Peter Bodo: US Open

USTA playing catch-up with roof plans

August, 16, 2013

Tennis fans, the good news is that Arthur Ashe Stadium is getting a fancy new hat. The bad news is that the new roof that will make the stadium weatherproof won’t be ready until August 2017 -- which means don’t give that foul-weather gear away to some cod fisherman just yet.

The USTA, under pressure for a few years now to join the Australian Open and Wimbledon as Grand Slam tournaments with roofed stadia, has finally come up with a way to retrofit that roof without, as once suggested, having to knock off the top half of the stadium (which wouldn’t be a bad idea in and of itself).

In recent years, the USTA has gone from denying that a roof is either necessary or affordable (or both) to hoping that lowering the stadium and rebuilding it with lighter materials might enable the present structure to withstand the weight of a roof was the solution to this ever-growing problem. (The men’s final has had to be played on Mondays because of rain for an incredible five consecutive years now.)

As the search for a viable roof took on greater urgency, and rain kept washing out one final after another, the USTA also faced mounting pressure and criticism as those other two Grand Slams made roofed stadia not just state-of-the-art -- but business as usual. The Australians even added a second roofed stadium.

As USTA chairman of the board and president Dave Haggerty said when unveiling the plans Thursday, “We have been working toward a viable design for a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium for a decade. We feel that we now have a design that meets the criteria of being architecturally sound, aesthetically pleasing, reasonably affordable and buildable.”

That’s a long way from neither affordable nor necessary.

“Reasonably affordable” means a mere $100 million-plus, which will cover the cost of erecting eight steel columns around Arthur Ashe to support a retractable roof made of flexible, translucent, PTFE (Teflon) fabric stretched over a steel frame. It seems similar in design to the roof over Wimbledon’s Centre Court, and that one has been a huge success.

The projected five-year timetable is somewhat disappointing, even if we’re talking about a miracle of engineering. Wimbledon’s own roof took just three years to complete, and it cost about half of what the USTA is estimating for its own roof. But then Ashe is a vastly larger arena. Although I admire the commitment this represents on the part of the USTA, a nagging voice inside me asks, “Is it really worth it?”

The answer may very well be “no,” but that doesn’t mean the USTA shouldn’t do it. The reality is that the organization got caught in what the smart folks call a “shifting paradigm.”

Ashe Stadium was built in 1997, just nine years after Tennis Australia built the first dedicated tennis arena to feature a retractable roof, Rod Laver Arena. But in those intervening years, the roofed stadium was transformed from a cross between a luxury and a novelty into a necessity. The only other Grand Slam venue that lacks a roofed stadium is the Stade de Roland Garros, home of the French Open. But the French are in the midst of a massive redesign as well and plan to cover the iconic Philippe Chatrier court.

The USTA was caught up in the tide of history; had the organization waited a few years to build Ashe, it certainly would have opted for a roofed design. This was either a case of truly bad timing or a critical failure on the part of USTA trustees to see even a little ways into the future. The price tag on that myopic vision is hefty, indeed.
On Thursday, the USTA and ESPN jointly announced that, as of 2015, the network will become the official broadcast partner of the organization that owns and presents the US Open. This is a landmark tennis -- and media -- event, another major step in how tennis fits into an evolving broadcast and digital landscape.

In short, the event is moving to a new vista that is ideally suited to the game.

Tennis in general has always suffered -- and continues to suffer to this very day in some places -- from having too much product and too little bandwidth on which to showcase it. The sheer number of matches, especially at a major, makes it difficult to translate on a single television channel. The announcement that ESPN plans to stream every main-draw singles match -- on personal computers, tablets and smartphones -- is a solution to a long-standing problem. It allows digital-savvy tennis viewers to tailor their experience.

“On the first day of our discussions, the USTA asked us about the possibility of providing coverage of all 17 courts,” ESPN President John Skipper said in a conference call Thursday. “There right now is what I hope will soon become an anachronistic phrase; they have six ‘television courts.’ We were happy to give our answer pretty quickly that our intention during the course of this tournament is to make every one of those matches available.”

The previously announced change in the semifinals and finals schedule -- one that tennis stakeholders (led by the players) had lobbied for -- also comes into play here. Super Saturday had outlived its usefulness. That format, which forced the women to play their semifinals on Friday and final on Saturday and the men to play Saturday semis and a Sunday final, without the traditional day of rest in between, ends after 2014.

A cable and digital play, rather than a traditional network, combined with more breathing room in the schedule, gives the US Open some much-needed flexibility. ESPN has multiple channels to show events on -- preventing the kind of outcome tennis fans saw when the Sony Open in Miami cut away before the final was over because the network airing it had other sports commitments.

Make no mistake, this deal is another example of how the structure of tennis, and its unique problems -- or opportunities -- are fitting into an evolving television and digital environment.

Peter Bodo