Weathering the Olympics: A Case Study

by: Tom A. McFerson | July 22, 2012

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What if you threw a tournament and nobody came?

With the London Olympics looming large, that is the troubling possibility facing several events this summer. While no one expects to see tumbleweeds blowing through half-empty stadiums, the summer of 2012 clearly won't be business as usual, what with a dearth of popular players and plunging viewership because of the Summer Games.

So how does a tournament keep from getting singed by the Olympic torch? How to sell tickets and keep fans interested? The Farmers Classic in Los Angeles, which begins on Monday, July 23—five days before the Olympic tennis tournament—followed these steps:

Assess who is available…
Out of the top 50 players on the ATP tour as of June 26, 2012 (the official rankings cut-off for the Olympics), only eight were not heading to London. And three of those players—Rafael Nadal, Mardy Fish and Gael Monfils—were/are battling injuries. That left precious few top draws for officials to build a tournament around.

“The International Tennis Federation changed the entry procedure for the London Olympics, allowing four players from each country to participate instead of three,” said Bob Kramer, longtime Tournament Director at the Farmers Classic, played on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles. “For the smaller events being held around the Olympics, this took quite a few more players off the board.”

To give you an example of the impact, out of the eight quarterfinalists from the 2011 Farmers Classic, only two were available to play this year. The Citi Open in Washington D.C., which goes head-to-head with the Olympics the following week, got hit even worse. Of their eight quarterfinalists from 2011, none will be returning this summer.

“The London Olympics is really affecting tournaments three weeks before the Games and three weeks after. It drastically changed how players planned out their summers. Really, it’s as if four Grand Slams are taking place within about 12 weeks’ time. Many events—not just Los Angeles—are getting passed over because players need to understandably be careful about scheduling and training.”

Find a story line, any story line…
Everyone loves a good comeback, and with Americans Sam Querrey and James Blake both headlining the Farmers Classic field, tennis fans in Los Angeles will get to observe two of them.

You may not glean it from their rankings, but these players were just what the tournament needed: Two popular Americans that are healthy, eager to play, and not eligible for the Olympics. Querrey, a two-time former champion and a Southern California native, dropped out of the Top 100 earlier in the year, the result of a nagging elbow injury and a lack of play. He appears to be slowly regaining his confidence, however, and with a good week could reenter the Top 50. Blake is in much the same boat. The former Top 5-player and fan favorite is also desperate to regain his form heading into the rest of the summer and beyond.

Together, you’ve got two talented players looking to get their careers back on track—and just as important to Kramer, two well-known Americans that fans will root for and (officials hope) buy tickets to see.

“With any luck,” Kramer said, half-joking, “the two will be on opposite ends of the draw and make it to the weekend.”

Hope for good fortune…
Injuries, late withdrawals, and last minute wildcard requests are always part of the landscape for tournament officials. They live in fear of the late withdrawal, the injury of a marquee player that can decimate their carefully constructed tournament. Yet they also crave the last-minute wildcard request, the call from a highly ranked player who asks to be put in the draw.

So far, the Famers Classic's fortunes have been positive. Blake and Querrey are on site and injury-free. Wildcards were offered and accepted by two popular up-and-coming Americans (USC All-American Steve Johnson, and junior standout Jack Sock), and a third wildcard was accepted by the feel-good story of the year, a resurgent Brian Baker.

The only unlucky break came with the recent injury of Mardy Fish.

“About three months ago, when Fish was struggling with his ailment and not playing, he asked us to save him a wildcard into the event. He knew he wouldn’t be competing in the Olympics and was worried that he might need to get some more tennis in during the summer.”

Fish was still a real possibility for the Farmers Classic early last week, but a severe ankle sprain in the second round of the Atlanta Open changed all that. He was scheduled to have an MRI upon returning to Los Angeles.

Batten down the hatches…
To a certain extent, tour officials have now accepted the rhythm of the Summer Olympics. Every four years, they prepare themselves for a shaky draw, a loss of interest, and a large financial hit.

“It’s happened before. This tournament faced the same issue in 2008 when the Olympics were held in Beijing.”

But that year, Kramer is quick to note, several marquee players (Andy Roddick, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marat Safin, Fernando Verdasco) opted to bypass the Olympics and come to Los Angeles. In 2012, the pickings were decidedly slimmer.

It’s had an impact. So far, season ticket sales are off almost 10 percent compared to 2011. And officials are anticipating that daily ticket sales might be down a whopping 25 percent from last year.

“In the past, we’ve done some larger concerts—like having Coldplay perform—and we’ve also had some exciting exhibitions and some Champions Doubles. We’ve found, though, that while these events are exciting and do add value to the tennis fan, they don’t really generate extra ticket sales. This year, given the environment, we’re basically just sticking to the tennis.”

Sponsorship revenue has also been affected.  According to Kramer, smaller sponsors were much tougher to secure this year, and the tournament’s two major long-term backers—Farmers Insurance and Mercedes Benz—will make their renewal decisions after the week is up. 

Preserving capital; living within your means; sticking to the budget. For tournament officials, it’s all about getting through 2012 financially unscathed. 

And finally, look forward to next year…
The tournament will regain its regular slot in the rotation next summer, and officials have promised fans and sponsors that, barring something unforeseen, there will be a return to normalcy for the Los Angeles event.

Or at least a few more big names in the draw.

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