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U.S. Open tennis tournament unlikely to happen without spectators

A general view of Louis Armstrong Stadium during

A general view of Louis Armstrong Stadium during the 2019 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Aug. 26, 2019. Credit: Getty Images for USTA/Mike Stobe

Playing the U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center without spectators?

Mike Dowse, CEO and executive director of the United States Tennis Association, thinks that’s unlikely.

Dowse conducted a conference call on Thursday in which he outlined a number of initiatives that the USTA is making to support the game in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a potential commitment that could exceed $50 million. That amount of funding would be impacted by the ability to play the Open, which according to various estimates brings in around $350 million in gross revenues a year.

When Dowse was asked by Newsday what the impact of playing the tournament without spectators would have on its financial initiatives, he responded:

“Playing without spectators, we’re not taking anything off the table right now, but to be honest, we think that’s highly unlikely," he said. "That’s not really in the spirit of the celebration of tennis. It goes back to the health of our players and support staff who run the tournament. Unless the medical experts come up with a solution that truly is fool-proof and safe, we don’t see that as an option.”

Qualifying for the Open is scheduled to begin Aug. 24 with the championship conducted from Aug. 31 to Sept. 13.

“In a sense, we are very fortunate because we are the fourth Grand Slam and have some time to go,” Dowse said. “Our ambition is to run the tournament, it’s the engine that drives our organization. Having said that, that won’t be the driving factor. The driving factor will be the health and well-being of the fans, players and our staff. We set a time frame of around June to make that decision [on whether to hold the Open]. The way we are approaching it is through a medical advisory group, we have doctors consulting with us on a regular basis.”

The USTA’s decision on staging the Open also rests on the needs of the tennis center in its support of the coronavirus battle. The indoor tennis facility has been turned into a hospital to support the nearby East Elmhurst Hospital and Louis Armstrong Stadium is being used as a food preparation and distribution center to assist hospital workers, first responders and children in need.

The USTA said that some funding of its aid packages and grants would come from a variety of cost saving measures, including salary cuts.

In a statement outlining its measures, the USTA said: “The USTA is taking immediate actions to cut costs for the eventual deployment of financial resources to support the tennis industry in the U.S. Immediate first steps include identifying more than $20 million in savings by instituting salary reductions of USTA management, eliminating programs in marketing, player development and operations, and deferring all nonessential capital projects.

Among a number of areas targeted for support by the USTA were tennis facilities, certified tennis teaching professionals, grassroots programs in underserved areas, access to legal expertise with links to identify and claim government support through the CARES Act, and a recommitment of $35 million for its grow-the-game funding through 2020 and 2021. The USTA will also continue to support lower level professional tour players on its Pro Circuit, Challenger and ITF events.

This was the second phase of the USTA’s support program, the first  being the creation of Tennis Industry United, which was announced on March 23 with the USTA and the prominent tennis industry stakeholders organizing to assess “overall industry needs and making recommendations for those industry sectors that need immediate relief.” It established a resource guide at www.tennisindustryunited.com that will be continually updated with access to government and related financial assistance.

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