For years now, dark and turbulent skies have swirled over the U.S. Open, and not just because the traditional men’s Sunday final has been rained out for five consecutive years. Players have complained about a range of issues, including prize money, the Super Saturday format, and even the staccato scheduling that proceeds from the USTA’s decision to stretch the first round of play over three days.
It did not help that because of bad timing as well as changing weather patterns, the lack of a roof over the main U.S. Open court, Arthur Ashe Stadium, became an over-sized, embarrassing issue for the USTA. The situation threatened to get ugly last December, when the USTA announced that the men’s final would be played on Monday through 2014. When the USTA proceeded to announce a $4 million increase in prize money (to to $29.5 million), the players barked back: “Not enough!”
All in all, it’s been a tough couple of years for the USTA on a number of fronts, including public relations. But the climate seems to have changed for the better overnight, thanks to some bold moves announced a few days ago by the organization.
In an almost startling, unilateral decision, the USTA decided to commit to raising prize-money to $50 million by 2017, almost double what the figure is today. That figure includes an additional $4 million added to this year’s compensation, to keep the U.S. Open’s level of prize money above that of the Australian Open.
And this outreach effort wasn’t just financial. The USTA also declared that starting in 2015, it would re-join the Grand Slam fold and observe the alternate-day playing format; that means the first round of play will be over in two days and, more important, that players will get a day of rest before the Saturday women’s final and the Sunday men’s championship match. In other words, goodbye—and good riddance—to Super Saturday.
Taken together with the USTA’s ambitious plan to spend $500,000,000 on a makeover of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center—adding, among other things, a new stadium to replace Louis Armstrong—and even the possibility of a retro-fitted roof for Ashe, the plans add up to a powerful statement: The USTA intends to keep its place at the top of the Grand Slam pecking order, at least in terms of measurable success (attendance, prize-money, television revenues, etc.).
I had a conversation about all this today with the USTA Chief Operating Officer who shepherded through most of these changes, Gordon Smith. My first question was, “Isn’t the USTA worried about going broke?” I was only half-kidding.
“No, we’re optimistic,” Smith said. “The important thing for us (the USTA) at this stage is to have certainty and predictability as we approach the markets where we want to borrow. This commitment on our part also has changed the tone of our ongoing dialogue with the players. There’s a real sense of excitement now, in them and in us.”
As Novak Djokovic said, upon hearing of the USTA’s offer: “It’s a very positive step for players. . . I believe that these are some significant changes in the negotiations with Grand Slams. It hasn’t happened for many, many years that we have such increases. We just feel like we deserve it. There is a lot of players—not just the top players, but a lot of players who are in Top 100, Top 200—who deserve to have a better living from this sport.” (Note: Details on how the increases will be distributed through the ranks are not yet worked out.)
You’ll note the reference made by Smith to the markets. Those are the lenders to whom the USTA will go to line up financing for the National Tennis Center makeover, which will take a total of six to eight years. Those lenders are much more likely to support the USTA if the organization can show that it’s in partnership, rather than at odds, with the players. The work on the expansion is expected to begin as soon as the USTA has secured financing.
The USTA expects to recoup its investment and underwrite its plan to remain the pacesetter Slam without an undue burden on paying spectators. Apart from adjustments for inflation, USTA officials do not foresee a significant jump in ticket prices. While the USTA’s agreement with New York City contains some attendance limitations, the prospect of at least two new stadia certainly offers some revenue-boosting ticketing options. Moreover, rights fees from television as well as on-site commercial sponsorship continue to rise at all prime athletic events.
“The [National Tennis] Center is like Madison Square Garden, which is also undergoing a major renovation,” Smith said. “I think that will result in additional sponsorship opportunities. And with the game growing, we hope for additional USTA membership and participation revenues. Also, Cincinnati (the Cincinnati Masters 1000 event, of which the USTA is a majority owner) is successful, and generates substantial income for us.”
The scope of this project is so large that we can barely see the outlines at this point, but the takeaway from this latest round of developments is unmistakable. The USTA has come to see that the old model is no longer viable in today’s game and marketplace. We’ve been here before. Back in mid-1970s, USTA President Slew Hester cut his ties with the West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills when he realized that, in order to grow in the Open era, the U.S. national championships needed a big, new, public-friendly home (hence, the National Tennis Center in nearby Flushing Meadows).
The commitment to a huge increase in prize money has amounted to hitting the reset button on the relationship between the USTA and the players. The ATP players still may not like the idea of playing a Monday final for the next two years, but they now accept it as part of the good faith mandate of the prize-money increase. And the other changes that will bring the U.S. Open into line with its fellow majors in terms of scheduling will also help dampen the destructive narrative that has gained steam in recent years: That the USTA is money-hungry, and run by arrogant, out-of-touch insiders who couldn’t care less about the players.
“It wasn’t all that complicated,” Smith said. “We are the U.S. Open. We need to recognize the value of the players to us, and to our effort to grown the game. We should pay them what they deserve. We talked with the Player’s Council of the ATP for over a year before coming to this point. We learned a lot about each other and I think it’s changed the tone of the relationship.”
As if all that wasn’t sufficiently good news, the word is that new materials may enable the USTA to retro-fit a roof to Arthur Ashe Stadium, much as Wimbledon did to Centre Court. But let’s not get carried away here; we have plenty of good news to digest for now when it comes to what might be called a new era for the USTA.