So Roger Federer won his fifth straight US Open title yesterday. It’s a shame that not many of us got to see his dominating win, and we can blame CBS at least in part for that, for refusing to have both men’s semi-finals begin early on Saturday, before the rain moved in. Had they done so, we would have had the men’s final in its traditional Sunday afternoon place.
Once again, though, the United States Tennis Association put on a show to which folks flocked from all over the world; again this year, attendance at the U.S. Open hit a new high, proving that if you’ve got a product people want to see, they’ll put up with pretty much anything to see it.
I’ve attended the U.S. Open for a decade, multiple sessions every year, from first week day sessions to the men’s and women’s finals, and while I never regret the time that I spend at Flushing Meadows and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, I also am never short of things about which to grouse while I attend.
Prices are always high on the list, literally and figuratively; a day of tennis on Labor Day weekend cost $70; granted, you got nearly 12 hours of tennis for that price, but it’s still pricy, especially when you consider that the USTA adds a $5 service charge to every single ticket, even those sold to season subscribers (which adds up to more than $100 in service charges for those who buy tickets to every session—thank you, loyal fans). Concession prices are outrageous, though no more so than any other sporting venue. Beers in the $7 and up range; hot dogs around $4; various meals in the $10 range. This year’s U.S. Open cocktail, in a commemorative glass, would set you back $13. You can bring your own food, but if you’re going to be there all day, you don’t really want to lug around a bag and you can’t bring a cooler, so is a case of food poisoning worth saving the money? You decide.
You can take the subway to the tennis, but heading back after a night match, especially if you have to change trains (which, given that the 7 train runs from Flushing Meadows, is practically a given), guarantees a one hour plus journey. If you decide to drive, fork over $15 for parking.
Bad weather in the offing? You better show up anyway. It’s not uncommon to sit around for hours on end while the USTA decides whether to call a match, and the only way you get a refund or rain check is if no match is completed on the Ashe Court. They get one match in there (and they try their damndest to do so) and you’re out of luck: the session is considered complete, and you get one match for your money.
And what other sport puts its marquee players on when most people are going to bed? The Rafael Nadal/Mardy Fish match last week BEGAN at 11:30 pm—on a weeknight! Tough luck if you have to work; even on a regular night, the last match doesn’t usually begin until at least 9 pm.
The United States Tennis Association is as rapacious an organization as exists, yet the return for its rapacity is record crowds every year. And it’s not just the U.S. Open—I’ve attended tournaments in London, Washington, D.C., Miami, Toronto, and Montréal, and every single one is flooded with both locals and visitors who have planned a vacation around the event.
A tennis tournament is the very definition of a “boutique meet”; it never lasts for more than two weeks and often for less than that, and you’re guaranteed, at the larger tournaments, that the best players in the world are going to show up. And clearly, for this, fans are willing to come and to pay top dollar for the privilege of doing so.
By contrast, racing offers as much, if not more, in the way of sporting satisfaction. For less than $10, you get entrance, parking, and a program; for an additional $20 (or less), you can bring lunch and a six-pack to keep you refreshed during the day. You get five or six hours of entertainment for your investment, and unlike tennis, you also get the possibility of walking out with more money than you walked in with. If it rains, play continues.
Several of the comments on yesterday’s post about boutique meets stressed the “less is more” model, but the popularity of tennis has got to be due to more than that. What would it take, do you think, for one of those USTA marketing guys to get hired by the NTRA?