August 25, 2021
New York, New York, USA
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Good afternoon and good evening, everyone. Thank you very much for joining our call today.
On our call we will have coming from Arthur Ashe Stadium, Mike Dowse, the USTA chief executive officer, and Stacey Allaster, the US Open tournament director.
Joining us from his home office in Queens, New York, Dr. Brian Hainline, who is not only the USTA's first vice president and a member of the USTA Medical Advisory Group, but is also the chief medical officer of the NCAA.
We are very pleased to welcome Dr. Claudia Reardon. Dr. Reardon has come onboard as our mental health consultant. Dr. Reardon is out of the University of Wisconsin, so she's presently in Madison, Wisconsin.
We're going to hear an opening statement from our CEO, Mike Dowse. Immediately following that we'll go into the media Q&A.
Earlier this week and earlier today all members of this call should have received our information on the state of the tennis industry here in the United States. You should have received our prize money press release. We sent a package yesterday on the mental health resources, that included an infographic and titles for Dr. Reardon and Dr. Hainline. Earlier this morning you all should have received the package on our health and safety measures and COVID protocols.
Without further ado, I'm going to ask Mike Dowse to open up.
MIKE DOWSE: Thank you, Chris. Hello, everyone. First, thank you for joining our call. Your coverage and support of our sport is vital to the growth of tennis and the success of the US Open. For that we do thank you for joining us and being partners of ours.
It truly is hard to believe it's been a year since we had this same press briefing at the US Open. If you might recall, last year we discussed that we had three guiding principles on our decision whether we were going to host the US Open in the midst of a pandemic or not. We committed ourselves to checking these three boxes before we ultimately decided on go or no-go decision, running the tournament in the middle of the pandemic.
The first and most important one is could we host the tournament with the health and safety of everyone involved, making sure they're healthy and safe.
Secondly, we said is this truly in the best interest of tennis to host the US Open; would it help elevate our sport both at the professional level and the community side of tennis.
Third, we said does it make financial sense to host the US Open during the pandemic. What we meant by 'financial sense', is it good for the players, is it good for the support staff and the broader tennis ecosystem and also is it good for the USTA in funding our mission.
One year later, we look back and we say we never wavered from these principles. As a result of that we did have much success by hosting the tournament. Again, first and foremost was the health and safety of everyone. Because of the leadership and insight of Dr. Hainline, along with our Medical Advisory Group, we can unequivocally say we hosted a safe tournament. We had over 14,000 COVID tests last year. We're the first global event to try to pull something off this complex.
Of those 14,000 tests, believe it or not, 99.97% of them were negative. Hands down it was run in a very, very safe way.
Secondly, was it good for tennis, did we fulfill that principle. Absolutely yes, again. US Open was a platform that demonstrated that tennis is the perfect what I call pandemic and perfect post pandemic sport.
First of all, it's safe, it's social and it's fun. If you think about it, that's everything we grew to miss and love even more as a result of the lockdowns and the pandemic.
That platform really elevated how great tennis is. As a result of that, we have four million new players in the United States this year playing our sport.
Finally, the principle does it make financial sense for us to host the US Open. Again, the answer is yes, it did make sense. However, it is really important to know, we did run a $180 million budget deficit in 2020 as a result of having no fans at the US Open.
We did make a lot of hard decisions last year. We had significant salary reductions of our national staff, we downsized the national organization by over 23%. We tapped into our reserves. By pulling all those levers, we actually paid prize money last year at 95% of 2019. This week we're surpassing 2019 slightly as we move into 2021.
In addition to this player compensation or prize money, through those tough decisions I just mentioned, we were also able to continue to support grassroots tennis to the tune of over $100 million over the last two years. Through those two key investments, again we know this has led to the growth of tennis in the United States of over four million new players.
What does that mean as we move into this year's US Open? First of all, it means we have a winning formula, but we also know we need to build on that formula to continue to be relevant and successful.
As far as the health and safety for all, we're building on those COVID learnings from last year to apply them to what's happening in this year's situation around COVID.
Secondly, we've expanded our medical support team to include advisers on mental health now. We have Dr. Claudia Reardon on our staff now. She is truly a global expert in sports psychiatry. She's the co-chair of the International Olympic Committee's mental health on the Elite Athletes Working Group. She will be on the call today and be happy to answer questions.
Back to the guiding principle, is this in the best interest of tennis. Absolutely. We continue to be stewards of the game. We're going to look at all the avenues and the leverage we have to promote the virtues of our sport and continue to support the broader tennis ecosystem.
Finally, as a fiduciary responsibility, we will continue to prioritize community tennis and professional players as our top priorities. We're going to have to be very disciplined in every dollar we invest to accomplish that.
I'm excited to announce we once again have Stacey Allaster as our tournament director and chief executive of professional tennis. I can tell you, she's the best in the industry. She can provide you excellent insight to the format and how we plan to support the players.
We are truly thrilled to have fans back on-site this year. We missed them dearly last year. We're thrilled our sport is growing like never before. We are thrilled that the biggest tennis event in the world starts five days from now.
I'll turn it back to Chris for him to emcee our event today. Thank you again.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: We'll open it up for questions, please.
Q. Stacey or Mike, a question about the players' freedom they have in New York and Manhattan this year given that they are able to book tables in restaurants even though you're telling them they should be as careful as possible. Do you feel you are taking a huge risk in allowing them the chance to mix with the public? I know you're hoping players will follow your advice. History and human nature tells us they won't all do that.
STACEY ALLASTER: Thanks for the question.
We are absolutely confident in the 2021 COVID protocols that have been developed by our USTA Medical Advisory Group. We're following CDC regulations and New York state and New York City Department of Public Health.
We have that confidence because here in New York City, because of New Yorkers, how they have managed the virus, the vaccination rate in this community is almost at 70%. We heard loud and clear the athletes' mental health through these last 12 months, the isolation in the bubbles, was important, that they could have some flexibility.
Each of us every day, we are living with the virus. It's therefore then our collective responsibilities on how we do it and the protocols that we put in place.
Q. In regard to the roof. In the email you sent out it said that Ashe and Armstrong will be considered outdoor venues. Does that change if the roof closes? Does the roof close? What are the conditions with that?
STACEY ALLASTER: Our roof, when it's closed, the air filtration systems, the facility is deemed still an outdoor venue.
MIKE DOWSE: To add on to that. That is for both stadiums, for both stadiums, for Arthur Ashe Stadium and Louis Armstrong Stadium.
Q. They will be opened or closed according to weather conditions as they were in the past, right?
STACEY ALLASTER: Correct.
MIKE DOWSE: There's been no change in the policy of what prompts a roof closing, correct.
Q. Question about the players. The fans on the grounds, there's going to be many thousands of people milling around. There's no requirement outdoors for masks or for proof of vaccination or testing. How much assurance do you get from public health officials that that would be okay?
STACEY ALLASTER: Complete assurance. We have been in regular contact with the New York City Department of Health. They've reviewed our health and safety plan, approved it.
You take the combination of facemasks when they're indoors, the hygiene and sanitation. Danny Zausner has done an incredible job with our HIPAA filters and air filtration. We are following the guidelines of New York City Department of Health. We have their approval. We feel very comfortable and confident to welcome fans back on-site at the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Dr. Hainline, do you have some thoughts in this area as you helped lead and guide us over the past year, pulling us forward from the depths of the pandemic to where we are today?
DR. BRIAN HAINLINE: Thank you, Chris.
This really varies from place to place. As Stacey mentioned, our guidance really comes from the New York City public health officials. The goal is not to prevent all cases of COVID. The goal really is to be certain that we don't have an outbreak of COVID that's going to be unusual or that we would regret.
We're still relying on the goodwill of people. The unvaccinated, although it's not going to be enforced, they really should be wearing masks. I expect many vaccinated individuals are going to be wearing masks as well. It's like any other aspect of New York City, going to the baseball game, you make an informed decision.
But based on all the data we have right now and the guidance, we believe that the current policy makes good sense in terms of really avoiding any sort of a regional outbreak as a result of this event.
Q. Stacey, could you sort of think back to this time last year, compare it to this year. How different does it feel in the run-up to this tournament? Things did seem rather frantic last year. I don't know how many sleepless nights you had. Also, how proud are you looking back that that was an event that sort of showed tennis the way in terms of you can host tournaments during a pandemic?
STACEY ALLASTER: I can confirm I'm sleeping very well this year (laughter). I did have many sleepless nights last year.
On behalf of the USTA team, I'm incredibly proud of our accomplishments in 2020. It was historic. As you noted, we rebooted the entire industry, not only in the United States where we had incredible growth in our sport, but worldwide. We showed our sport we could return to competition in a safe manner.
This year I think the big difference, we know more about how to mitigate risk and the behavior of the virus. Very fortunate in this country, specifically in New York City, to have a high vaccination rate.
I can tell you that there's a lot of energy here on-site. Players are incredibly happy that fans will be back on-site. It was very exciting yesterday morning when we had first ball. We had our qualifiers also returning to this US Open. We'll have all draws, all competition, close to 750 athletes competing here during the 2021 US Open.
MIKE DOWSE: We look back a lot on last year because it was quite, quite an experience.
I think a couple learnings that stand out to me, through that crisis of pandemic initially what was really special to me is how the industry came together. We didn't do this by ourselves by any means. We quickly partnered with the ATP and the WTA and even our fellow Grand Slam peers in the ITF to put together a comprehensive plan. We all learned from each other, and those learnings were spread across the different organizations going forward.
On top of that it also reinforced that the professional side of tennis is not separated from the community side of tennis. They go hand-in-hand. They helped each other through this process.
So to me that was a real big learning as I reflect back on last year.
Q. On specifics of the plan. To clarify, players and their team members, unlike last year, are allowed to stay anywhere they want, right? Do you have any idea of the numbers or percentages of those who are going to be in the official hotel versus other housing? Then just to clarify another small thing, all players and team personnel, other than those who got COVID within the last 90 days, they have tests every four days at that designated Manhattan hotel as long as they remain in the tournament?
STACEY ALLASTER: I'll start with that first question.
Yes, for this year's Open, the athletes can stay where they would like. The InterContinental Barclays, the official hotel, and the overflow hotel across the street. We have 75% of the competitors staying in one of those two hotels. We thought we'd have about 70%, so our projection has been on target.
And players and player support team members all tested upon entry, then they will move into every four days.
Q. More of a big-picture question. After what we saw at the last Grand Slam tournament, at Wimbledon, where they did ask for people to wear masks around the grounds, did require proof of negative tests, how much consultation or feedback was there between the All England Club and the USTA? And when was it decided these measures that you're adopting, or the idea of not having measures in place such as those, when was that decided? Was there any reconsideration at all recently in light of this Delta wave?
STACEY ALLASTER: Certainly, as Mike mentioned, there's regular dialogue amongst our fellow Grand Slams in sharing and learning. As Dr. Hainline also referenced, what's happening in one community can be incredibly different in other communities.
We had to make a decision around the centralized hotel way back in March. Just in case we needed to have all the players stay in those hotels, we had to book them. We always knew that if we had flexibility based again on New York State Department of Health and New York City public health officials, that if we could allow the athletes some flexibility to go for a walk, to go shopping, outdoor dining, we wanted to be back in Manhattan, that they would have that opportunity.
I can tell you the USTA Medical Advisory Group was meeting weekly, always addressing and assessing the status of the virus in this community, the vaccination rate, cases and hospitalizations. These policies went live as athletes started to arrive on the 20th of August.
We are here today, Dr. Bernard Camins, from Mount Sinai, our infectious disease specialist, is in daily contact with New York City Department of Health. We'll continue to follow those guidelines and make any changes required to ensure that we can mitigate the risk of the virus.
Q. To clarify, for spectators rather than players in terms of with full spectators, not having any of the sorts of precaution that we're used at Wimbledon, whether the Delta variant difference --
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Dr. Hainline, as one of the leaders of the USTA Medical Advisory Group, with your discussions amongst your peers, experts and health officials, perhaps you can answer or provide some insight.
DR. BRIAN HAINLINE: Again, it goes back to what Stacey had reiterated. These are local concerns.
At Wimbledon it was very interesting. That was actually rolled out with the Public Health Minister as part of a pilot program to see what really happens if we start opening up to fans. It was done successfully.
In New York City we already have had experience at baseball games. They are making daily assessments in terms of how we congregate as large groups. To date it's not the USTA that's making the decisions, it's very important, just like it wasn't Wimbledon alone making the decisions, it's done with the Public Health Ministers or local public health authorities.
This has been the guidance coming from New York City as to what we have seen to date based on our positivity rate and based on the rate of vaccinations. This is how those decisions are made.
The Medical Advisory Group, they take all this information and they discuss it and we come to a consensus. Sometimes we're going above and beyond what New York City is recommending, but what we are never doing is doing less than what New York City public health authorities are recommending.
Q. Mike, we've all been happy to see the growth of recreational tennis. This year is surpassing some strong numbers from 2020. How are you and the USTA positioning the Open this year to make sure that trend continues?
MIKE DOWSE: Good question. That's where we're spending a lot of time and energy right now. We have a strategic choice called Attract, Engage and Retain a New Generation of Diverse Tennis Players. We've attracted them, now we need to continue to engage and retain them.
Just a few months ago we announced an additional $3 million in what we are calling Grow the Game grants. Essentially those are grants to coaches or providers to help retain and engage these players, primarily through the public parks because we know that's where the majority of these players are coming.
That is one of our strengths. With 17 sections, we're really embedded into local communities and grassroots. We're trying to free up as much money as we can to get out there and help these providers to, again, retain and engage these players. It's something that's a constant. We're always focusing on it.
Thanks for asking that question.
Q. What have you learned from a year's worth of sports events, outdoor gatherings, that informs the decisions in terms of transmission of the virus? Also, with the player freedoms, are you prepared to default a player, a semifinalist or finalist, who tests positive late in the tournament?
CHRIS WIDMAIER: We'll start with the second half of that question on policies as it relates to players. We'll go to Stacey.
STACEY ALLASTER: As we said, we have a rigorous protocol in place. Testing is a key component to mitigate risk for the health and safety of all.
In the event that an athlete tests positive, that athlete will be taken out of the competition.
Q. This is not a sport where you can substitute someone. If they're taken out of the competition, it's a default?
STACEY ALLASTER: It's a withdrawal. Obviously that's the difference of an individual sport, that the competitor would move forward in the draw and there would be a withdrawal due to medical condition.
Q. You mentioned the overflow hotel. What is that hotel?
STACEY ALLASTER: It's the Lexington.
Q. One of the most charismatic players in the game is Stefanos Tsitsipas. The other day he said that he hasn't gotten the vaccine, hasn't been tested enough. There's no reason for a person in his age group to get it. It's for old people in terms of negative side effects. What are your thoughts about that?
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Dr. Hainline can we go to you first on that to get your thoughts there?
DR. BRIAN HAINLINE: Look, that's the dilemma of what we call emerging adults and our young adults. I think we could put him there.
They look at an individual risk profile of the vaccine versus having the disease itself. That has changed. When we looked at the median age of individuals who were hospitalized prior to the Delta variant, you were up in various communities, the median age was around 70, sometimes close to 80. Now the median age has moved to 50, which means that half the people hospitalized in this country are under 50.
We have seen with the Delta variant it has been more virulent amongst young adults. When we look at the complications of a vaccination rate, we're looking at complications that are between one and five out of millions. Those are the data that we have, meaningful complications.
With the risk of complications from getting the Delta variant in young people, it's really one in five in thousands. What we have unequivocal data on right now, more for our NCAA student-athletes, is that about 10% that develop COVID have long COVID symptoms, even when they have mild symptoms.
Whereas I appreciate what he's saying, it's not based on the most informed information that we have. It's not based on the evidence that we have.
Then I think the next thing is really what makes the best sense from the public good of society as a whole. From a public good, the more people that have immunity against this disease either because they've recently had infection or they're vaccinated, the better it is for everyone.
I think there are two important viewpoints. One is the emerging information we have on the Delta variant and how it is affecting the young. The other is really looking at it from a public good point of view.
Q. To simplify, if you were sitting down with him, what would you say? Should young athletes get the vaccine?
DR. BRIAN HAINLINE: That's what I would say. It's consistent with what we're saying through NCAA member school athletes. When we go across the NCAA, we're at close to 85% vaccination. We're strongly encouraging that. We're actually doing that in conjunction with the White House. There's a major push to get our young individuals vaccinated.
I would strongly encourage that. And I have been with all athletes.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Before our next question, this will need to conclude by 2 p.m. There are several questions left. We're going to do our best to get to all of them. I'm not a hundred percent sure we will be able to. We are attempting to, though.
I will also do a reminder that we have 10 minutes left if anyone has a question for Dr. Reardon on the overall health of players as well.
We'll go to the next question now. Thank you.
Q. Regarding the infographics on the mental health initiative during the US Open. Can you go into the detail on the section on reviewing media availability options? What is meant by that?
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Before we go into specifics there, I'm going to ask Dr. Reardon to talk about the advice and consultation that she has been providing the USTA, the role she and others will have in the overall US Open medical team under the direction the US Open medical lead of Dr. Alexis Colvin.
Dr. Reardon, without talking about necessarily media-specific steps, the overall kind of philosophy, if you would.
DR. CLAUDIA REARDON: Thank you for the important question.
The overall plan for mental health during the US Open really aims to create an environment that supports all aspects of player health. Importantly health here includes mental health. They're inseparable.
To accomplish this we developed this six-component plan for mental health that you're referencing here in the infographic.
Those six components are:
One, we're going to have licensed mental health providers available throughout the duration of the Open.
Secondly, we do have mental health consultation serving in this capacity really taking a detailed look at our processes, our procedures, to make sure they're well-informed by the importance of mental health.
Third, we have Mardy Fish as our athlete mental health ambassador, someone who quite obviously brings that athlete voice and perspective to the conversation, which is so important.
Fourth is the media availability options. I'll leave that for another discussion.
Fifth, recovery services and quiet rooms. We're looking to make these available at the hotel, the tournament site, as well, for athletes.
Finally, really this permeates all of the other tenets that I spoke of, is the idea of destigmatization of mental health. Stigma when it comes to mental health remains strong unfortunately for everyone, for the general population, but that's disproportionately the case when it comes to high-level athletes. It is quite hard for them as a general rule to be able to speak up and reach out for help.
We want to use our platform to enhance awareness of the importance of mental health, the fact that mental health is health. We hope to reach athletes at the event through various mediums available to us.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Stacey, could you drill down a little bit on number four.
STACEY ALLASTER: I think it's really important that as we go on this journey with mental health, players making themselves available to media is critically important for our fans. You guys do an incredible job at connecting the athletes with our fans. There's no change to our rules. They will be applied fairly to all players.
But our rules do provide flexibility regarding an athlete's health. We've done this in the past where an athlete may have sprained their ankle, and they're not available to go to the formal press room.
There will be medical evaluation, and the doctors will make a determination. Maybe we need more time. Maybe we need an alternative format that's less formal than going to the press. Maybe we do it the following day. Maybe there's questions submitted to the athlete, and the tour comms person provides that feedback to the press.
Those are the types of alternatives that we will look at. That's how we have operated for many years, together with the ATP and the WTA, to help the athletes.
I think we've done that more only with what we think of a physical injury that we can see. As Dr. Reardon is educating all of us, mental health is health, and physical and mental are inseparable. That's how we'll make those alternatives available if we have an athlete that has a health issue relating to mental health or the traditional that we would see on an ankle being sprained.
Q. Following up on the vaccine topic. Does the USTA have any idea what percentage of players either on the tours or entered in the Open are vaccinated? On that topic, will vaccinations be available on-site or off-site, something in conjunction with the tournament during the Open?
CHRIS WIDMAIER: As it relates to the percentage, we do not have that at this moment. Let me work following this call to see if we can get that information.
Stacey, as it relates to availability of vaccines?
STACEY ALLASTER: Throughout the summer, together with the ATP and WTA, vaccinations have been available at every ATP and WTA tournament. Here in New York we provided the athletes with the information of where they can go to be vaccinated in the vicinity of the hotel. There's also a New York City public health website where that also provides extensive information. There are so many locations here in New York City for non-citizens to receive a vaccine. We won't specifically be doing it here on-site.
Q. Definitely commendation for last year's handling of the event.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: Thank you.
Q. How do you match up your positions with what seems to be taking place everywhere else in the country where you see concerts being canceled in their entirety, tours? I understand you think there's a major difference. We probably will behave a little better, but it still seems to provide a fertile environment for something bad.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: I do think Dr. Hainline addressed that, so I'm going to ask him to repeat his knowledge of that question. Dr. Hainline.
DR. BRIAN HAINLINE: We are tracking this carefully. Again, this is not a USTA decision or a US Open decision. This is a decision made with New York City. Of course, we've been tracking what's been happening at the baseball games and other events.
The goal is not to prevent a single infection. The goal is to prevent an outbreak and an uptick. New York City has remained very steady. We'll continue to monitor that and we'll continue to follow the advice of our health authorities. We have a great deal of respect for them.
CHRIS WIDMAIER: That brings us to 2 p.m. I want to personally thank everyone who joined us on this call today. If you need anything followed up, do not hesitate to reach out to myself or Pat Mitsch.
I'd like to take a moment to thank our participants: Mike Dowse, USTA CEO; Stacey Allaster, US Open tournament director; Dr. Hainline who we heard a bunch from, chief medical officer of the NCAA. And Dr. Reardon, thank you for joining us for the first time. I'm sure we will be getting more questions for you as time goes on. I do appreciate you taking some time out of your busy schedule today.
Thank you very much, everybody. We look forward to seeing you in a few days.
FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports