EXCLUSIVE: Start Spreading The News – The New York Open Wants To Be a ‘500’
NEW YORK - An interview with the New York Open Tournament Director, Josh Ripple, reveals origin and ambitions of the Big Apple's newest tournament
The launch of a new tournament is always a very complex affair. Doing it in the ultra-competitive New York City market, and for more having a “peripheric” (yet refurbished) arena as a location, is even harder. Some fans may have turned up their nose seeing the empty stands at the New York Open during the first days of the competition, more similar to what is being witnessed at some Asian tournament than what the North American crowds are accustomed to, but the first edition of the tournament that has inherited the ATP of Memphis’ rich history has ended without any visible glitch, both semifinals and the finals all went to distance, and the final weekend attracted decent crowds to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, approximately 50 kilometers from Manhattan.
With the exception of the controversial incident between Ryan Harrison and Donald Young during their first round match and the unfortunate comment made by Adrian Mannarino about the remote location of the venue at the end of his tournament (“thank goodness my girlfriend was here this week, or I would have killed myself”), players and fans alike generally appreciated the atmosphere of the tournament and it was particularly praised the proximity to the arena of the official hotel, the Marriott Long Island, located adjacent to the main parking lot, 200 meters from the main entrance and served by an underground corridor allowing players to make the ‘journey’ almost entirely indoor.
A few hours before the final we were given the opportunity to have a long chat with Josh Ripple, the New York Open Tournament Director, who explained us the reasons for having an indoor ATP tournament in New York and what plans are in store for the future of this event.
How did you get the idea to move the tournament from Memphis to New York City?
My company, GF Sports, acquired the rights for the ATP tournament in Memphis in June 2015, after having previously purchased the rights to the ATP event in Atlanta. Our aim was to bring some of our assets to the New York Area, since we are a Manhattan-based company, but we immediately realized it would be a very hard task due to the scarcity of buildings available to host an event like a tennis tournament. When we took over in Memphis, the event was struggling financially, and we needed to find a way out of that downward spiral. In late 2016 we started looking for an alternative location and it so happened that our leadership learned that NYCB Live, the company running the Nassau Coliseum, was looking for new tenants. There we had it: a large, legacy building, with an important history, completely renovated, without an NBA or NHL tenant, and in close proximity of New York City. In a few months, we reached an agreement and we announced the tournament in April 2017.
How long does the agreement last?
We signed for 10 years, so we are going to be here for the long-haul.
How did you get the idea of this peculiar set-up, with two perpendicular courts?
Partly it is due to ATP requirements, and partly to our brilliant creative team. The Nassau Coliseum has retractable seats and this allowed to fit two courts in the main arena. The perpendicular layout was the best way to do it: I have been around a long time and I remember when indoor tournaments in the USA had two parallel courts, divided by a net. There were noise issues, ball issues, umpiring issues, and generally speaking players didn’t like it.
The tournament is called “New York Open”, but we are not in New York City, Manhattan is quite far away. How do you think you will be able to attract fans from the city and include them in your catchment area?
Of course, the ideal solution for us would be to host the tournament in Manhattan, at the Madison Square Garden, or in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. But that is not going to happen, because of the NBA and NHL team playing there. We are here because this facility was available to us and initially we are going to cater for the Long Island market.
The greater result for us is that the tournament has been accepted by the tennis community: crowds have been lighter at the beginning, but during the weekend we started to get some traction. It will probably take us a couple of years to get to the situation where we have shuttles from one of the LIRR train stations to the venue in order to facilitate access for New Yorkers. The question will be how you get the people who are working in Manhattan to come here in time for the evening matches. Then it will be up to us to deal with session times and transportation issues. But the first couple of years we are looking at penetrating the Long Island market, that could easily sustain this event.
Don’t you think that the relatively remote location of the tournament may represent a negative aspect for the players, who may associate the name “New York” to a range of activities such as restaurants and shows that are hard to access from here?
Maybe, but in my experience, players are quite simple creatures, and very focused on the task at hand. Give them convenient training courts, a hotel close by and great food and they will be happy. After all, players don’t have to be here for two weeks, this isn’t a Slam, they will get here just before the tournament starts and as soon as they lose they will head down to Delray Beach to wherever their next event is. I don’t see much need for insular activities.
Of course, if a player wants to catch a Broadway show, he can do that, but it’s going to be a bit of a hassle. Through the company running the building, Brooklyn Sports Entertainment, who own the Brooklyn Nets and also own a stake in the New York Islanders, we were able to organize the players’ party at a Nets game on Friday night. Everyone had a great time, the game went to a double overtime, so it was even more exciting, but it took us 1 hour and 20 minutes to get from here to the Barclays Center on Friday evening: that may have discouraged many players from taking trips to the City.
In essence, during this first year of operations, the distance from the City did not emerge as a problem.
With the event being held in February in North America on an indoor court, do you think it will be a problem for you to attract players given that you are rather isolated in the calendar?
Of course, if you are looking at playing other tournaments like this in the USA, you can’t do that, because all the other indoor events in this part of the season are in Europe. For this reason, I believe it will be difficult for us to attract European players: it’s too early for them to come to the USA in mid-February, it’s much easier for them to play Rotterdam and the other indoor event in Europe. This event is going to be amazingly successful if some of the young Americans manage to break into Top 15-20, otherwise we’ll keep having the blend of players we have had this year. As you know the top players demand appearance fees that, for the time being, make no sense for us, so we know that in the short term we are not going to be able to get them here.
When we started the company, GF Sports, our mission statement was to keep tournaments in the USA, provide stages for the young Americans to play on and become stars, and produce the best tournaments that we can produce. So we will always be a bit US-centric.
You mentioned that your company also manages the ATP in Atlanta: how do you see the future of that event?
The deal that we inherited from Atlanta was a fantastic deal: at the time of the move from Norcross, in 2011, a real estate development company was building an outdoor mall in Atlantic Station and they were looking for events to promote their project. However, deals like that don’t come around very often: the original contract was for seven years, so this will be the last edition in Atlantic Station and, as things stand now, we will be looking for a new home for the 2019 tournament. The event has done well during the past several years, the crowd likes it, so we would prefer to stay in Atlanta to maintain the brand awareness that has been created throughout the years, but if we have to move to a different location, we will embrace the challenge of launching in a new city exactly the way we have done here in New York, although frankly I’d prefer not having to do it.
Finally, if you could picture a perfect scenario for this tournament in five years, what would it look like?
Our dream would be to be upgraded to 500, but we know it’s difficult and it’s mainly outside of our control. We would like to have a situation where we are credible in the mind of players, so that we can attract a field that comes here because it is a big-time place to play. Also, I would like to get to the stage where we could change the configuration of the arena mid-week, removing the second court and switching from a 6,500-seat configuration for the main court to a 12,000-seat configuration. Finally, I would love to be able to build tented practice courts outside the venue, where fans could go and watch the practice sessions. At the moment this is not financially feasible, but we hope to get there soon.