Before discussing this summer’s upcoming hardcourt season and what to expect for both the men and women, I wanted to take a look at the overarching branding and marketing umbrella known as the Olympus U.S. Open Series that all 10 North American hardcourt events, including the U.S. Open, are part of. Now in its seventh year, the U.S. Open Series, aside from offering bonus prize money to the best performing players throughout the season along with providing comprehensive television coverage, seems to be finally making progress in terms of its most important goal — that of making fans aware of the tournaments in their area and getting them to attend. And that’s saying something after 2009 almost derailed “the greatest roadtrip in sports” for good.
2009 was a great year for the U.S. Open in terms of participation and revenue, but the same couldn’t be said for some of the smaller events leading up to the Slam. Low attendance, in some part due to the fragile U.S. economy, saw the end of the ATP event in Indianapolis and the WTA event in Los Angeles while the event in New Haven struggled as well. But with help from the U.S. Open Series, 2010 could prove to be a turning point for the hardcourt season with new events in Atlanta and San Diego along with the revamped Farmers Classic tournament in Los Angeles.
According to Sports Business Journal, sponsor Olympus has passed some of its ad rights to Best Buy which will allow the retailer to promote Olympus cameras in its stores. Two new sponsors have also been added this year, SPDR Gold Shares and Grand Mariner, which should help increase the total $2.4 million dollars in revenue the U.S. Tennis Association earns from these deals. And that’s good news since according to J. Wayne Richmond, General Manager of the Olympus U.S. Open Series, the initiative is finally breaking even after many years of being in the red. But aside from the money brought in to help fund smaller tournaments and increase television viewing, does the branding campaign, which includes those slick ads featuring top pros saying how they can’t wait to “get back out on the road”, really get fans jazzed up about following the series all summer long?
Back in 2006, Arlen Kantarian, former chief executive of pro tennis for the USTA and architect of the Series, said the following in an interview with USA Today about the Series, “What this has done, two years later, is transform tennis into a regular season and Super Bowl type of scenario that this country is most familiar with in terms of big-time sports.” Although the Series has accomplished what Kantarian said in terms of creating a cohesive season for fans to follow, especially for the WTA tour where top women show up at most of the events, the same can’t be said for the ATP tour. Rarely does a top five ATP pro venture away from the big rankings points and big money offered by the “Masters” events of Cincinnati and Toronto. Los Angeles has had the most success in getting the top pros to play there in recent years including 2010 which will see Novak Djokovic appear and, if he had not been injured, Juan Martin Del Potro. You can’t blame the top pros for wanting to go after the most money and/or save themselves physically for New York, but it’s hard to feel they are a part of the Series when the only roadtrip they take is a first class direct flight from CVG to YYZ. Or to compare it to Kantarian’s “Super Bowl” analogy, it’s like the top teams for the AFC and NFC would play only two regular season games before getting a first round bye into the playoffs.
If smaller tournaments can get the top guys to show up next year is anybody’s guess. And a lot may depend on the turnout these events get this year both in attendance and in television ratings. But despite these continued “bumps” in the road that the Series faces, the increase in sponsorships and the enthusiastic response the new events in Atlanta and San Diego have received from their communities point to a brighter future for the Series and for continued growth and interest in the sport. How the USTA manages that future remains to be seen, but for now, we should all raise a toast (perhaps appropriately with a Grand Mariner Smash cocktail) and start singing Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” one more time.