Would You Pay $175,000 for a Luxury Bunker at the U.S. Open?

The U.S. Open has long catered to tennis fans of all stripes, from hedge fund moguls and celebrities eating rock shrimp in luxury suites to boozy subway-riding fanatics screaming from the top rows past midnight. The future may see that gap widen even more.

The United States Tennis Association is weighing a major renovation of Arthur Ashe Stadium that could feature superluxury areas to enhance the already lavish experience of their biggest spenders. The association is also considering adding another building to the grounds of the U.S.T.A. Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, which houses the stadium, to upgrade spaces for players and offices and add more parking.

Some of the renovation options include so-called bunker suites: exclusive lounges set into the ground below the playing level, with gourmet catering and high-end amenities. Such suites have become popular — and incredibly profitable — at other sports venues around the country. They would be situated adjacent to the main court of the U.S. Open, and access could cost as much as $175,000 for one person during the two-week tournament. The U.S.T.A. is a nonprofit and devotes most of its revenue to developing tennis in the United States.

Word of these plans came to light on Nov. 10, when the U.S.T.A. distributed an online survey to a group of around 15,000 people targeted as high-paying attendees from previous U.S. Open tournaments and other likely customers. In a 15-minute poll, respondents were asked about player meet-and-greets, early access and valet parking.

They were also asked to choose between various luxury options being considered for Arthur Ashe Stadium. For example: For access to a proposed elite Rackets Club, were they more likely to pay $3,700 per person for a single day’s session (either day or night), or $93,000 for the entire two-week tournament?

The U.S.T.A. leases the land and the stadiums in Flushing Meadows Corona Park from New York City, just as the Yankees and Mets do with their stadiums. The U.S.T.A. would pay for any new construction.

“Ashe is not going anywhere,” said Daniel Zausner, the chief operating officer for the tennis center. “It’s really just about what’s next for it. How do renovate it? How do we make it feel current?”

The U.S. Open is possibly the most glamorous major sporting event in the country — a single courtside seat can cost as much as $8,000 — but the tournament also bears an everyman image, with the tennis masses able to gain access, too.

Billie Jean King, for whom the National Tennis Center was renamed in 2006, grew up playing on public parks in California and is adamant that the U.S. Open, and tennis in general, should be broadly accessible to people of all backgrounds.

“I am proud today, almost two decades later, that the U.S. Open continues to welcome all tennis fans, providing access and the opportunity to see the greatest athletes in our sport,” she said in an email. “I have heard there are plans underway to improve the conditions at Arthur Ashe Stadium, but I am not involved in those discussions. Any time we raise a dollar, from any source, 70 percent of that money goes back into community tennis.”

Ashe is the world’s largest tennis stadium, with a capacity of almost 24,000. It opened in 1997 and is the second-oldest major sports venue in the metropolitan area after Madison Square Garden, which completed an estimated $1 billion renovation in 2013. It currently features two tiers of luxury suites, where fans have access to specialty foods, beverages, restrooms and choice views of the court.

Mr. Zausner maintained that whatever renovation takes place will not affect the more affordable seating at the top of Arthur Ashe Stadium, the so-called promenade, where rollicking fans watch and cheer by the thousands late into the night for the U.S. Open. He also said the U.S.T.A. will not ask the city for more parkland.

The U.S.T.A.’s mission is to grow tennis in the United States, and by law it is required to turn its revenues, a vast majority of which come from the U.S. Open, back into American tennis at all levels. Despite this mandate, the U.S. Open generally operates like any other commercial sporting event, and it is expert at vacuuming in cash from every corner of the operation, especially ticket sales and concessions. The U.S. Open is the U.S.T.A.’s immensely lucrative bake sale.

The lease for the tennis center earns the city a minimum of $400,000 plus 1 percent of gross revenues over $20 million. For 2021, the most recent year data was available, the U.S.T.A. paid the city $4.17 million in rent. The more money the tournament makes, the more the city earns.

The earnings from this year’s U.S. Open are expected to exceed that. The 2023 tournament set attendance records, with almost 960,000 spectators, including 157,000 who gained access for free during the qualifying draw in the week before the main rounds of the tournament.

With recent capital investments in the new 15,000-seat Louis Armstrong Stadium, the grandstand and Court 17, as well as renovations to the existing outer courts, the only stadium on the grounds that has gone relatively untouched in the last quarter century is Ashe. Its only upgrade was the $150 million retractable roof that was completed in 2016, paid for by the U.S.T.A.

The last renovation to Arthur Ashe was the retractable roof that was installed in 2016.Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

But tournament officials maintain that Ashe is showing its age, and they aim to refurbish the stadium in a more modest version of the Madison Square Garden’s upgrade. The Garden’s bunker suites are considered its most exclusive and jaw-dropping experience.

From the current stage of canvassing potential customers to eventually breaking ground for construction is a long way off. After it receives feedback from the survey, the U.S.T.A. will look for a design firm and then go through the planning and approval stages with the city. From there it would seek approval from the U.S.T.A. board of directors for financing and then hire a general contractor.

Mr. Zausner expressed confidence that the U.S.T.A. board would agree to some form of renovation. In the meantime, the facility remains open to the public most of the year for recreational courts.

“As a product of the public parks, I am most focused on the fact that the National Tennis Center is a public park that is open all year long,” Ms. King said. “It is not a facility that is open only three weeks every year.”

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