Business Is Big at the Open
When Rain Falls, Sales Rise
—Ancient U.S. Open proverb
When this past Monday’s much anticipated day-session clash between top-ranked Roger Federer and Mardy Fish was canceled due to the American player’s health issues, everyone at the U.S. Open was disappointed.
Well, almost everyone.
Employees working at the many on-site stores and booths knew that over 20,000 well-heeled patrons suddenly were homeless, with time to kill and moods to improve before a replacement match could be moved to Arthur Ashe Stadium. Their sales commissions suddenly had a chance to spike dramatically. And they did.
While watching the world’s greatest tennis players perform brings fans to the Open from around the world, shopping is a fun change of pace. When the balls are in play, the seats are filled and the grounds are fairly deserted. When big matches fizzle or the skies open, it’s time to spend time spending.
“We don’t want the rain or a match canceled, but when it happens we get a lot of traffic,” says Cathy Brotemarkle, a sales and marketing rep at Steve Furgal’s International Tennis Tours booth. The business provides high-end ticket and hotel packages to the Grand Slam tournaments, as well as most ATP Masters events. “The beauty of what we do is that one phone call takes care of everything,” she says. “We’re an official USTA partner. It’s hard for people to get really good tickets to the big events, but working with the USTA, we get courtside seats.”
Indeed, all the businesses at the Open are aligned with the USTA in some way. Many are sponsors of the U.S. Open, and their presence is often more for general marketing than pure sales.
Mercedes has a large showroom right inside a main entrance. The company wants to expose fans to the new models, with three cars there and more around the grounds. Anyone interested in buying one receives a coupon for $500 off whatever purchase price they negotiate with a licensed Mercedes dealer.
Panasonic is another Open sponsor seeking only to educate the masses about their products. They have a unique and aggressive strategy. Fans are allowed to borrow one of four new-model cameras for up to three hours, with free SD cards provided. It’s a great hands-on approach. (The above picture was taken this way.)
There is a nice balance of large, medium and small businesses at the Open. Ex-sportswriter Barry Meisel operates MeiGray Group, offering fans the opportunity to purchase match-used tennis balls and other items. He agrees that his booth is full when the stands are empty. “Fans need something to do when a big match is called off or it rains,” he says.
Inside his space are hundreds of balls from matches played this year, with prices ranging from $10 for a junior match to hundreds for a Federer contest. Andy Roddick’s surprise retirement announcement caused his match balls to reach Roger-level prices. Meisel’s staff, working with the USTA, takes the balls immediately after matches and authenticates them with invisible ink that has a synthetic DNA strand unique to the MeiGray Group.
“People want balls from the matches they just saw,” says Meisel. “They watch the match, come out and buy a ball. It’s collectability in real time.”
The high rollers can get autographed memorabilia. A Pete Sampras ‘5x US Open Champ’ ball is $200. Any ladies out there with size 10 feet? Sloane Stephens’ match-worn, autographed shoes can be yours for $750.
Apparel is a big seller of course. Outside one of the several U.S. Open Collection stores, Maria and Eduardo Rojas hold bags filled with t-shirts, jackets, caps and a teddy bear. The tennis-loving couple came to the tournament from Mexico. What’d they think of the prices?
“Everything’s very expensive,” said Maria. “It’s just like Disneyland. But just getting here from Mexico was the most expensive part.”
She said she came to see Federer. Eduardo? “Sharapova, Serena, Azarenka, Clijsters, Robson…” A well-placed elbow from Maria ends his list prematurely. Are they done shopping? Maria: “This is the first store of many.” Eduardo: “This is the first and last.”
Formal stores like Ralph Lauren and Lacoste pretty much mirror their Manhattan units—too many sales clerks and nothing on sale. This crowd isn’t expecting markdowns, however, and you’d never know there were still traces of a recession watching the credit cards in constant action.
Buyers pay the high prices, but few suffer in silence. Heather Loftis, a cheerful young lady with big blue eyes and braids, sells beverages to fans walking around. It’s $5 for a soda or Gatorade. “People say something about the price,” she says. When it’s hot I sell a lot, but they always say something about the price. I hear, ‘I’ll have to take out a second mortgage’ like 20 times a day. And they want to pay with a credit card a lot, but it’s cash only. So they complain to me that the Heineken booth takes credit cards. Like it’s my personal decision.”
So does the guy selling Heineken have any complaints? “Not really,” he says. “I have to enforce a two-per-customer limit. One guy insisted he wanted four, but I wouldn’t budge. So he bought two, drank them right in front of me in like a minute, bought two more and walked away.”