By Rory Carroll
NEWYORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Open will not sell the naming rights to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, Arthur Ashe or Louis Armstrong stadiums despite just completing an expensive 5-year, $600 million (461.47 million pounds)renovation project, tournament organizers told Reuters.
Football, baseball and basketball teams frequently play in venues named after banking, energy, telecommunication and other companies that have signed long-term contracts to lock in the highly-visible advertising spaces.
With its fervent fanbases, New York boasts the two most expensive naming rights contacts in sports – Citi Field, where the Mets play, and Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets – with those companies reportedly paying around $20 million a year.
But USTA officials said they see more value in honouring its sport’s heroes.
“Arthur Ashe stadium and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center are named not only after just two sports icons, but social icons,” Gordon Smith, CEO and executive director of the USTA, said in an interview.
“We are in the business of selling sponsorships,” he said.
“But we’re also in the business of promoting the game and promoting the social icons related to our game.”
Former world number one King is an outspoken advocate for equality and is credited with helping women achieve equal prize money to men at Grand Slam tournaments, starting with the U.S. Open in 1973.
The late Ashe is a Hall of Famer and was a civil rights activist who won the first U.S. Open in the politically-charged year of 1968.
The African American grew up in segregated Richmond, Virginia, went on to speak out against South African apartheid and served as a model for athletes addressing social issues for decades to come.
Louis Armstrong was not known to swing a racquet but the pioneering African American Jazz musician lived near the tennis center in Flushing Meadows until his death in 1971.
“We’re lucky,” Billie Jean King told Reuters prior to the tournament’s opening night ceremony.
“It was unbelievable for Arthur and me to be honoured in this way. There’s a sense of permanency.”
Even if the USTA decided to put the naming rights on the block, its unlikely it would attract the kind of cash that is thrown at other New York sports stadiums, said Robert Prazmark, chief executive of 21 Sports and Entertainment Marketing Group.
That is because unlike other sports that have long seasons, fanfare around the U.S. Open is confined to the two-week tournament in Flushing Meadows.
“It would be a tough sell,” Prazmark said.
“They’d get huge opposition from the tennis community if you took the names off those buildings and I doubt there’s enough value for them to do it.”
And the U.S. Open is hardly wanting for sponsors.
Rolex, Emirates Airline, Chase, American Express and IBM are among the companies that pay top dollar to have their names plastered around the grounds, where 700,000 fans are expected to come through the gates over the two-week tournament.
“We are here in the biggest and greatest tennis stadium in the world,” Tom Okker, who fell to Ashe in the 1968 final, told the crowd assembled at the stadium for the opening night ceremony.
“And it’s carrying Arthur’s name forever.”
(Editing by Andrew Bolton)