US Open: USTA Talking About Contingency Plans

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

A New York Times story by Matthew Futterman, “For U.S. Open Tennis, Florida and California May Be Escape Hatches,” published in its Thursday print edition, presents a real picture of exactly what the United States Tennis Association is facing with regards to staging this year’s US Open. As the public heath crisis from the coronavirus outbreak continues, it is becoming more and more difficult to see a positive path toward holding the US Open as originally planned.

“After weeks of clinging to its hopes of holding the United States Open at its traditional New York home in front of fans, the United States Tennis Association has begun to seriously explore a series of alternative plans for the signature event that accounts for more than 80 percent of its revenue,” writes Futterman.

While the US Open remains three months away, with the main draw scheduled to be played from August 31 to September 13 – and preceded by a week of mostly-free activities including qualifying draw matches at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center – front and center is the reality of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and what kind of economic fallout there would be if the USTA had to cancel the Grand Slam. After all, the central Queens neighborhood next to Flushing Meadows, home of the US Open, has been at the epicenter of the Covid-19 outbreak in New York City. It necessitated constructing a temporary 350-bed hospital inside an indoor facility at the National Tennis Center and Louis Armstrong Stadium was used as a staging and distribution area for up to 25,000 daily packages of meals that were earmarked for patients, workers and local disadvantaged school children. (As of Wednesday, the last patient had been discharged from the temporary hospital and work has begun to convert the indoor building back into a tennis facility, which has capacity for 12 courts.)

Playing this year’s US Open at an alternate location is being discussed, such as the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in the scenic southern California palm desert town of Indian Wells (home of the BNP Paribas Open), near Palm Springs, and the USTA’s national training center in Orlando, Fla., but it’s not a certainty by any means. The late-summer weather isn’t ideal in the California desert and the 100-court facility in Orlando lacks infrastructure for fans befitting a Grand Slam, plus it would also need to be wired for television.

During a discussion via Skype on Thursday’s Tennis Channel Live, two-time (1979, 1981) US Open champion Tracy Austin stated: “If it comes to be where we can play the US Open, I don’t care if it’s in Iowa. (Both) California and Florida seems like a good place, maybe Indian Wells. I just hope that we can play this year. However, I think because of the international aspect of our sport, that’s going to make it very difficult.”

Meanwhile, Jimmy Arias, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., who at age 19 reached the singles semifinals of the 1983 US Open and now divides his time as a coach, instructor and broadcaster, said during the same Tennis Channel Live discussion: “For me, New York and the US Open are synonymous with each other. It’s the crowds. Obviously, there’s not going to be crowds if it’s played in New York. The crowds make it a special event. Obviously, the USTA has in Orlando a big facility that they could host the tournament and it might be safer there. I’d like to have the US Open play, but with international players traveling to one place, it seems like a tough act.” 

Regardless of the site, as Arias alludes to, there’s the major obstacle of getting players to travel to the U.S. from all over the world, something which has contributed to pro tennis being sidelined since the BNP Paribas Open started a domino effect that wiped out both the spring European clay season and the British grass-court season.  Since mid-March, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused all tournaments to be cancelled – including Wimbledon for the first time in 75 years since World II – or postponed, such as the French Open, which unilaterally moved its start date from late May out to late September.

“Do we want (the US Open) played if its safe enough or not?” asks Prakash Amritraj, a former touring pro who is now a Tennis Channel analyst. “These are big decisions everyone is going to have to make.”

From a financial standpoint, writes Futterman, “Any move from the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center – its home since 1978 – would be both unusual and an enormous financial sacrifice for a $400 million tournament that attracted 738,000 fans last year, generated most of the USTA’s $161 million in ticket revenue and prompted hundreds of millions more in broader spending in the city on things like hotels and restaurants.”

A tournament such as the US Open generates revenue from a variety of sources, including: ticket sales, corporate hospitality and media rights. According to Futterman’s story, “staging the tournament last year cost $242 million in direct and indirect expenses, including nearly $70 million in prize money.”

The USTA bottom line tells a big story: The $400 million generated by the US Open represents more than 80 percent of the organization’s annual revenues. So, to cancel the US Open all together or alter how it is held, whether in New York City, or in California or Florida – with or without fans – has a tremendous financial impact. And, unlike Wimbledon, the US Open does not have “pandemic insurance” that would help lessen the blow of a cancellation.

In a statement to The New York Times, chief USTA spokesperson Chris Widmaier said the organization “continues to plan and model numerous scenarios for the 2020 US Open. 

“Obviously, cancellation of the event would have a significant impact on our Association but not an insurmountable one.”