U.S. Open Tennis Adding Retractable Roof to Ashe Stadium

A retractable roof will be added to the U.S. Open’s biggest stadium, possibly as soon as 2016, after weather delays wreaked havoc with the Grand Slam tournament’s schedule the past five years, the U.S. Tennis Association said.

Details of the renovation will be announced at a news conference tomorrow, according to a press release from the USTA, which didn’t say how it would pay for the project.

The move brings the final Grand Slam event of the tennis season in line with the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon, where Centre Court has had a retractable roof over the only major played on grass since 2009.

The men’s championship match at the U.S. Open, held at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York, has been pushed to Monday for the past five years because of weather delays after 21 years of on-time finishes. Players have repeatedly complained about the altered schedule.

The USTA announced plans last year for what the New York Times said would be a $500 million renovation of the facility. That plan didn’t include a roof for either Arthur Ashe Stadium, which holds about 22,500 fans, or Louis Armstrong Stadium, where the post-renovation capacity will be about 15,000, up from 10,000.

The USTA’s press release said the renovation would include two new stadiums and a viewing plaza for the practice courts.

The men’s final is set for a Monday this year and next, and will return to Sunday in 2015, which coincides with ESPN’s taking complete broadcast control of the tournament from CBS, ending the over-the-air network’s role after 46 years.

ESPN Rights

ESPN, a unit of the Walt Disney Co., already has the Open’s cable-TV rights. Viewership dropped to 2 million homes in 2012, a 25-year low and down about 1.4 million from a decade before. ESPN will pay $825 million over 11 years to combine what it had with CBS’s rights, the Times said. The $75 million annual payment is about four times what ESPN had been paying for the Open, which this year begins Aug. 26.

Former CBS Sports President Neal Pilson said that, for $75 million a year, ESPN probably got assurances from the USTA that Ashe would be covered.

“It’ll make scheduling a lot easier for ESPN,” Pilson said in a telephone interview. “Interestingly enough, it would’ve been more important to CBS, which is the real loser for Sunday afternoon rainouts. They lost the opportunity to carry the event from 4 to 7, which is ideal for them. On Monday, it’s very disruptive for a network schedule.”

The only tennis Grand Slam remaining on over-the-air TV in the U.S. is the French Open on NBC, whose contract runs through 2024.

Other Roofs

The Australian Open has roofs over its two main courts and is considering a third. The French Open has plans to put a roof on its main stadium, although renovations are on hold because of zoning issues.

The USTA has said the changes would allow for the sale of 100,000 more tickets to the 13-day tournament. It has consulted architects and engineers for years about adding a roof to the main stadium, which is built on unstable, swampy land.

Water bubbling through a crack on the Armstrong court in 2011 halted a fourth-round match between Andy Roddick and David Ferrer. Rain the previous two days wiped out all but 10 games on the tournament schedule.

Players including Roddick, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray met at the time with Brian Earley, the USTA official in charge of play, to express concerns about on-court safety. While taking the court at Ashe, Nadal told Earley, “It’s the same old story, all you think about is money.”

Estimating Price

Bill Baker, a principal with Cincinnati-based MSA Sport Architects, whose projects include renovations to Great American Ball Park, the home of baseball’s Cincinnati Reds, said in a telephone interview that it’s extremely difficult to estimate the cost of roof projects because there are so many variables.

“It could be tens of millions or hundreds of millions,” he said. “I suspect it’s a really, really expensive endeavor.”

While the USTA hasn’t said how it would finance the project, Pilson said tennis fans probably will pay more.

“Take a look at the suite prices,” said Pilson, now an industry consultant. “They’re huge now, and will probably double once the renovation and roof is done.”

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