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U.S. Open makes tennis briefly matter to fans

Among pro sports in the United States, tennis is a bit of a weakling.
Image: Fans walk past a giant tennis ball outside the Arthur Ashe Stadium
Part of the reason fans will pack Arthur Ashe stadium is resonable ticket prices that can run as low as $48.Stan Honda / Getty Images file

Among pro sports in the United States, tennis is a bit of a weakling.

The National Football League procures television contracts generating billions of dollars; sponsors beg to splash their logos on NASCAR uniforms and cars; even pro golf, since the arrival of Tiger Woods, is more popular among the masses.

Tennis? The Borgs and Connors of yesteryear have yet to be replaced in the public imagination. Though more than 12 million people played tennis in 2007 — a 20 percent rise from the previous year — pro tennis in America has not been an obvious beneficiary of the surge.

But for a fortnight each year, the tour and its handful of stars, from Andy Roddick to Venus Williams, are embraced during the U.S. Open. Given the state of pro tennis in the country, the annual success of the event in Flushing, N.Y. is somewhat astounding.

The U.S. Open, which is run by the United States Tennis Association and started Monday, counts more than 20 sponsors. All are well-known, and most — Polo Ralph Lauren, Grey Goose Vodka, Heineken, Tiffany — lure an upscale clientele. The event is said to generate more than $50 million total from these marquee names.

Sales of tickets and luxury suites — which can run as low as $10,000 for 20 guests on the opening day of the tournament to $60,000 for the men’s finals — are likely to exceed $80 million this year. ESPN and the Tennis Channel just inked a pact to secure six years of cable rights for a reported $140 million. CBS, which has broadcast the tournament since Rod Laver thrashed opponents with left-handed aces, is signed through 2011.

Bottom line: According to a SportsBusiness Journal article, the U.S. Open in 2007 generated about $100 million in profit and brought in $200 million of revenue. In 1999, the trade publication reported, revenue was little more than half that amount.

How can a sport generally shunned become immensely popular for 14 days a year, when about 700,000 fans pour through the gates? There are a number of reasons:

1)  Tickets are reasonably priced: the day session, which includes an assigned seat in Arthur Ashe Stadium and the ability to roam the grounds to check on any other matches, is as low as $48.

2) The grounds of the event, which hold premium restaurants ranging from Cuban to steakhouse, are conducive to spending time and money. So are the stores, such as LaCoste. And where else can you buy a limited edition U.S. Open T-shirt designed by Heidi Klum or a tennis ball the size of a basketball (unless you venture to the just-opened U.S. Open Soho store in Manhattan)?

3) Since the U.S. Open takes place at the same spot every year and is perhaps the only sports event to always involve a holiday (Labor Day), it's easy for fans to plan a vacation around it. The main airport, La Guardia, is minutes away (and flights in the past have been diverted so as not to distract the players). Manhattan and its attractions are a half-hour subway ride.

Another key to the U.S. Open’s prosperity was hiring Arlen Kantarian nine years ago. Possessing a strong marketing background forged with NFL Properties, the USTA chief executive officer of professional tennis introduced holding the women's finals in primetime on a Saturday night and created the U.S. Open Series, a number of tournaments that help promote the Open before the actual event.

Given the emphasis on marketing, it’s a bit surprising the USTA hasn’t sold naming rights. The entire complex is named after Billie Jean King, the main stadium bears Arthur Ashe’s name and its little brother (the previous center court) is dedicated to Louis Armstrong. That doesn’t mean the men’s doubles finals — which has been sponsored by George Foreman’s grilling machines — remains untouched by business interests.

The number of fans who will wander about the tennis center through Sept. 7 is more than the amount who watch a secondary tournament on TV. Pro tennis may not possess the national appeal once sparked by the heyday of John McEnroe, but for a New York minute, the U.S. Open makes tennis must-see again.