The United States Tennis Association (USTA) has faced a series of headwinds in its effort to sell tickets to the 2021 U.S. Open, including a late start to the sales period and international travel restrictions. The late withdrawal of several high profile stars and a last-minute, state-issued mandate requiring fans show proof of a COVID-19 vaccine is not making it easier to move the remaining seats.
After a series of record-setting years (capped with nearly 738,000 fans attending the 2019 tournament), the U.S. Open is going to experience a dip in tickets sold in 2021. But Danny Zausner (COO, USTA National Tennis Center) says despite the challenges, the national governing body is still tracking to sell “80% plus” of the benchmark set two years.
Our Take: Tickets to this year’s tournament went on sale later than they ever have before (giving the USTA a shorter window to sell seats). The organization typically sends out subscription renewals in February and then makes the remaining tickets available to the general public in early June. But Zausner said with the USTA “not even remotely close to getting approval from the state to host the event” last February, and lacking clarity in terms of what capacity would be if/when permission was granted, the process was held up.
Only in mid-June did the governing body receive “approval from the state, and kind of saw that [the opportunity] to get to 100% [capacity] with some provisions in place,” Zausner noted. By the time member renewals went out in late June/early July, the USTA had lost four months.
The absence of international tourists has exacerbated the challenges associated with the abbreviated sales window. Foreign fans usually make up about 15% of those in attendance at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. This year, “That 15% is going to be less than 5%,” Zausner said.
With the USTA’s international business off, the 2021 U.S. Open is expected to have a strong northeast flavor. Typically, about 65% of the audience comes from within the tri-state area. “That number will be 75% plus [this year],” Zausner predicted. And with domestic air travel having slowed since the Delta variant emerged, it has become even more likely that those attending will live within driving distance.
Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Venus Williams all bowed out of the tournament over the past several weeks. But Zausner said their absence is not expected to dramatically impact ticket sales. “The U.S. Open is unique [compared] to any other sporting event. We traditionally sell 80-85% of our tickets before the draw is even announced. People buy the days because it works for their schedule.” The COO suspects when the final numbers are calculated, the 2021 tournament will follow that trend.
Of course, with more ticket inventory to sell over the next two weeks than they would usually have (without the advance sales to international fans), matchups may matter more than normal. And Zausner acknowledges that the absence of those high profile players “would have an impact on people’s walk-up buying patterns.” It is worth noting TickPick reports total transactions for men’s and women’s finals and doubles finals are currently down 25% from 2019.
An Aug. 27 mandate issued by the New York City mayor’s office that requires U.S. Open attendees provide proof of vaccination to enter may also negatively affect walk-up sales. Secondary market data provided by TickPick indicates that is in fact the most likely outcome. Total sales in the 48 hours leading up to the ’21 US Open (following news of the mandate) were down 34% compared to 2019.
It should be noted, Zausner said, “The refund requests [to date] have been incredibly nominal. We’re talking about dozens of tickets relative to the hundreds of thousands sold.”
The anticipated decline in 2021 tournament attendance will not influence USTA sponsorship revenues. “There is no depreciation in the value of our partnership relationships this year,” Zausner said. “When you are the world’s largest annually attended sporting event and you drop off [less than 20%], sponsors do not look at that as though all of a sudden nobody is on site. It is still a tremendous presence.” And as Sportico’s Asli Pelit reported, the demand for premium packages (i.e., the big spenders) remains strong.
The absence of activation booths (a one-year COVID-19 necessitated change) at the 2021 tournament will have “no impact on [the USTA’s] financial arrangements” with tournament partners, Zausner said. Everybody is just excited to be back after the 2020 tournament was played behind closed doors.
Total prize money for the 2021 tournament is at an all-time high. So, it is reasonable to wonder how a decline in ticket sales revenue will affect the USTA budget. Zausner says it won’t. “There is not going to be an appreciable change in funding or in how we activate throughout the country. There won’t be any meaningful cutbacks to grassroots or community programs.” The governing body budgeted expecting revenues to be down from 2019, with cuts largely at the national/organizational level.