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UNITED STATES TENNIS ASSOCIATION MEDIA CONFERENCE
August 18, 2020
New York, New York
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Hello, everyone. This is Chris Widmaier, the managing director of communications for the United States Tennis Association. I want to thank everyone for joining us today. We will be discussing the health and safety protocols that have been built around the Western & Southern Open and the 2020 US Open.
We have quite a number of members of the media on the call. We'll do our best to get to all questions.
Also, members of the media, we have ASAP Sports on our call. They will be transcribing this. We will be sending out the transcript shortly after the conclusion of this call.
Before we get to our Q&A portion, we'll be hearing brief remarks from our three principals. Today we have with us Michael Dowse, the CEO and executive director of the USTA. We also have with us Stacey Allaster, the chief executive of professional tennis for the USTA and, of course, the US Open tournament director. Finally we are joined by our lead infectious disease expert, Dr. Bernard Camins, medical director for infection prevention for the Mt. Sinai Health Systems and member of the USTA Medical Advisory Group.
I'll turn it over to Mike Dowse.
MIKE DOWSE: Thank you for joining us today. Many of you did participate in our June 16th virtual press briefing. As you can imagine, our team has been working diligently these last 60 days to assure a safe and exciting event for the global tennis community. As discussed in our June press briefing, we've been led by three guiding principles during the go, no go decision-making process.
One: Can we conduct a tournament in a healthy and safe manner for all those involved, from players, to staff, ultimately the local community here in New York City?
Secondly: Is hosting these tournaments in the best interest of tennis, and does it support our mission of growing and promoting the sport of tennis?
Third: Does it make financial sense for the players, the USTA and the broader tennis ecosystem?
As consistent with our June 16th decision-making process, the answer continues to be yes to all three of these guiding principles.
In regards to our first and most important principle, the health and well-being of all involved, I'd like to let you know we will be providing additional information in a few minutes about a positive test result from a non-player we announced this morning.
Dr. Camins will also take us through our specific protocols, but do know this has been a collective effort and we have been given the green light by federal, state and city officials to proceed with hosting both the Western & Southern Open and US Open.
Specific to the question, is this in the best interest of tennis, this has been an unequivocal yes. By combining the Western & Southern and US Open into one location, we've been able to showcase the world's best athletes over a 30-day period on really one of the world's most iconic stages.
Despite some of the challenges we have faced, in the women's draws we have 10 former Grand Slam champions, seven former No. 1s, and 81 of the top 100 players competing.
On the men's side, we have seven of the top-10 players playing, eight former Grand Slam finalists, and 90 of the top 100 players.
This truly will be exciting for tennis fans around the world to watch these great athletes compete for a Grand Slam title.
Also recent reports from the tennis industry are showing the sales of entry level tennis racquets and the purchase of tennis balls have nearly doubled in May, June and July. Players from all backgrounds are discovering that tennis is the perfect post-pandemic sport. It's safe, social, great exercise, and most importantly tennis is fun.
We know long-time players, new players as well as sports enthusiasts are going to be excited to watch these great athletes compete, and this truly is in the best interest of tennis.
Finally to the question of does it make financial sense, despite the fact that our net operating income will be down nearly 80%, the's is still yes. Fortunately through our ability to tap into our financial reserves, lines of credit, and our recent reorganization, we can still provide total player compensation of nearly 95% versus a year ago and we can continue to fund our community tennis sections at somewhat a comparable level for '20 and '21.
Additionally we know by hosting these two tournaments we will drive increased tennis participation that helps support tennis facilities, tennis providers, manufacturers and all the jobs they create in the tennis industry.
I want to reiterate this was never a host-at-all-cost approach. Our decision making has been driven by the three principles just shared. We will continue to follow these principles over the coming weeks.
Thank you for being fans of tennis. I'll ask Stacey to share with you additional details.
STACEY ALLASTER: Thank you, Mike. Hello, everyone.
On behalf of the entire Western & Southern Open and US Open team, we're incredibly excited to be here today holding a conference about how our sport is returning to professional competition within a controlled environment that has been built on the strongest foundation to mitigate risk for the health and the safety for all players, their support teams, our staff and partners.
As Mike said, this has been months of planning, about six months to be exact. We've been so fortunate to have the input and direction from leading medical experts and authorities, and full approval and support from New York State.
Before I walk you through some of the operational elements of the protocols for the two events, I do think it is important to recognize if it wasn't for the dedicated healthcare providers and first responders who have worked tirelessly across New York State and here in New York City, Governor Cuomo and everybody involved in his team to develop the guidelines to open the economy, including professional sports in New York, and of course all the New Yorkers who have done an incredible job contributing to bringing New York State and New York City to one of the lowest infection rates in the country. It really is those groups of individuals that have given us this opportunity today to host the first major international sporting event in the world since the global shutdown of events.
This is day four for me and many of the players in the bubble. As of this morning, almost 350 players have entered this centralized Western & Southern and US Open environment. We will all remain in our environment for as long as we are competing and they are competing for that prestigious ATP Masters Series title, WTA Premier title and Grand Slam title.
I can assure you, I've been living in the bubble, the athletes have everything they need. They have comfortable housing, medical testing, transportation, practice facilities, trainers, physios, a variety of food services, and a number of experiences for their off-time both on-site and in the official hotels.
As we've seen the players come in, the energy has been really positive. They're excited to be back. They're happy to see each other. We've been thanked quite a bit by players for putting on these events. I think I would say there's a strong sense of community that we are all in this together for our sport and for our fans.
The fundamentals of the plan are a multi-tiered system. Ultimately that's limiting the amount of interaction, the different roles and responsibilities.
There are three tiers:
Tier one, that includes all the players, their guests, tournament off staff, officials and the medical teams, approximately about a thousand people in the tier one group.
The tier two group includes broadcasters, people who may interact but have very, very, very little interaction and exposure.
Lastly, the third tier, includes staff, whether it be security, parking, vendors. Again, their limited interactions are even less.
Essentially under the leadership of Dr. Camins and the entire USTA Medical Advisory Group and US Open medical team, this is all about mitigation of risk, lessening the exposure.
We are living it and certainly understand that our centralized environment is different from other professional leagues, we're ready. It's all planned with different scenarios and different contingencies.
The one thing I know about the US Open team, we know how to adapt. There's no question the staging for the Western & Southern Open and the US Open will take on new dimensions without fans on-site. Together with ESPN and our international broadcasters, millions of fans in more than 200 countries will have the opportunity to be inspired by what I believe are the most amazing athletes to compete in sport at the highest of levels. As we progress, 26 days to go, everything is based on this comprehensive plan to mitigate risk for all.
Dr. Camins, thank you. You have worked tirelessly. You've been on the floor meeting with athletes, assuring them, helping them to understand the protocols, helping them understand to how properly wear their masks, physically distance. Dr. Camins, over to you to share the specifics around the medical testing protocols.
DR. BERNARD CAMINS: Thank you Mike and Stacey and to the entire USTA team to have me here as it relates to the health and safety protocols that have been established for this unprecedented year.
I serve as the medical director of infection prevention for the Mount Sinai Health System. Since early April of this year I have been a member of the Medical Advisory Group for the USTA. As an avid tennis fan myself, it has been truly an honor to work closely with the USTA and the US Open Task Force to help them design the plan for this year's tournament and the Western & Southern Open.
Specific to my role I have been involved in developing protocols for COVID-19 testing, universal masking and social distancing, and even outlying the recommended personal protective equipment needed in the healthcare setting. I have leveraged that experience to use during both tournaments.
We have worked through dozens of scenarios so we can anticipate situations that could arise during the tournaments, planned for them accordingly, and are ready and able to adapt.
We have been in close consultation with the USTA, the WTA, ATP and other tennis officials so that we could create the current version of our testing and mitigation strategy, which is specifically tailored for the uniqueness of the Western & Southern Open and the 2020 US Open.
We have followed recommendations from the CDC, the New York State Department of Health, New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene when developing our protocols. Our guidelines have been reviewed by the New York State Department of Health, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, to ensure that we are in compliance with public health regulations.
As Stacey shared earlier, the centerpiece is the tiered system that we have developed and implemented, which is really designed to separate groups of individuals, especially the players and their support teams, on-site healthcare providers, USTA officials, to reduce the risk of their exposure to COVID-19.
Additionally, frequent testing will allow USTA officials to immediately isolate an infected person, and strict universal masking and social distancing protocols even among tier one individuals further reduces the risks for athletes and their support team.
With the New York region being in phase four, we feel confident this plan remains strong and will be effective in keeping those involved with the Western & Southern Open and US Open safe and healthy.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Thank you.
At this point in time, that's the conclusion of our opening statements, and we will now ask for questions from the media.
Q. Mike, how was it that you settled on the two Long Island hotels as the base of operations for the players? For a very long time in the hockey world, the Uniondale Marriott was known as Alcatraz for its isolation.
MIKE DOWSE: Specific to the two hotels in Long Island, ultimately all our decision making still went back to the original principles of health and well-being being first and foremost. These two hotels we selected were the best opportunity to do that.
I don't know if Stacey has any other additional comments about the selection of those two.
As you know in our original press conference we had another property identified. Pushing ourselves to create the safest and healthiest environment, the two properties we ended up landing on were the best to allow us to initiate our health protocols.
STACEY ALLASTER: I'll also add, we also needed the size of property, double rooms, the space. The nice thing about the Long Island Marriott Hotels, they're in close proximity to each other, because we do have an overflow. The Long Island Marriott is 100% ours. We have transformed that property, together with our partners, to create an exceptional experience of activities.
We call it the Manhattan Project. You can't go to Manhattan but we'll bring Manhattan to you. There's everything from their fitness, there's a gym, a recovery room, an arcade room, a gaming room, a golf simulator, sports simulator, this massive outdoor lounge, food trucks every night. It's a good vibe.
The transformation here on-site with having no fans, they're enjoying being able to be spread out. I think you'll see that through the television as well.
Q. Where do you foresee the greatest risk in this plan, the area you'd be most concerned about in terms of the possibility of an outbreak of COVID-19 during these tournaments?
DR. BERNARD CAMINS: That's a really good question. Tennis is definitely different from hockey, basketball or baseball. The Medical Advisory Group actually discussed the protocols implemented by other professional sports. We created one specifically for the two tournaments that we are involved in.
I think the biggest thing that we really worried about was to make sure that we can keep players from socializing too much, too close to each other, not wearing the mask, not following our universal masking protocols.
In the four days that I have been involved and watching everybody, everybody actually has been following those recommendations carefully, and we even have hired extra staff to be our health and safety ambassadors who are doing that. Those are the really big issues that we thought about.
The other thing that we have installed is a tiered approach. Only tier one individuals are really interacting with other tier one individuals. The other tiers hardly, if any, have contact with tier one individuals.
Q. On the single positive test announced today, was that an intake test? That was the first test that had been administered to that person? Was this somebody who had been admitted into the controlled environment already based on a negative test and then tested positive? I wanted to clarify, this person is supposed to isolate for at least 10 days, contact tracing initiated to determine if anybody must quarantine for 14 days. Explain why the person who tested positive is 10 days, and possible exposure is 14 days.
DR. BERNARD CAMINS: Both are very good questions. A lot of public ask me about that.
Our protocol actually requires everybody gets tested at least twice 48 hours apart. When they actually come and check into the hotel, they are tested first, they go to their rooms, and they do not leave the room until they are cleared with a first negative test.
To account for the incubation period of two to four days, we are repeating, in case they did get exposed during their trip, we are requiring that everybody undergoes a second test.
In this situation it was the second test that was positive. So based on New York State Department of Health regulations, because the person, even though asymptomatic, is considered infected, now has to quarantine for at least 10 days. If they develop symptoms after diagnosis, then that 10-day period will get longer.
The reason why in this situation the roommate has to be quarantined for 14 days is because potentially the incubation period of COVID-19 is that it may take up to 14 days before you develop symptoms. That is why the quarantine period is longer. That's the difference. One is already infected and the other person has just been exposed.
Through the very complicated RFID system, so we can track everybody, where they went, we are doing additional analysis of everywhere this particular individual went and who they had contact with.
Q. Mike and Stacey, how disappointing has it been to see a number of top players pull out of the US Open? What would you say to any player who may still at this stage be considering not coming to New York for the tournament?
MIKE DOWSE: I'll answer the second question first.
As far as individual players, we'll respect their decisions at all times. It's up to each individual player to make that decision.
As far as our field, in context of the times and how different the world is, I couldn't be happier. It's exceeded our expectations. As I mentioned earlier in our opening statement, on the women's side we have 10 former Grand Slam champions and seven former No. 1s, 81 of the top 100 players. On the men's side we have seven of the top-10 players in the world playing, eight former Grand Slam finalists, 90 of the top 100 men playing.
At the end of the day it's our fans we are here to serve. They're going to see some unbelievable world class tennis. Again, considering the context of what's going on, couldn't be happier.
STACEY ALLASTER: I'll just add, what I would say to a player, one of our protocols, a player must be in the centralized environment four days before their first match. For the main draw of the Western & Southern Open, if athletes are not in the bubble today, they would not be eligible to compete in the tournament. Then it's the same processes four days before the US Open, everyone needs to be in who is competing in the US Open that will start on August 31st.
Q. What percentage of players entered in the US Open are actually in the bubble already or in town? Did any player decide to have private residence? I understand they're allowed to have a private residence as opposed to a hotel. What's the ground rules if a player tests positive? Automatic disqualification obviously once the tournament starts? How many days before, if he tests positive, what are the rules there?
STACEY ALLASTER: I would say approximately 90% of the athletes are now in residence or in the bubble. We have our wheelchair competition that will start midway through the US Open, so there's approximately 20 athletes there. We have approximately 20 or so arriving today. Majority are in.
There's a very small number who will compete in the US Open doubles who haven't been able to get into the Western & Southern Open doubles. Generally, players have come early, and they are in the centralized environment.
We have a very limited number of players who have elected the private home option. Essentially, as Dr. Camins has discussed, when any person becomes infected, specific to the player, per the CDC guidelines and New York Department of Health, they are isolated for 10 days. We would work back from August 31st and 10 days, there might be the possibility. It will really depend on the symptoms of the athletes, and the doctors will ultimately make that determination if they're eligible to compete.
Q. If a player tests positive once the tournament starts, it's not automatic disqualification? You have to make a judgment call on that?
STACEY ALLASTER: With the US Open, yes, because they would be automatically withdrawn. That is a New York Department of Health protocol and CDC guideline, not a USTA decision ultimately.
MIKE DOWSE: There's two ways to look at it in a sense. Our health and safety protocols, when you are in our environment, you are part of the Western & Southern and US Open guidelines. Anything around that, even above that, are the New York State guidelines.
As Dr. Camins alluded to, we are working very closely with the State Department of Health. We have approved our plan, and that is why we are putting forth these two competitions.
To clarify, if a player during competition were to test positive, under the New York State guidelines, that player would be withdrawn from the tournament, and we would begin isolation/quarantine protocols as outlined by the State of New York.
Q. For the players who have opted to stay in private housing, are they allowed more than the three guests to be in that house if they don't come to the site? If a player is withdrawn before they played their first match, normally we'd have lucky losers from the qualifying. We don't have that. At that point is it just a walkover or do you have alternates that you're bringing into the bubble and they wait in the wings if there's an opportunity to play?
STACEY ALLASTER: The athletes within the private homes, anyone residing in the home is considered a tier one member, and all members must stay in the home and are tested at the exact same protocols as those staying in the hotel. In essence, if they wanted to have more guests in the home, they are permitted to do that, but everyone is tested, and no one is allowed to come in and out of the home. It's only those who are residing. They've created their own bubble, in essence, inside that private home.
On the alternate program, essentially we will take alternates from the doubles acceptance list. It will go off of those players' singles ranking. All about mitigating risk and not bringing new people into the bubble.
Q. In regards to the private housing, will players be allowed to have any domestic help, cooks, cleaners, these kind of things, and how these people will be treated?
STACEY ALLASTER: What's important is the athletes have created their centralized environment, their bubble, within the private home. The only individuals allowed to enter the home are those who are living in the home. Chefs cannot come in and out.
When the players and everyone in the home come to the site, then cleaning personnel are permitted to come into the home, but they are not permitted to enter the home while any of the tier one members are in the home.
Q. The cleaning personnel taking care of the private houses, are they part of the bubble, part of any tiers, or not subject to any testing?
STACEY ALLASTER: They won't be mixing with any of the individuals in the bubble. That's the fundamental principle. They will be masked. That's the extent of the control systems we have in place. No one is mixing.
DR. BERNARD CAMINS: It would be analogous to a food server, right, at the hotel or even at the USTA. There won't be any interaction because none of the tier one people will be in the house while they are cleaning. They will just come and clean, there will be no interaction, and they will leave after cleaning the house.
Q. What are the rules for traveling back to Europe once the US Open is done? Players are concerned they might be having to quarantine themselves.
STACEY ALLASTER: Just when we got them all in, we've already starting the planning for their departures back to Europe. We're working with the ATP and the WTA. We'll be working on where they're going, which tournaments they'll be going to, whether that be Kitzbuhel, traveling to Rome, France or other.
Based on these government protocols and the type of testing they may require prior to traveling to those countries, will be assisting the athletes and their guests to ensure that they have everything in place around the PCR testing.
The ATP and the WTA, the French foundation, Italian foundation, we're working with them, but they're taking the lead on working with those governments.
Q. Obviously this is the first huge event of the COVID era. Talk about what it's like as the sport regroups in New York. More importantly, what do you think the impact of this event will be on the mindset in New York and in a country where we've had some really tough times?
MIKE DOWSE: Specific to what this means for tennis and for the City of New York, I can just share with you, and Stacey touched on it, the vibe of the players and everyone involved with the players has been incredible the last week. Seeing them show up, doing air hugs and whatnot, they're so excited to be back into the sport. The energy is very positive.
Being the governing body of the sport of tennis in the U.S., we obviously have our tentacles out in all the communities. The feedback and comments we're getting are that people are extremely excited.
To me, what really excites me about this opportunity, it's been a very challenging time for our society. This is a great opportunity to bring everyone together.
The other thing that excites me, and I shared it in my opening statements, the reports we're hearing from retail, pre-strung racquets, that's where entry level new players come in, and the sales of tennis balls, have nearly doubled in the last 90 days. That's showing tennis has a huge opportunity to benefit society coming out of this.
Again, you couldn't pick a better sport to play after being locked up for several months, right? It's primarily outdoors, fun. We joke it's not a social distancing sport, you're still socializing, it's just a physically distancing sport.
So far the vibe has been great. We are missing some of the players, but overall the numbers are really strong on the strength of our field. I'm just excited to see some great tennis that we haven't seen for several months.
Q. You often talk about the process, problem solving. What has it been like dealing with tennis agents, CDC, state health boards, the federal government? Talk about the process, the toughest and easiest part of that.
MIKE DOWSE: Mid March we put together this project team to address the US Open. Even back in March we thought it was an outside chance that we might have issues with it. Fortunately it became more and more reality as we went through it.
This project team met on a regular basis, daily basis, starting in mid March. To me it's been the perfect example of collaboration. Myself and Stacey and Patrick Galbraith, we've been on the phone with the WTA, the ATP, our fellow slam peers, literally two to three days a week the past four months. We work closely with the athletes through their agents.
As you know, our sport can sometimes be bifurcated or split a little bit. This is a great example where we call came together to make this happen and be aligned.
Our partners in Western & Southern, Cincinnati, we kind of think of it as a cliff note now, but that was a huge decision to move Cincinnati to New York. That again showed great partnership.
Q. On the positive test, obviously you have run so many scenarios. How much of a concern is this? Does it make it more complicated in terms of the fact it was a retest, so approximately 48 hours after arrival, after the person had already entered the bubble in some fashion?
MIKE DOWSE: I will tell you in our planning and contingency planning, we expected this to happen. As we mentioned, we conducted 1400 tests. Mathematically we expected to have a positive if not more than one. So we did anticipate this and we have put very specific protocol in place to prevent this from spreading broadly.
Dr. Camins can expand on any of the medical components.
Again, we're prepared for this. Our number one priority is to take care of this person first, and secondly to prevent the spread from going any further.
DR. BERNARD CAMINS: So it is true, that complicates it a little bit. It would have been nice if he was positive the first time. But the reason why we added the second test at 48 hours was to account for the time that we wouldn't be covering, right? I think that is good.
I think we have had the staff to do this. We can do the contact tracing. We are also fortunate to have the Department of Health officials both in the city and the state that are very much available. We will review contact tracing with them.
Again, on top of our own individual contact tracing with USTA staff under our advisement, the Medical Advisory Group, the New York Test and Trace Program will actually also do their own as well once we've reported it to them, so...
Q. The level of the virus in the United States right now is so much higher than Europe. A lot of your conversations must have been about what kind of an obligation sports have to communities that they live in. From some of the answers I can hear you've had those conversations. Could you give us any insight into the burden of the tests that you need, how that contrasts with the difficulty in getting tests in some places in the U.S., how you've thought about those issues of sports obligations to the larger community.
MIKE DOWSE: To put it in context again, we never had pressure from our board to host this tournament at an all costs. We always took it through the approach through the three guiding principles we talked about earlier. We feel confident we're doing the right thing.
Again, the protocols are incredible that this team has put together for health and safety. We talked about the excitement for tennis and what it means for our industry. Financially we have been able to make this work for all the different stakeholders involved.
I want to remind everyone, this was not a host at all costs. It had to adhere to our three principles. We're confident it has.
To the broader society question, we know where the tests comes in on that. I'll let Bernard speak to that.
DR. BERNARD CAMINS: That's a really good question. We did discuss it.
First and foremost is that the first requirement is that New York City or the New York region had to be in phase four, right, where professional sports can actually go on or move forward. We've taken that lead.
While I agree with you that testing potentially in other parts of the country are not as available, just like other sports organizations, like the NBA, MLB, we did find a partner who can run our tests and have a fast turnaround time. That would be the only way this would work, right? If we couldn't get that done, we wouldn't be able to hold this tournament even if New York was in phase four. Those are all the things we looked into.
Again, I think this is a good way to showcase New York City, that it is a great international event that we can host and put forward.
Q. Regarding the private home setup, it sounds like there could be a situation where people are coming and going. Is this being specifically monitored by anyone? Is this going on the honor system?
STACEY ALLASTER: Absolutely, the private homes have a consistent monitoring program like those who are staying in the hotel. As they're leaving the home, they have to contact us, they're sharing their ride navigation.
The idea around the centralized environment, it's your housing, centralized transport. If it is someone in the home driving that car, it's a tier one member, then they arrive at the NTC and go back.
Again, the integrity of the plan is centralized. All the tier ones are staying together. They have the same protocols.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Dr. Camins wanted to add to his response to Jane's question.
DR. BERNARD CAMINS: Our testing program does not affect the testing in the New York region, right? That does not affect in terms of the turnaround time for testing in the New York region.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Thank you for that clarification. We'll take our final question.
Q. With the uncertainty that's inherent to this pandemic, what gives you confidence that this is the right plan and decision to host these tournaments in this particular way at this time?
MIKE DOWSE: As I said in my opening statement, we have 100% confidence we're doing this properly. Again, it was not a host at all costs. We were very disciplined in our approach. Again, that was health and well-being number one. Number two, in the best interests of tennis. Three, does it financially make sense for the players, the USTA and the broader tennis ecosystem.
The thing I'm most excited about is the energy, as I shared earlier, from the players as they've come in and the broader tennis community. People are starved to see these great athletes competing in these two big tournaments. I'm really optimistic that we're going to look back at this in a few months and really be proud of what everyone accomplished, what this has done for our sport of tennis.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Thank you very much Mike, Dr. Camins, and Stacey. We are now concluded with the Q&A portion. I want to sincerely thank everybody for taking the time and having the interest that you do. Our health and safety protocols are very important to us, the players, everybody involved in both tournaments, something we've worked diligently on for six months.
Any type of follow-up questions or further information, do not hesitate to reach out to myself or any members of the USTA communications staff and we will get you that information.
Now that we have finished with this briefing, you'll start receiving more information on other topics regarding the Western & Southern and US Open. Thank you very much. Greatly appreciate it.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports