A Grand Slam Spectacle

With an aggressive timeline, the USTA is transforming the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. From its two new stadiums on campus to the retractable-roof renovation of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the transformation is a remarkable design achievement.

Each year, the US Open tennis tournament attracts 750,000 guests to the blue courts of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (NTC) in Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York. During the event's fortnight, the USTA's 46-acre complex morphs into an immersive festival for the players, patrons, and corporate partners to bask in the pageantry and drama of the sport's largest Grand Slam tournament.

It's truly a "Sports Spectacle", which was the guiding principle identified by Detroit-based architectural firm ROSSETTI to inform its design decisions, in collaboration with the USTA, for $600 million in renovations across 85% of the entire complex. The "Spectacle" encompasses two new stadiums, connected by an amenity-filled promenade, with a retractable roof now atop Arthur Ashe Stadium in the center of campus.

The Master Plan

ROSSETTI was first hired by the USTA in 1990 for its original US Open master plan, which was a 20-year strategic vision centered mainly on creating a functional tennis tournament with the correct number of courts. When the firm won a second bid competition in 2009, which led to a new nine-year master plan for the NTC, the sporting landscape had changed dramatically. 

"Everything has changed in the sport," says Matt Rossetti, President of ROSSETTI. "It's no longer just about functionality. We compare it to an Olympic event and other spectacular events that are on people's bucket lists. There are so many things to do now on site, whether you watch a lot of tennis or a little bit of tennis." 

"[The US Open] is now very much about sharing an experience with all of the other guests," adds Deena Fox, Principal and Senior Project Manager at ROSSETTI. "We were looking for ways to facilitate and amplify that experience."

Clearing Congestion

Historically, the 26 sessions of the US Open are 99% sold out. In the seven years leading up to the start of design exercises with ROSSETTI, the USTA experienced unprecedented growth in ticket sales. 

"We were in a great place selling tickets," says Danny Zausner, Chief Operating Officer of the USTA. "If anything, we had to resolve issues on the grounds with intense crowding."

One of the greatest needs the site had to resolve was its antiquated facilities, namely Louis Armstrong Stadium and Grandstand Stadium. The two venues were originally built for the 1964 World's Fair and had not experienced major upgrades since their original retrofit into tennis stadiums in 1978.

To address the crowd congestion issues common for fans trying to navigate between the venues, the circulation of the entire site was reengineered. 

"Our modeling showed where the pinch points were," Rossetti says. "We had to increase considerably not only how people get on campus and how they get off campus, but how they circulate through campus as well."

The USTA relies on Citi Field, across the street from the NTC, for the bulk of its parking, and on mass transit to get over 60% of patrons to and from the site. Both the Long Island Railroad and the New York City Subway's 7 train, as well as Citi Field's parking lots, funnel 90% of the tournament's guests directly to the east gate. This site configuration means a traffic flow of up to 15,000 people trying to get in and out of one gate at one time.

In response to this bottleneck, Grandstand Stadium has been relocated in 2016 from the northeast to the southwest corner of the complex, redistributing 8,000 people, approximately 20% of site capacity, to the diagonal opposite corner. 

The new Grandstand Stadium, along with Court 17, a fourth show court added in 2011, now bookend the NTC's seven field courts on its south campus.

Boulevard of Fan Experiences

Connecting Grandstand Stadium and Court 17 is now a boulevard that opens up a new circulation route, enhancing the fans' ability to navigate between courts. All along this promenade's 500 contiguous linear feet are new sponsor activation bays, concession stands, retail outlets, restrooms, water fountains, and bottle-filling stadiums, a phase of the project that Fox describes as a "ten-month sprint" to complete between the 2015 and 2016 Opens.

The Heineken Red Star Café is a dual-purpose destination along a new fan circulation route in the NTC. It includes a 4,000-squarefoot retail space on the ground floor and a 4,000-square-foot food and beverage experience above.

"Everything is brand new," Zausner explains. "We basically started from scratch. Everything between [Court] 17 and the new Grandstand was demolished after last year's event. All of the concessions, all of the retail and restrooms, everything was gutted and completely torn down." 

"It's like remodeling a house and gutting it down to the foundation," adds Rossetti. "That's essentially what we've done. Everything is brand new on campus. Almost like you would in an urban setting, we were able to create streets that have infrastructure below the ground, tunnels that are accessible in the future. We can grow and expand now in an easier fashion because of all the new conduit and piping in place."

The USTA even dug up all of the trees in the south campus and built a tree farm across the street, bringing those same trees back to the site when the construction dust settled. 

There are 28 new permanent sponsor spaces in total (four per field court), all which come with the flexibility for corporate partners to install different branding experiences from year to year. Additionally, two oversized activation areas, for cornerstone partners Emirates Airlines and American Express, are located in the south plaza, which serves as the entrance way to Arthur Ashe Stadium. In total, sponsorship accounts for approximately one-third of the event's revenue.

"In combination, it represents a much improved situation for the sponsors that are now present on the campus," says Fox. "Everybody has to go by these [sponsorship bays] as they are coming in and out of [the south] tournament courts. They're very visible. They're very accessible. Yet we tried to make them feel as though they are an integral part of the structures that are present on the campus."

Also included in the NTC's sponsor real estate holdings are two folly buildings with major sponsorship deals associated with them, including the Heineken Red Star Café, which set the sponsorship tone in 2012. This dual-purpose destination transformed a one-story building into a much larger two-story building with 4,000 square feet of USTA-branded retail on the ground floor and 3,000 square feet (plus a 1,000-square-foot kitchen) of Heineken-branded food and beverage on the upper level that also provides a viewing deck to various points of campus.

"[The Heineken Red Star Café] set the tone for what future branded experiences might be like on the campus," says Fox.

Raise the Roof

The centerpiece of the NTC transformation is without a doubt the installation of a retractable roof over the 23,500-seat Arthur Ashe Stadium, the main stage in Flushing Meadows. This feature of construction is so prodigious and so ambitious, it's quite possibly the greatest achievement in sports venue design & build in 2016. And it was a long time coming.

After 12 years and four different design competitions, the USTA finally found an operable roof design that met its criteria for aesthetics, operations, and budget. 

Although the new roof above Arthur Ashe Stadium doesn’t return any additional ticket, media, or sponsorship revenue, it does provide certainty for broadcast partners, players, and fans, 40% of whom attend the US Open from outside the local area.

"The problem for us was that, in all four designs, we couldn't get one of those variables, let alone all three," Zausner says. "So it wasn't like they solved the aesthetics and the operations, but the price didn't work. We never even got to price." 

It wasn't until ROSSETTI and structural engineer WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff (WSP) developed the concept that became the new roof that the USTA had something that met its aesthetic needs, opened and closed in an acceptable time (5 minutes, 12 seconds in its initial public test run), and came in at a budget it could support ($150 million).

The need for a roof is somewhat of a new development. When Arthur Ashe Stadium was originally built, planners looked at over 100 years of rain data and found that the weeks before and after Labor Day (the weeks of the US Open) were two of the driest weeks of the year in New York City. Then from 2008 to 2012, something happened five years in a row that hadn't happened once in 30 years – the Men's Final had to be played on Monday instead of the traditional Sunday because of rain.

"That's when the roof became more of a concern for us than ever before," says Zausner. 

Zausner admits the roof doesn't make much financial sense. It doesn't return an extra dollar of ticket, media, or sponsorship revenue. But what it does do is guarantee that broadcast partners will stay on the air, players won't have to sit through rain delays for hours, even days at a time, and matches will keep being played for fans, 40% of whom attend the US Open from outside the tristate area, including many international fans who can't necessarily extend hotel reservations or postpone their flights.

"It's just the right thing to do for the event," explains Zausner.

"The nice thing is that we have a great place of refuge now for 24,000 people," says Rossetti. "We can keep them dry. That part for the fan experience is excellent."

New in 2016: Grandstand Stadium

The new 8,125-seat Grandstand Stadium could function as a stand-alone venue, as it is programmed with its own series of concession stands, restrooms, retail, and guest services. An upgrade on the previous Grandstand Stadium, fans now will not have to leave the facility throughout the day, unless they choose to navigate and enjoy the entire site.

"We're able to offer them everything they liked about the old Grandstand but in a much more modern version," Zausner says.

Two notable design elements stand out in the new Grandstand. The first is its asymmetrical shaping, which opens up and pays homage to Arthur Ashe Stadium and the central plaza in front of the stadium – a main gathering point for campus. Its shaping is also configured to keep spectators in shade throughout the day.

The other standout component of the architecture is the stadium's elegant skin made up of a parametric design of translucent polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) panels, meant to mimic the foliage of leaves. The "foliage" offers a veil between the tennis and the public on Grand Central Parkway and in Corona Park, without closing off the structure from its natural context.

"It's got a scrim to it, so you can see 50% through it," says Rossetti. "The light weaves. It's quite magical during the day and at night as you move around the stadium, or when you're inside the stadium looking out at the site."

There is no premium seating in Grandstand, as most premium hospitality on site is done in the Chase Hospitality Pavilion and within Arthur Ashe Stadium, where three of the stadium clubs – Aces, Champions Bar & Grill, and Mojito – are being renovated. 

The final piece of the renovation puzzle is construction of a new Louis Armstrong Stadium, opening in 2018, which will also feature an operable roof of bi-parting panels. A 14,000-person temporary venue will be erected on campus to host matches during construction over the next two years. 

The Grandest Grand Slam

The renovations at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center come at a time when the other three Grand Slam sites are also investing heavily in capital projects to improve infrastructure. 

Of the four grandest tennis tournaments of the year, in terms of attendance, the US Open is the largest event. And in terms of construction timeline, it is the most aggressive. Roland-Garros started talking about a renovation, seemingly before the USTA even put pencil to paper, but the NTC transformation will be complete perhaps before they even break ground in Paris. What Wimbledon will have finished building in around a ten-year period, the USTA will match over a five-year period without receiving a nickel of public funding. And Melbourne Park has also been renovating, but slowly over time, project by project.

"One thing that's very unique for us is we're doing all of this transformation work in a very finite period of time," says Zausner.

"This is undoubtedly the largest makeover in such a short period of time," Rossetti adds. "When we did the economics on this, it made a lot more sense to do it quickly. So instead of stretching this out over 15 years of construction, we cut that number about in half compared to what the other venues are doing."

New stadium builds, new circulation pathways, and the incredible addition of a retractable roof, all in the name of sponsorship activation and fan experience, all in half the time, all in excess of $600 million after the completion of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium. 

Now that's quite a spectacle of a spectator sporting event.


How is your venue creating a sports spectacle?
​Write to Jared at jared@alsd.com.