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By Richard Pagliaro

Spitting showers continued for much of a dreary day washing out the scheduled Sunday US Open men’s final, while the spinning statements commenced indoors as USTA officials were left to address a scheduling snafu and ceiling issues in the wake of another shower-stalled US Open.

For the third consecutive year, rain postponed the men’s final to Monday and another round of showers interrupted Rafael Nadal’s four-set final with Novak Djokovic before Nadal finally completed the match to capture his first US Open crown and complete the career Grand Slam in a match that began on CBS, jumped to ESPN2 and lacked the customary post-match interviews as the Grand Slam network was eager to move to its scheduled NFL Coverage.

Roof raising has been up in the air at the National Tennis Center for several years, but recent developments suggest the USTA may be ready to build a new stadium with a roof. Why now? Tennis is a numbers game and some significant digits may well compel the USTA to set the roof-raising issue as a top priority.

CBS’ ratings for this US Open were down 6 percent and while the absence of an American man going deep in the singles draw certainly did not help those numbers, the fact that CBS has not had the men’s final in the coveted Sunday afternoon time slot since 1997 — combined with the fact CBS’ US Open broadcast rights expire after the 2011 event and network execs are already rumbling about a reduction in the reported $21 million CBS pays the USTA annually for Open broadcast rights as well as contracted compensation for rain delays — and you have a perfect storm in place to compel the USTA to cap the Open.

“We have a responsibility to present the matches on a timely basis,” USTA President Lucy Garvin told SportsBusiness Journal the week after the Open ended. “We have to recognize that this is not simple for the media, that we provide a product and we need to make sure we deliver it. To say a roof is not in the picture is not accurate. It is when we will do it.”

The President’s proclamation, particularly the “It is when we will do it” part, represents a dramatic departure in USTA policy regarding the roof. In recent years, the USTA has typically maintained the same public posture: it was “exploring” the idea of adding a roof, but believed it could help grow the game more effectively by re-investing the reported more than $150 million annual revenue it makes from the Open back into grass-roots and recreational programs to try to increase the player base.

“It’s technically complex and financially challenging,” USTA spokesman Chris Widmaier told Reuters during the Open. “At a cost of more than $150 million, do you spend that on a roof or continue to fund grassroots tennis programs in this country?”

Realistically, given the estimated $150 million-plus price tag and the projected two-year construction time to build a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, you might think you’ve got a better shot of seeing the USTA assemble a collection of past champions to collectively hoist a canopy of Kleenex as a make-shift ceiling than seeing the USTA build a retractable roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium any time in the near future. From a public relations standpoint, the USTA is in a no-win situation.

The rain delays not only postpone play, they inconveniences fans, many of whom already feel disenfranchised by escalating ticket prices, an inflexible refund/exchange policy and tournament officials continuously offering overly-optimistic forecast on the resumption of play when local weather radar presented a different picture. As a non-profit, volunteer organization whose mission statement is to grow the game, how can the USTA rationalize a potential $150 million-plus expenditure on a roof that may only impact the tournament a couple of times a year particularly when American pros aside from the Williams sisters, Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey and John Isner are struggling to gain traction?

The reason you might see the USTA begin to break ground on a new stadium or new roof is the same reason that has compelled changes in the past: TV power, money and marketing muscle. Long-time US Open broadcaster CBS is just too important and too lucrative of a partner for the USTA to alienate and in fact there is growing speculation the women’s Saturday night prime-time final televised by CBS may be moved.

The US Open was the first Grand Slam tournament to schedule a live prime-time final, but that move was made back when Venus and Serena Williams were treating the silver title trophy as a family heirloom. Kim Clijsters, who spends several weeks each summer in New Jersey, home state of her husband, Brian Lynch, is a popular presence in New York. But Clijsters’ thorough thrashing of Venus Zvonareva in the final that lasted just 59 minutes drew a 1.7 ratings, one of the lowest since the move to a prime-time women’s final.

Still, the Clijsters-Zvonareva match attracted 2.52 million viewers, which was more than the men’s final. Nadal’s win over Djokovic drew an average of 2.17 million viewers according to the Nielsen Ratings. Last year’s Roger Federer vs. Juan Martin del Potro finale brought in 3.39 million, a drop of 36 percent.

CBS is interested in renewing its rights and negotiations with the USTA are going on now, but there is growing speculation the network, which did not deliver the ratings it expected for its advertisers, will demand financial concessions if there is no plan to put a roof in place to alleviate future rain delays that can wreak havoc on ratings.

“The event fits extremely well in our overall sports portfolio. We just have to make sure we make a reasonable deal for the corporation,” said Sean McManus, president of CBS News and CBS Sports, told SportsBusiness Journal.

There are other complexities to consider. The USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center was built on landfill, as Flushing Meadows–Corona Park was once an ash dump. It is not certain Arthur Ashe Stadium, as currently constructed, could support the weight of a conventional roof (a retractable roof as Wimbledon has might be a different story though pursuing that evenue comes with its own challenges), unless the foundation of the stadium was strengthened.

It is believed rather than building a new roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, the USTA, which is rumored to be considering purchasing more land in Flushing Meadows Park, could build a brand-new indoor arena rather than trying to add a roof to Ashe Stadium, which is widely regarded as much too big for tennis anyway.

The fact remains the USTA is now committed to both expanding its recreational player base and developing professional players and throwing $150 million into a roof that may be rarely used does not further either of those aims. Consider that before 2008, the last time rain forced a Monday men’s final was 1987 and before that 1974.

On the other hand, when you consider both the Australian Open and Wimbledon already have a roof over their center courts and the French Tennis Federation announced it plans to complete work on a retractable roof in time for the 2013 or 2014 French Open then the US Open, which has always prided itself on being the most progressive of the four majors, will be decidedly behind the times and exposed to the elements and continued criticism if it continues to bill itself as a world-class sporting event yet lacks the basic facility to fulfill its stated schedule.

“It would be great to have a roof today. It would be great to have the money to put up a roof,” USTA Chief Executive Gordon Smith said in a past interview. “For the board and for our president, Lucy Garvin, it’s a much, much more difficult decision than that. The reason is we’re non profit. We spend the money we make on the Open on grassroots tennis. The money we make here goes out into grassroots all around the country including building this tennis center, which 11 months of the year is the nicest public tennis center in New York for New York citizens to use without having spent a penny of taxpayer money. Our money goes out and does that. So the question is: are you going to spend $100 million or more, we don’t know exactly (the cost), on a roof that you might use once a year, which would be the average? Or is the money better spent promoting the game that we have been promoting so successfully?”

While there has been speculation constructing a roof over either Louis Armstrong or the Grandstand would be more cost-effective the fact that the USTA makes its big bucks from the corporate boxes in Ashe and that both Armstrong and Grandstand courts feature significantly fewer seats it is unlikely the USTA would opt to build a roof over either court.

When you consider the USTA recently spent $60 million to build a 245,000 square foot indoor building on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center that opened in December of 2008 and that even if a retractable roof was approved there could still be issues with climate control, unless cost-effective technology emerges in the near future, it is difficult to envision the USTA investing nine figures to cap the stadium. And even if it had the money available, there are questions about the complexity of such an undertaking.
You’ve got to remember that Arthur Ashe Stadium roof is essentially putting a roof over something about as big as a modern day major league baseball park. It’s a very complex thing,” Smith said. “But we have gone past the consideration stage and are going to at least look at plans to actually developing plans.”

Ultimately, it may prove more cost-effective to consider building a new stadium with a roof, but that could require deconstructing one of the current stadiums to clear adequate space Though officials cannot admit it publicly, the bottom line is everyone is now paying the price for the short-sighted mistake the USTA made in initially green-lighting the monstrosity that is Arthur Ashe Stadium.

While the USTA works out the cost and and plans for a potential new stadium, it should act quickly to resolve a more immediate issue: the antiquated schedule. It is absolutely absurd the US Open remains the only Grand Slam tournament in the world that insists on playing it’s singles semifinals and finals on successive days. Cramming the most important matches of the tournament into consecutive day can squeeze the quality of play right out of the match.

Did you know the last time the US Open women’s final went three sets was in 1995 when Steffi Graf beat Monica Seles, 7-6, 0-6, 6-3? The USTA should take the logical step, do the right thing and give men’s and women’s finalist a full day of rest after their semifinal matches. To ignore this fundamental flaw in the schedule is to essentially admit they care more about squeezing cash out of the Open than they do about the actual finals.

Here are a few suggestions for the Open:

1. Condense the first round of play to two days rather than three. If that means starting play on a Sunday rather than Monday, as Roland Garros does, then so be it. But moving through the first round faster could help alleviate scheduling issues later in the tournament when matches become more meaningful and the television audience is greater.

2. Consider changing the long successful Super Saturday format and play the men’s semifinals on Friday. The USTA’s logic is the current Super Saturday format is beneficial in that it exposes tennis to the widest possible television audience on network TV — and of course deepens the USTA’s revenue stream in that they can sell men’s semifinal tickets and women’s final tickets as two separate sessions — however if the weather is a factor as it has been in each of the past two years then tournament officials are left with little flexibility in modifying the schedule.

3. Consider expanding outer court seating, such as Court 7 or Court 11. The outer courts have long been the desired destination for fans the first week, but by over-selling grounds passes as the USTA did this year, it devalued both grounds passes and the out courts. Expanding seating on those outer courts would benefit fans, particularly those who avoid the immensity of Ashe in the opening week.

4. Add some more water fountains to the NTC. Water has been around in the Open in abundance thanks to showers in recent years, but the scarcity of water fountains at what is a public park makes one wonder if they’re trying to spikes sales for US Open sponsor Evian by forcing fans to buy bottled water rather than filling their bottles at water fountains.

 

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