Aging facilities mean U.S. Open could leave New York

As another tennis season gets underway in Australia, the U.S. Open finds itself in a once unimaginable position: it is losing ground to its rivals on the grand slam circuit and might request financial assistance from the city to improve its facilities, The Wall Street Journal reported in its Monday edition.

The National Tennis Center in Flushing sits on an unstable ash landfill that makes the construction of new stadiums, and especially a stadium with a retractable roof, difficult and expensive to execute. Arthur Ashe Stadium, the venue’s largest stadium, cannot support a roof because of the soft ground beneath it, and the U.S. Tennis Association is reluctant to build a roof over a smaller stadium, which would not seat enough fans if rain interfered with the singles finals, as it has done the past three years.

Those finals have produced the tournament’s three worst television ratings since 1992, when Nielsen Co. began tracking such data.

The combination of poor land quality and ambitious remodeling plans by the other grand slams in Melbourne, Paris and London has forced the USTA to consider asking New York City, which owns Flushing Meadows Park, for aid. In dire circumstances, the organization said, it would contemplate moving to another venue, including outside New York.

"We have a great relationship with the City of New York," Jon Vegosen, the USTA’s chairman of the board and president, said in a statement given to The Journal.

"New York provides a one-of-a-kind locale for the U.S. Open, and our preference is to remain in New York. However, we are in a hyper-competitive marketplace, and to remain the No. 1 tennis event in the world, we will need significant investments in the tournament’s infrastructure. The National Tennis Center is an aging facility, significant upgrades are needed, and we’ll have to consider all options to maintain our position."

Andrew Brent, a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg’s office, said in a statement: "The Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and the U.S. Open are great New York City traditions. The City’s budget issues are well-known, but we’ll work with the USTA to help it continue to thrive in New York."

The stadium, which seats nearly 23,000, is the largest in tennis. It also has proven to be a headache. Fans have never taken to it, as it offers mountaintop views from its most affordable seats. And it cannot withstand modification. To build the stadium, contractors had to drive pylons 200 feet into the ground to reach bedrock. To cover it, the USTA would have to build a canopy that would rise up from the ground.

"That site is the equivalent of Jell-O," said Matthew Rossetti, president of Rossetti, the architecture firm that designed the stadium and remains the USTA’s chief architect.

"We’ve analyzed it dozens of times. Because of the soil’s condition, [a roof] requires its own structure — it wouldn’t touch the stadium at all. Once you get into that, you’re talking huge dollars."

Estimates put the cost of a canopy roof at $175 million to $225 million.

The tournament recently renewed its broadcast contract with CBS through 2014. CBS declined to comment on the need for a roof, the tournament’s remodeling plans or whether its new contract, for about $20 million to $25 million annually, includes a rain clause.

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