The USTA announced its decision last Thursday to spend hundreds of millions of dollars upgrading the Billie Jean King Tennis Center at Flushing Meadows, site of the US Open. However, their decision to not construct a roof on any of the show courts seems incomprehensible and has been met with disbelief.
"Surely any expansion plan should include a roof somewhere down the line," said TV analyst and three-time US Open doubles champion Peter Fleming. "With everyone else building roofs, they’re going to leave themselves looking like the poor cousins."
Eastbourne’s Aegon Championship tournament director Chris Kermode, who also plays a major role at the ATP World Finals in London’s Docklands at the end of the year, expressed surprise that no way had been found to include a roof in the USTA’s plans. "I would have thought that would be a primary concern," said Kermode. "Wimbledon will have a second roof in a few years when No. 1 Court is covered. Roland Garros will have a roof in place by 2017 and the Australian Open is covering Margaret Court Arena, which will mean three at Melbourne Park. But apparently it doesn’t work financially for them at Flushing Meadows."
In making the announcement, Gordon Smith, USTA CEO, explained that it is not economically feasible to put a roof over the mammoth 23,000-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium. I have no difficulty believing that because I had numerous conversations four or five years ago with Smith’s predecessor, Arlen Kantarian, who showed me plans and talked through numbers.
During our first conversation, Kantarian said that, if a roof could be constructed over Ashe, it would cost around a quarter of a million dollars. A year later, he admitted the price had escalated.
We talked about roofing Louis Armstrong and the adjoining Grandstand court, but that, of course, raised the question of how to handle the problem of moving 23,000 people into a stadium that could accommodate only 10,000.
However, there are ways to get around this potential "impossibility" once you have accepted that it is quite unacceptable for a sporting event the size of the US Open to go on having unscheduled Monday finals, as has been the case for the past three years.
There are various ways to do it, but each one has to be based on total transparency and upfront ticket pricing. The public needs to be told very clearly what they are buying. On that basis, perhaps this is a scenario that could work:
The redeveloped Armstrong and Grandstand courts could become one new arena with 15,000 seats or possibly a couple of thousand more, but with a roof. Ticket prices for this court would be increased because patrons know they will be guaranteed play if it rains. Equally, ticket holders on Ashe know they are dealing with the weather variables all the way through the tournament until the semifinals.
At that point — for the last three days of the tournament — Armstrong could be left empty, to be used only in the event of rain. And, just for the semifinal and finals of men’s and women’s singles, ticketing on Ashe would change. The public would have the option to buy two types of tickets — those that will get you transferred to Armstrong in the event of rain, and those that won’t. Obviously there will be a significant price differential.
Those buying a non-transferable ticket would have the option of sitting under their umbrellas on Ashe and watching the match on giant screens.
Another option would be to spend a little more and make Armstrong an 18,000- or even 20,000-seat stadium with a roof and use it, under all circumstances, over the final weekend, leaving Ashe empty. If that sounds a little ridiculous, I would imagine CBS and other televisions stations around the world would love the idea. All they want is a guaranteed final starting on time.
And you know what? So do the millions of global viewers. Of course, those fans who actually turn up and pay good money to do so should be taken into consideration, but if anyone doubts that television is the pay-master of modern professional sport, then just take a look at the deal, announced last week, that will see English Premier League soccer clubs enjoy a $4.68 billion windfall from Sky Sports UK and British Telecom over the next three years. That constitutes a whopping 71 percent increase in revenue — in this economy.
Smith has been quoted as saying, "The US Open is a great advert for New York City but the National Tennis Center pretty much needs a complete overhaul."
The first part of that statement will, in the opinion of many, continue to be true only if the second, referring to the complete overhaul, includes a roof.