TENNIS

Buyer wants to ‘elevate’ Western and Southern Open

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MASON, Ohio — The Western & Southern Open’s next owner says he wants to “write the next chapter” of the Cincinnati tournament.

But its press release does not mention any specific plans for the event, which bills itself as the oldest US tennis tournament still held in its hometown.

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The WCPO 9 I-Team has studied the impact the sale could have on the Mason complex which hosts the world’s best players each August. The most likely scenario is a major expansion, but relocation cannot be ruled out.

South Carolina billionaire Benjamin Navarro intends to complete the purchase by the end of September, according to a press release issued jointly Friday by the United States Tennis Association and Navarro’s family business, Beemok Capital.

The terms of the contract are not disclosed.

“It is an honor to partner with the USTA, ATP and WTA to help write the next chapter of the Western & Southern Open, one of the biggest events in tennis in the world,” Navarro said in the press release. “We welcome the opportunity to become a steward of this important tournament, as well as an ambassador for the USTA’s mission to promote the development and growth of tennis. We are committed to providing the best resources to the best players world and we look forward to improving the Western & Southern Open experience for players and fans alike.

In an interview ahead of Friday’s announcement, USTA General Manager for Professional Tennis Stacey Allaster said Navarro is “committed to Cincinnati and plans to make a very significant investment in Cincinnati.”

In an Aug. 5 interview, Western & Southern CEO Katie Haas declined to comment on whether the sale could lead to a relocation of the tournament. But she added that details of future plans would be released once the sales documents were signed.

“We want the best for the event,” Haas said. “We have a home here and hopefully the new owner’s vision will align with that.”

After the press release was issued, WCPO asked the USTA, Beemok Capital and the Western & Southern Open to clarify what the sale means for Cincinnati. None answered the question.

“In entering this sale process, the USTA had clear objectives,” USTA CEO Lew Sherr said in the press release. “We wanted to find a potential steward who would invest in the event and invest in our sport to ensure more children and more communities have access to our sport. We wanted to create a structure that suited American tennis, and finally, we wanted to elevate one of the premier events on the tennis calendar to even greater heights. With this sale to Ben Navarro and Beemok Capital, we exceeded these objectives. Ben’s proven track record in Charleston, his commitment to tennis and, more importantly, to communities, make him the ideal new owner in Cincinnati.

The United States Tennis Association announced in February that it was seeking to sell its 93.8% stake in Cincinnati Tennis LLC, which holds an ATP Tour sanction that allows the Lindner Family Tennis Center to host a men’s Masters 1000 tournament in Mason. every August. Cincinnati Tennis also leases the rights to bring a leg of the Women’s Tennis Association tour to Mason in conjunction with the men’s tournament. The combined events operate under the name Western & Southern Open, under a naming rights partnership that began in 2002 with the Cincinnati-based insurance company.

The USTA paid $18.4 million for its ATP Tour sanction, according to its financial statements. Its February announcement on the sale process said the USTA was exploring strategic options to “optimize the tournament’s long-term growth and take the tournament to the next level.”

Could the sale lead to expansion?
The USTA sale process coincided with strategic planning initiatives from both tours that could lead to a major expansion in Cincinnati.

The ATP announced in June that it would add five new “top tier” tour stops to its schedule, including Cincinnati, by 2025. This means the men’s Western Open and South would go from eight days to 12, drawing 96 players to Mason instead of the current draw of 56.

According to published reports, the WTA is talking with private equity investors about a cash injection that could make the Cincinnati tournament a mandatory stop on the WTA Tour. Tour officials did not respond to questions about those discussions.

But Haas said in her Aug. 5 interview that she was optimistic both tours would grow in Cincinnati.

“We look forward to the plans the WTA is trying to put in place to potentially elevate this tournament in the future,” Haas said. “And with this rise, this high tide will lift all boats.”

Haas also admitted to being a little worried about the impending change in ownership.

“We don’t yet know what the new buyer’s vision will be,” she said. “But I know (USTA) was really looking for the next person, the next steward to take the hundred years of history and legacy that this tournament has established and take it to the next level.”

Navarro’s press release made his first public statement on the purchase since media surfaced in late July, indicating he would pay around $250 million for the ATP sanction.

The press release highlighted Beemok’s “advancement of tennis in the United States” and his investments in Charleston.

“Beemok also brings extensive operational and hospitality expertise to the Western & Southern Open, having recently completed a major renovation that transformed Charleston’s Credit One Stadium into a world-class tennis and concert venue,” says the press release. “Credit One Stadium is home to North America’s largest women’s professional tennis tournament, the Credit One Charleston Open, acquired by Beemok in 2018.”

Navarro is the owner and founder of Charleston, South Carolina-based Sherman Financial Group, which started as a debt collector and now owns Credit One Bank, one of the nation’s largest credit card issuers. Navarro is the son of former Ivy League football coach Frank Navarro. His daughter, Emma Navarro, competes on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 166e with a career record of 71-55 in singles competition.

Can the sale lead to a move?
Buyers of sports teams and sporting events often seek to relocate those assets after purchase, said Adam Beissel, an assistant professor at the University of Miami who teaches and studies sports business.

“We’re looking at sports like NASCAR, where conglomerates are buying up tracks to get the rights for a race weekend and moving it to their other properties,” Beissel said. “One of the things to keep in mind is whether or not there is a contractual clause that requires the tournament to stay with Mason. If the investor wanted to move the tournament, could they legally do so?

The tournament leases its stadium complex to Tennis for Charity Inc. It’s on a 20-year lease that expires in 2029 but includes an option to terminate early in 2024, according to USTA financial statements. Last expanded in 2010, the 19-acre site has four stadium courts that can accommodate 22,000 fans.

“The ATP sanction is subject to termination if (Cincinnati Tennis LLC) fails to comply with ATP rules and regulations,” according to the USTA’s financial statements. “Based on past experience, including Cincy’s continued compliance with ATP rules and regulations, the sanction is expected to be effective indefinitely.”

Allaster said the Cincinnati facility would be hard to match Charleston.

“The standards are incredibly high for an ATP Masters Series event,” Allaster said. “You need a central court of 10,000 (seaters), a secondary court of 5,000. You need eight match pitches. You need a total of 20 lands to practice. You need spacious locker rooms.

Credit One Stadium has a 10,000-seat main stadium and a total capacity of 11,000.

“It’s a beautiful stadium,” Allaster said. “He just put $60 million into it. But it’s still relatively small for a Masters tournament.

Haas added that there are many reasons to keep the Western & Southern Open at its current home.

“We have an incredibly active and passionate fan base,” Haas said. “Our seat holders, many of them on average, have been with us for over 10 years. We have an incredible volunteer group of 1,200 people. The chairs who lead all of these committees have 1,061 years of service. »

The Western & Southern Open generated a regional economic impact of $70 million in 2021 and has raised $11 million for local nonprofits since 1974, according to figures posted on the title sponsor’s website. event, Western & Southern Financial Group Inc.

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