Here It Comes Again, the Big Brash U.S. Open
America’s only tennis major doesn’t always give you bang for your bucks.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: Aug. 24, 2017 • 11:37 AM ET
U.S. Open tennis players play at a venue named after the legendary Billy Jean King.
Big, bigger and biggest describe America’s Grand Slam, the U.S. Open. At least the United States Tennis Association, the owners and operators of the annual tournament, certainly seem to think so.
Inside its Tennis Tournament Program, a 244-page glossy and digital publication, the final major of the year is described as “the center of the sporting universe” and “the highest attended annual sporting event in the world.” Katrina M. Adams, the U.S.T.A. Chairman, CEO and President, calls it “the largest, most spectacular tennis event” in her introductory essay.
With more than 700 million fans entering the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center last year, few would argue with the hyperbole.
But if you want to actually see tennis at this monstrous tournament, you better go prepared. Stuff your pockets with cash, lace up comfortable shoes and rev up your best tennis survivalist attitude, or this mega-mobbed event will derail you and send you to the nearest exit.
Arthur Ashe Stadium, which seats 23,700 people, is the largest tennis-only stadium in the world. Prize money at the Open will top $50 million this year, the richest purse of any Grand Slam and a 9 percent increase from 2016 payouts. The men’s and women’s singles champions will each earn a whopping $3.7 million, which is, as you’ve guessed by now, the largest payout in U.S. Open history. Better yet, the increase in prize money means a 7.5 percent rise in earnings per round in the main draw and a 49 percent rise in prize money for those competing in the U.S. Open Qualifying tournament.
Last year, the Open debuted its new roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, a feat of architectural brilliance that took years of financial finagling and rounds of approval by the committee-run U.S.T.A. This year, the new Grandstand Court opens.
The Grandstand Court seats 8,000 people and in 2018, the renovation of the National Tennis Center will be complete as the Louis Armstrong Stadium debuts its new surroundings complete with a retractable roof and seating capacity of another 8,000 fans. For this Open, though, people will have to make do with the “temporary” Louis Armstrong Stadium.
What could be better than all this athletic expanse complete with food courts, shopping kiosks, jumbotron screens and islands of bars to sip cool drinks and rest tired feet?
Well, for one, the size.
If you’ve ever been inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, you’ll understand what ‘largest’ really means. First, no one enters the stadium without a reserved-seat ticket. But, luckily for you, it also gets you through the gate. Second, most people can only afford the seats way up in the tippy top section, which are at their lowest ($56) on opening day.
To get yourself to those seats, be prepared to take stairs upon stairs and escalators upon escalators. In contrast, seats at court level don’t even exist, due to the design of the stadium. However, the lowest and closest seats to the tennis action, which don’t require binoculars, price out at around $316 on opening day.
Although ticket prices for reserved seats on Day 1, Aug. 28 in Louis Armstrong and Grandstand, are more expensive ($67), you’ll see more tennis because you won’t be in the upper stratosphere as you would be in Ashe. The size of the court from those upper rows is tiny — very tiny — like postage stamp tiny. If you don’t have an Order of Play in your back pocket, you won’t be able to tell who’s on court. Why? They’ll be too small to recognize unless you brought a telescope that’s similar in size to something you’d see at a city planetarium.
If you’re comfortable not sitting inside Ashe, then a grounds pass is the ticket. At $65, you can sit in any unreserved seat in the Grandstand, Louis Armstrong, Court 17, plus Courts 4-16. Don’t forget, you’ll probably wait in a line to enter any of these.
As you can imagine, prices only escalate as the tournament progresses and top names, hopefully, progress from round to round. Come semifinal and finals weekend, the cheap seats in Ashe begin at $281 and go up to $1,655. Those prices eliminate a chunk of tennis fans; it’s just too expensive.
Yet, ticket prices are only a part of the on-site experience. What if you wanted to stay for a few days? Hotel costs could bankrupt your budget. According to PKF Consulting, the average price of a hotel room is around $225 per night. Since most of those hotels are located in Manhattan, you would then have to connect with trains and subways to get out to Flushing Meadows, Queens, which takes somewhere around an hour, depending on the time of day you travel.
Then, there’s food. The culinary selections are numerous and varied. But to feed a family of four, let’s say, that lunch tab would probably exceed $125. And don’t think about bringing in food or drinks. It’s entirely forbidden, unless for dietary or medical reasons. Backpacks and coolers are a no-no due to security reasons and, probably, contract restrictions between the U.S.T.A. and vendors.
These hard costs can certainly be seen as barriers to enter. For the millions of tennis fans in and around the National Tennis Center, many will have to rely on television, tablets or smart phones for their Grand Slam experiences, which is too bad.
Early on in the tournament and almost up until the last few days of competition, we’ll see row upon row of empty seats behind players battling it out on court. Why not bring in groups of less-fortunate kids or families to fill those seats? Doesn’t the biggest tournament in the world have a responsibility to give back? Wouldn’t a packed stadium make a better (visual) case for the “richest” and the “highest attended sporting event” with the “largest tennis-only stadium in the world”?
However, the U.S. Open has transformed from being one of four majors to an entertainment blockbuster that covets size and enormity over quality and sanity. Big-name entertainment, posh sky boxes, and celebrity spotting have somehow nudged it ahead in an unannounced race to dominate perceptions and attitudes about itself, not tennis.