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Volume 20 No. 41
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Developers create pop-up ATP event for Atlanta

Qualifying play in Atlanta’s 3-year-old ATP tournament starts next week, with stars like Andy Roddick and John Isner in this year’s tournament field. They’ll pelt volleys in a new 3,600-seat stadium and in a thousand-seat venue just an errant forehand away.

And days after the event finishes, everything will vanish — leaving the same empty, dusty two acres that lay similarly idle just six weeks ago.

The BB&T Atlanta Open is the rare, if not only, pro sporting event (tennis or otherwise) that is played in all-but-temporary quarters. In fact, the main stadium is not even completed; it’s scheduled to open next Monday, just days before qualifying play starts. That’s less than a three-week lifespan for the facilities, all until they are quickly erected again in 2013 as part of the tournament’s circus-comes-to-town five-year plan.

It’s not just the stadiums. The same applies to the necessary hospitality, ticketing, back-office operation and media center space, all squeezed into temporary locations — in most cases, empty storefronts. The 20,000-square-foot lounges and dining rooms for players and VIPs are housed in a former Fox Sports Grill. The players’ locker room and administrative offices can be found in a former sporting goods store.

Photos show the tennis stadiums going up in a parking area between Atlantic Station shops and an expressway.
Photo by: BB&T ATLANTA OPEN (3)
“The cost as a promoter has come down significantly to do temporary events,” said Rob Bryant, the tournament director, citing advances in temporary seating and technologies such as LED. But while technology advances certainly make the event possible, the real story lies in its location: Atlantic Station, a mixed-use development located between Atlanta’s better-known downtown and Buckhead neighborhoods.

A former brownfield site polluted by a steel mill, Atlantic Station today boasts hotels, apartment buildings and a small village core that feels Disney-esque, with its piped-in music and spotless streets. It’s still developing, though. While located only a short walk from Atlanta’s corporate midtown, the site is yet without the bustle, buzz and energy felt in other parts of the city.

Its developers, North American Properties and CBRE Strategic Partners U.S., acquired the flailing project in 2010 and aggressively invested, aiming to make it a destination spot.

In February 2011, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed approached Mark Toro, an NAP managing partner. Reed had visited the U.S. Open Tennis Championships a few months earlier as a guest of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who explained to him how tennis tournaments delivered significant economic impact, Toro recounted of his conversation with Reed.

Tennis tournaments, because of their length and high-end clientele, can deliver bigger returns for host communities than traditional stick-and-ball sport championships. The U.S. Open says it delivers a $750 million annual economic impact to the New York region.

The Atlanta area has had an ATP stop in years past, but it’s always been contested in suburban locales. While the events came off well in terms of their overall execution, they generated little interest locally and losses for the U.S. Tennis Association’s Southern Section, which owns the sanction.

That USTA section expects to break even this year, with attendance projected to reach 40,000, up 25 percent from last year. The BB&T title sponsorship, announced in April, is directly tied to the event’s new location, which is also home to the bank’s regional headquarters.

Toro, after meeting with Reed and analyzing how to fit a tournament into the Atlantic Station site, approached the USTA’s Bryant in August 2011 about moving the tour stop to the development. Bryant sent Toro an exhaustive list of everything the USTA required and recalled thinking that a real estate developer thoroughly unfamiliar with the vagaries of hosting a pro tennis tournament surely would pass.

“Honestly, I didn’t expect a response,” Bryant said, chuckling as watched construction in late May on the two main courts.

He was very wrong.

The real estate developers were more than willing to foot the millions of dollars in annual expenses, treating them as marketing costs.

“Atlantic Station is centrally located in the region; you have 560,000 cars a day pass by every day on one of the top 10 highway interchanges in the country,” Toro said. “We view this tennis tournament among all our initiatives [to draw people to Atlantic Station] as the biggest game-changer.”

From Dusty Pit to ATP Tournament

The tennis stadiums sit in essentially a massive square pit between the highway and the development’s shops. Other spectacles have been through, including Cirque du Soleil, and the USTA has a five-year contract to host the event there. The main stadium’s bleachers will reach up into an Atlantic Station side street, which will house the VIP suites.

The tournament is taking advantage of expired leases to house operations. If leases do not fortuitously expire in time each year, temporary facilities are planned, Toro said.

For now, though, a complete tournament infrastructure is squeezing into these former shops, much of it with furniture and installations designed specifically to come in and out easily, Bryant said. This year’s credentials office, for example, might be a Pier 1 next year — or the other way around: Ticketing this year is actually in a former Pier 1 site. That means each year, starting in about May, the innards of these stores must be ripped out and refurbished to accommodate a tennis tournament.

BB&T’s title sponsorship is directly tied to the location, home to its regional headquarters.
The only permanent assets are four courts, one of which will serve as the third tournament court. They are located on the other side of a multistory parking garage that overlooks the two-acre expanse. The four courts were built on an unused parking lot, underscoring the difficulty Atlantic Station confronted attracting visitors in the numbers originally envisioned. Three of the courts are for practice, and the play court can accommodate about 300 spectators.

Bryant hopes that local colleges may use them, though like much of the land the tournament is using, they may one day be squashed by an office or apartment building. Bryant and Toro each expressed hope that if new building wipes away the land now used for the tournament, other options can be found.

For now, though, Bryant said he is just trying to make this year work — laughing at the idea of worrying about 10 years from now.

As for the ATP, this Atlanta tournament may finally solve one of the eternal riddles of American pro tennis: Why can’t the country’s top recreational market support a pro event?

Atlanta is a hotbed of tennis, with newcomers to the city often saying the first question their neighbors ask them is if they play tennis. There are local stars too, like Isner, who played at the University of Georgia, and WTA player Melanie Oudin. But that has not translated into a solid market for the tours.

The ATP left Atlanta in 2001 after struggling, returning in 2010 after the USTA section bought the sanction from the tour’s ailing Indianapolis event.

Those first two years back, the USTA staged the tournament at a country club and then a tennis club, all-too-common venues for pro tennis events. Now, when the first serve is struck next week, the tournament will become the only urban tennis tournament on the ATP or WTA tours in this country.

“I was blown away by their presentation,” said ATP board member Justin Gimelstob, recalling when Bryant pitched the idea. In fact, no sooner had Bryant left the meeting room than Gimelstob came out and told him it had been approved.

“I was told it was the fastest approval in ATP history,” Bryant said.

Atlanta is a big college football town and it’s gone hot and cold on its pro teams. Pro tennis has never quite found a niche, and Bryant, a former minor league sports promoter, thinks he knows why: The town likes a big event.

He will try to deliver, with a Sister Hazel concert scheduled before the main draw starts and other celebrations planned as well. But the main attraction is the location, he said, with restaurants, shops and theaters supplementing his tennis tournament. Many of those shops, through NAP, are offering discounts to tournament ticket holders. Yellow tennis ball stickers affixed to storefront windows are the sign for fans that their ticket stubs mean discounts.

Of course, once the tournament ends, those stickers, assuming a few shopkeeps don’t remove them in a timely manner, will be all that’s left of the tournament.

Until three weeks next year.