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US Open: Examining A Move To Indian Wells For 2020

May 6th 2020

While the US Open belongs in the Big Apple, COVID circumstances dictate that is an improbable reality this year. Michael Dowse, the executive director of the United States Tennis Association (USTA), said this week in an interview with Inside Tennis magazine; “it’s possible the U. S. Open could be moved to Indian Wells” and be rescheduled to November. Seeking alternatives to adapt now makes sense. As a project management professional (PMP) I have been mulling this idea over for the past few days. An occupational hazard of being a project manager is that my focus always zeros in on schedule. Here is how I see the timeline if a California desert US Open is going to happen this year.

First, Indian Wells is a great option for several reasons. This hard-court facility has open spacious grounds that will support social distancing and the infrastructure is phenomenal. Since purchasing the BNP Paribas Open in 2009, Oracle founder, Larry Ellison, has spared no expense to improve the grounds by building stadiums, adding restrooms, restaurants, practice court technology, security, parking, you name it. A significant fact is the tour players voted the event as the No. 1 combined Masters 1000 Tournament of the year for six consecutive years. That is a winning combination. November is a glorious month in the desert with highs in the 80s and lows around 55. Even when circumstances change dramatically in New York, I wonder how many players will want to touch down in the United States pandemic hub. Keep in mind that as we speak the grounds of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are being used as an ancillary COVID medical facility. It is an exemplary action but also adds complication for the USTA.

There are three key elements to project management that apply no matter what business you are in. Managing each one is the key to success. Cost, Schedule, Scope - all in the context of Quality. In PM lingo, we like to call them the “Triple Constraints.” Applying this methodology to a U. S. Open relocation yields the following:

First, decide if it is going to happen. This seems obvious but there are a series of questions that must be answered before this decision is made. Numero Uno, confirm the players are committed to showing up. This is still a very complex question because you are asking them to take a risk. Frankly, I also love this because it underscores the power position of the players at a time when many feel powerless and have not yet realized how to own their worth. If the players respond nay, then well there’s nothing to see here folks. If the collective answer is yes, then organizers must determine how to minimize the event risk across the board. Given the need to sell tickets (maybe), confirm/sell broadcast rights and to give players enough time to prepare and plan to travel, I believe the Go/NoGo date is No Later Than August 1. This gives a minimum preparation lead time of 90 days.

While this is not a lot of time, a well-managed team can pull it off. The work tasks are mostly defined already as not everything will change. And before August 1st, we should be identifying the new tasks required due to our COVID existence.  It is always much easier and less costly to make changes on paper than during execution. Fail to plan adequately and costs rise quickly.

August 1st allows for the completion of important milestones.

Progression of the COVID level-off.  What CDC-like metrics must be evaluated? What do we need to see to have the assurance that moving forward is a wise decision?  If COVID containment is not realized by the end of July, the world should think hard about progressing to the “Open for Business” phase of this project. We all want the regular tour to resume but only when it is deemed safe to do so.

USTA decides whether it makes sense financially to hold the event without fans. While this is path B, it must be considered as risk management may move this option up replacing Plan A even with event relocation. While no fans on site is less than ideal, creating a COVID outbreak is a non-starter.

Determine the cash position required to move the event to the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Perform a “does it make sense cost-benefit analysis”. In sheer terms of “let’s get tennis going again,” it pays dividends. Then consider the USTA balance sheet, a non-profit with over 1.2 billion in reported assets can probably swing it. Perhaps director Dowse and team already realize this is an investment in their own future and livelihood.

Build an event model for relocation to the grounds of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells 

Fans or no fans onsite? What changes in either situation? In the software word, these are alternate flows that differ for the “ideal” happy path.

If yes to onsite fans, then how many? Do we block out seats to keep grounds and stadium social distancing in force? So perhaps seat 1 row 1 can be sold but then the next available seat for sale is seat 7? Do we skip rows so only every other row will sell? So, row 1, then row 3, row 5, row 7 etc. This also means that fans must not move to any seat other than their own.  Traditionally there is an unspoken understanding that fans may move to “better” available seats that are empty. This may be hard to enforce and would require a strict policy that you will be expelled from the event with no refund if you do not stay in your purchased seat.

Ticket pricing. This one is dicey. Since seat capacity will likely be reduced, should ticket prices be inflated somewhat to off-set lost revenue? I have mixed feelings, but I acknowledge this is still a business. My thought would be to raise the box seat prices more so than the non-box, not club tickets. Why? Quite simply supply and demand and fairness in economics.

Fan Geography-Another unpopular decision but should ticket sales be limited to only US residents? Minimizing travel and potential cross contamination across borders matters. Sadly, this might affect Canadians as many come to the BNP Paribas Open but…

Player arrival, practice schedule and quarantine requirements. Should players arrive 14-20 days in advance? How long should they isolate upon arrival and monitor themselves? When and how are practices “safe”?

How are players transported to the site? This one is not easy. Normally players find their own way and live in a diverse geography. Maybe this still makes sense, maybe not.

Should the USTA work with the tours to establish transportation hub sites that are managed by strict standards? Flights from Paris, Czech Republic, Russia, South America, and Asia? That said if some relaxation on travel is not achieved then the event is off. Perhaps a survey now of the tour players' current location makes sense. Some may be stuck in locations other than home and may not want to travel twice. Find out who is where and decide how to best serve their travel needs.

Who pays for player travel? Given the state of some player finances, I believe players ranked outside the Top-50 should be offered financial assistance to travel. If you want a complete draw, (128 + qualies) this may be necessary. I am not suggesting 1st class but safe and geographically feasible travel. It seems there are airlines right now that would love additional paying customers even if the rates are low. Can the event cut deals with some of these carriers? Offer sponsor benefits and future representation.

Establish rules for player non-interaction. Things like travel with your team and you may not interact with anyone outside of your group.

Establish practice court, player dining, and gym protocols and rules. What happens if you violate them? Are you automatically out? Send out this information well in advance so everyone can review it and ask questions. There is no reason to wait here and the more information as soon as possible is best. There are already some great recommendations circulating among clubs, coaches, and industry leaders. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Here is a tough one - eliminate volunteers. Volunteers will be sad, but I believe it is the right call. Asking people to take risks by interacting with the public for free seems wrong. Imagine the waiver language. I offer a big shout out to all tennis volunteers because most event staff are exactly that. They work free in a professional, reliable, capacity and they are the backbone of most tournaments.

Does Larry Ellison, the owner of the BNP Paribas Open, stand to gain something here? I would argue yes. Greater exposure as a televised Grand Slam will garner a larger broadcast audience. He will reach more homes, a whole new audience, and also achieve the personal satisfaction of hosting a Grand Slam. So, does Larry front or donate some of the costs for the event?

Create low touch, self-operated food, and beverage options. Is it possible to build a machine to dispense beverages that take voice commands? No pressing buttons needed. Apple Pay or a simple swipe of a non-virus friendly surface makes sense.

Or. Simply tell guests to bring in their own food and beverages. Once again consider the health risk versus hefty revenue impact.

Modify Show Court Match Procedures 

Indian Wells has a complete HawkEye installation. This makes it easy to remove line judges. Sorry folks, it is just necessary. Perhaps open up the former volunteer positions and redeploy those who would be line judges. Yes, we all need to adapt so selling programs and being a stadium monitor to assure people are not seat hopping might be your role this time around.

Players may not approach the chair or the net, no handshakes, or hugs. While I will miss them, I understand. Relocate player seating to the far ends of the court - the same side just further away from the chair. Add a microphone so players can talk with the chair if needed from a distance. Players enter the court from opposite tunnel entrances… easy stuff.

Ok so don’t hate me but, do we move to a full best of 3-set format? This may serve both fans and players. We do not want players having duration induced medical time outs for obvious reasons.  Best of three reduces that risk. Additionally, if daytime becomes unusually hot, the IWTG has enough show courts to support ongoing play in the evening. Would you complain if you get to see Stan vs. Nick on Court 4 playing the quarterfinals? I know I would not.

In the end, the USTA will need to “sell” the authorities on their plan. They must demonstrate on paper that they are prepared to run a safe responsible event. The financials, human resources, systems, and processes must be clearly defined and understood.  As a BNP Paribas Open event volunteer from 2013-2015, I know firsthand that the event is run like a military operation with a chain of command. I believe that is exactly what is needed now. So, Mr. Ellison and his “special forces” team have much to offer and should be leveraged as a valued partner. They have a track record of getting stuff done with high quality. While there is so much more to consider and do, the point is “the doing” starts now if we want to beat the odds and pull this off.

Taking a purely selfish position, I would love this. I live in the United States and just a few hours’ drive from the California Desert. But, alas, this historical moment calls for prudent self-reflection and unselfish decision making. So, while this plan may be viable, it is only an option if we do not risk public health, the players, and the dedicated hard-working people needed to pull this off. Presently my Magic 8-Ball says, “Ask again later” rather than “Signs point to yes”. So, for now, we wait, we hope and dream. But purposeful action must begin. A Fedal philosophical approach is apropos - Roger “Believe in miracles,” and Rafa, “Work hard. Have fun and make it happen.” Insert Prayer Hands emoji.