A more open US Open

The US Open returns this month with a less restricted format for fans and players alike. But that doesn’t mean it is without its challenges.

“The US Open is our annual bake sale,” says Daniel Zausner, COO of the United States Tennis Association, headquartered in White Plains.

The USTA — which runs the tournament, the last of the four Slams played each year, and dedicates itself to growing the sport — derives its revenues from ticket sales as well as memberships. Tickets, which went on sale mid-July, are trending, Zausner says. But that doesn’t mean the USTA isn’t facing challenges after a year in which the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, Queens, served as a makeshift hospital with 475 beds and 22 ICU beds and a staging area preparing up to 150,000 meals a day for patients, health care workers and underprivileged schoolchildren, then pivoted to host a restricted Open amid the pandemic. While last August’s Open was able to retain its broadcast revenues, Zausner says, as well as a percentage of its sponsorship revenues since sponsors’ signage could be seen on TV, the Open also lost sponsorship revenues and, of course, ticket revenues as it was not open to the public.

This year, the public will be back for the tournament (Aug. 30 through Sept. 12), but only in part. 

“Fifteen percent of ticketholders are international travelers and we don’t expect to see those tourists return to New York City until 2024.”

So the Open hopes to make up domestically what it will lose internationally, all while paying down debt service obligations incurred from $650 million worth of capital improvements over two years (2016 to ’18) that included a roof over the Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main venue; the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, which also has a retractable roof; the Grandstand Stadium; and the new international broadcast center, televising the Open to some 200 countries.

Meanwhile, fans and players alike should see a more relaxed Open this year. The USTA follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for masks, which at press time were that you don’t generally need them outdoors; indoors, yes, for those age 2 and older who are not fully vaccinated. Fortunately, a lot of the Open is outdoors, Zausner says. Instead of having the players confined to two airport hotels in Queens, as it did last year, he says Open officials will be “trying to keep the players slightly contained in Manhattan” — which may prove challenging as the city’s enticements struggle to come back to life. There will be testing protocols for unvaccinated players.

This more open Open returns at a time when the Professional Tennis Players Association (P.T.P.A.), announced at last year’s Open, attempts to get off the ground. The brainchild of world No. 1 Novak Djokovic — who will try to make history at the Open as only the third man to win the Grand Slam in a calendar year — and Canadian star Vasek Pospisil, the P.T.P.A.  is designed to be a union that would advocate for a greater share of the pie for lower-ranked players on the men’s and women’s tours. In “Power Game,” a story for the July 4 edition of The New York Times Magazine, Michael Steinberger wrote, “At the US Open, for instance, prize money amounts to around 14 percent of gross revenues; by contrast, around half of the National Basketball Association’s total revenues goes to the players; and the same is roughly true in the National Football League, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball.”

But, Zausner says, the US Open is not the NBA. It may sit on New York City land that was once the site of the 1939 and ’64 World’s Fairs (and the setting for the ash-heap denouement of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby”), he says, but the USTA has to pay its own way in developing its programming and infrastructure. Having said that, Zausner adds that the US Open was the first of the Slams to offer equal prize money to men and women, while the qualifying tournament that is free to fans and will be held Aug. 24 through 27 is the seventh richest in the world.

“All the players are treated equally,” he says in what is, to go back to his opening metaphor, a most glamorous bake sale, one poised to attract more customers once again. “Certainly,” he adds, “the signs are encouraging.”

For more, visit. usopen.org and usta.com.

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