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Every year, hundreds of thousands of spectators attend the U.S. Open at the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens. But like other sports, the men’s and women’s finals this weekend are being played without an audience. Michael Dawse, CEO of U.S. Tennis Association joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how the pandemic has hit the sport.
Every year, the U.S. Open tennis tournament typically draws hundreds of thousands of spectators to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens. But this year, as with many other sporting events, there will be no fans in the stands when the women's and men's finals take place this weekend.
I recently spoke with Michael Dowse, CEO of the US Tennis Association about this year's tournament and how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting the growth of the sport.
In the pandemic, are more people playing tennis?
Yeah, Hari, tennis is actually one of the sports that's coming out of a pandemic stronger than ever. We know last year, based off market research and data, that about 6 percent of the population play tennis since spring, 2019. We know this year just over 10 percent of the population is playing tennis.
So everyone's finding tennis is perfect, that it provides social activity everyone missed over the last few months. Physical activity, it's also intellectually stimulating and maybe most important, it's a lot of fun to play tennis.
So what happens to, I guess, the business of tennis? I mean, we're coming off of the U.S. Open here, which doesn't have anybody in the stands. I mean, that has to impact your revenue.
Yeah, there's a couple of components to that kind of the economics of tennis.
Specific to the USTA, it's challenging. Our revenue, or net operating income is going to be down 80 percent this year without fans in the gate or our sponsor revenue that we generate here on site. But having said that, you know, we were fortunate enough. We still have reserves that we're able to nearly match last year's total compensation. And more importantly, we can continue to fund, to promote and grow the sport. And we've contributed over $50 million this year to that grass roots initiative.
How are the players adapting? Is this easier for a player to play in an empty stadium?
It's been a real mixed bag, Hari.
Honestly, some of the players I think, are struggling without the fans behind them where others have been able to focus and dial in more. So it's really been a mixed bag.
And frankly, it probably goes back to whether they're winning or losing, their comments and their feelings about it.
What kind of precautions did you take and how did it work?
The precautions have been unbelievable. I was looking at some numbers today. We've been in this controlled environment just under four weeks. We had over 12,000 tests and we've actually had no positive tests during the U.S. Open. We had a couple of positive prior to the U.S. Open.
We've actually, a statistic that blew me away, we do daily health checks. We've taken over 49,000 daily temperature checks over the last 30 days. So, again, out of an abundance of caution, we're throwing everything we can at it through these daily health checks, testing etc.
What do you think the key was? Because it seems for the NBA or the NHL, it's to keep everybody in a bubble.
Essentially, that's what we have, we call it a contained environment. Our–our environment's a little different than the NBA in that we have players coming in from over 60 different countries. And so we weren't able to isolate them for two weeks before they started competing. So that's where we worked closely with the state of New York and our medical experts to devise a testing system that would catch a positive test right away and allow us to isolate it and prevent any type of breakout and, knock on wood, with two days to go, it's been working wonderfully.
Michael, while it is great to watch some of the greatest tennis players win tournament after tournament, in some ways it gets a little boring and you want to see who's coming up. This Open, the way that it's happened, we're actually seeing some new talent.
It's exciting. Before the semifinals on the men's side, none of them have won a Grand Slam in the past. We will have a new champion at the Grand Slam coming out of this tournament.
On the women's side, we've seen equally a number of new players coming into the semifinals. So it's an exciting time for tennis and a lot of new players, kind of a changing of the guard, for that matter.
So how do you make sure that tennis becomes more accessible, that we're able to find talent that is a 10-year-old today that might not have considered tennis as an opportunity or a possibility for themselves?
Yeah, we call it player development. Ultimately, the best player development is getting more players. We have a million new players playing in our sport or a million new children playing our sport. And you'll see that many more Americans competing at the highest level.
But our mission is all about promoting and growing the sport. And that's constantly what we're doing. We have 17 sections throughout the United States reaching out to diverse populations to attract, engage and retain new people to our sport on a daily basis.
All right, Michael Dowse, thanks so much.
Thank you. Hari.
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