethnic groups. We want tennis to be inclusive. A big disappointment for the series was losing L.A. as a market after the event was sold to a group from Bogota, Colombia. That was really hard for me. I got my start in the tennis business in that market. It was part of changes in the way the player fields come into the States. That market was used to having the top players.
Q: How much of the success of the series is tied to a strong presence of U.S. players?
Richmond: There’s no doubt its easier when you’ve got name recognition players. No doubt about that. But when you talk about how you’re going to spend your entertainment dollars, you really want bang for your buck. So having those players is one thing. But having events like Atlanta at Atlantic Station where you can come and have a good time is important. Hopefully the tennis is good, the hospitality is good, the concessions. You’ll be in a great place where the parking is easy. All those things. And you’ve got to make comparisons. Am I going to go to a Braves game? How am I going to spend my dollar? Yes, it’s easier with name brand players, but we still have to find a way to reach people’s entertainment dollar. All of us in sports, that’s our challenge. The question is what do you do to make people want to be part of the experience.
Q: Any plans to make the courts more distinctive, such as placing hashtags or Twitter handles on the surface?
Richmond: We haven’t really thought about that, but it’s not a bad idea. We put our website out there between events. But we’re actually spending a lot of time with the WTA and ATP trying to figure out how we can maximize digital channels because the tennis cvaudience is very digitally-savvy. It’s an easy audience to talk to. So the customer we’re trying to attract is going to be very involved In Twitter and Facebook. The landscape is changing so quickly that we’re trying to figure out how to maximize our presence.
Q: What type of leader should be chosen to succeed late ATP Exec Chair & President Brad Drewett?
Richmond: It’s a tough job. You’re trying to present the sport in around 35 countries. It’s almost like you’re the head of the U.N. Every country is different. The players from those countries are different with different backgrounds. I think you start with someone that understands the business, understands the complexities, whether you’re an American or European or South American. And you’re able to get those people to work together for one common goal. I think it’s really hard to be an outsider because it’s so complex. Brad Drewett was a really good choice. I’m a little biased because he came up as a player, came through the ATP staff ranks by working and understanding his region. But he also had a great way of communicating with people and he loved the game. So I think it’s just hard for a person from another sport to come into that position and have the kind of feel that you can’t have unless you live it. I think you’ve got a couple of really good choices at the ATP right now. I think (Chief Legal Officer & ATP Americas CEO) Mark Young would be a great choice for them. But it’s a really tough job and you need someone who really understands the game, is a great communicator, understands it’s a worldwide sport and can bring people together. That’s the key I think for that job.
Q: What is a sports business story, outside of tennis, that you’ll be following over the next 12 months?
Richmond: I live in Ponte Vedra Beach, so my neighbors are the PGA Tour. I have a lot of good friends there and a lot of them are big tennis fans. I always like watching how they’re doing versus how we’re doing. We’re finding some ways to work together because the demographics for ticket buyers are pretty similar. There’s been some cross-promotion at events like The Hartford up in Connecticut and we’ll do the same at the Tour Championship in Atlanta.