The Greatest Road Trip in Sports

July 16, 2006 04:11 PM

200 Players, 10 Tournaments, $2 Million on the Line

By Mark Preston, USTA Magazine

It is one of the true rites of summer in the U.S., right up there with backyard barbecues, long days at the beach and frequent trips to the blender. It’s the road trip—the uniquely American experience of piling into the car, cranking up the radio and putting the pedal to the metal. Get your motor running, head out on the highway. Those are more than song lyrics, they’re instructions for creating a sizzling season; a formula for chasing down the ultimate in summer fun.

Since its inception in 2004, the US Open Series has similarly provided a trunkload of summer fun and has created its own sizzling season—of tennis. Its formula features the world’s top pros in a city-to-city chase that takes them across North America through 10 tournaments, nine cities, two countries and six weeks, ultimately ending at this sport’s ultimate event—the US Open.

Now in its third year, the US Open Series has transformed the North American hard-court season into a superhighway congested with talent, the game’s top names each looking to leave their mark at every stop, and then accelerate ahead to do it all over again. This has proven a most memorable trek—always a journey full of unparalleled excitement, substantial reward, and more than a few surprises. The US Open Series has become the greatest road trip in sports.

Indeed, the US Open Series has proven to be a landmark initiative for the sport of tennis. Linking the entire North American summer hard-court circuit together under the umbrella of the US Open, the US Open Series has created—for the first time ever in tennis—a cohesive and understandable tennis season, a series of big events leading up to the biggest—the US Open.

“Sports in America is about telling a season-long story with a big finale,” notes Arlen Kantarian, the USTA’s chief executive of Professional Tennis. “And tennis now has that platform. Our goal with the US Open Series was to elevate the sport of tennis and make it easier for the fans to connect with the game. ”

After just two years, results are impressive. Since launching in 2004, the US Open Series has doubled television viewership of tennis during the summer season, increased total Series event attendance by more than 50,000, and contributed mightily to the growing popularity of the sport. In addition to making the summer tournament schedule more meaningful, the US Open Series has made watching those tournaments much easier. In another first for the sport in the U.S., the US Open Series introduced an easy-to-follow weekly TV schedule, which this year features more than 115 hours of coverage from US Open Series events, including live back-to-back tournament finals on Sundays.

All told, the 2005 US Open Series—combined with last year’s US Open—generated a record 1.6 million attendees, 128 million TV viewers, 340 live TV hours, more than 28 million website visits, and some $31 million in prize money, including the $2.2 million that US Open Series champ Kim Clijsters took home after backing up her Series win with her first US Open title. Her first-place Open Series finish allowed Clijsters to double her take-home pay at the Open, and that $2.2 million amounted to the largest payoff in the history of women’s sports.

All of these impressive numbers translate directly into an increase in tennis’ fan base. A survey conducted after the 2005 US Open Series showed that 60 percent of fans say the US Open Series has increased their interest in tennis, while 38 percent say they played more tennis after watching or attending USOS tournaments. And by elevating the profile of the pro game and creating new stars and more fan interest, the US Open Series directly supports the USTA’s mission to grow the game.

Here are the basics of the US Open Series:

* 10 North American hard-court events linked together under the US Open umbrella.

* More than 115 hours of live, national TV coverage on ESPN2, NBC and CBS (see schedule, page 21), including back-to-back live tournament finals on Sunday. What’s more, you can look for more than 100 hours of additional US Open Series coverage on The Tennis Channel.

* The US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge, a first-of-its-kind player bonus system (see page 15) that rewards those who perform best throughout the six-week season with bonus prize money payouts at the US Open.

* A multi-million-dollar advertising and marketing campaign, aimed at promoting the events and the players in order to help raise the profile of the sport and reach beyond the sports pages to expand tennis’ fan base.

Beyond the basics, the US Open Series has become synonymous with dramatic innovations, and this year will be no different. The 2006 Series will feature the introduction of instant replay and a player-challenge system (see page 18) on line calls at every event, including the US Open. This groundbreaking technology was employed in a tournament setting for the first time at March’s Nasdaq-100 event in Key Biscayne, Fla., to largely positive reviews and figures to add more than a bit of sizzle to an already hot summer season.

Of course, the heart of the US Open Series is its unprecedented TV package, providing a level of coverage—and a quality of coverage—not seen in tennis before the Series came to be. “What really connects fans and players is television,” says Kantarian. “And a unified Series with a consistent television platform benefits everyone.”

Indeed, throughout the summer, the US Open Series provides one-stop shopping for fans eager for tennis on TV. Combined US Open Series and US Open broadcasts make up the strongest summertime package in sports—a whopping 340-plus hours of live coverage—more than any other sport in that same time period.

“As a tennis fan growing up, it was always challenging finding tennis on TV,” says Andy Roddick. “The US Open Series, for the first time, provides fans with an easy way to follow the sport all summer. It’s a great way to develop a new generation of fans—and players.”
“The US Open Series is a giant step in helping to grow the sport,” adds Hall-of-Famer Billie Jean King. “Consistent television exposure provides fans better access to the sport, which can only encourage more of them to attend a tennis match, pick up a racquet, and make tennis part of their lives.”

The 2006 US Open Series shifts into high gear on July 17 with the men’s RCA Championships in Indianapolis, and the 10-tournament star-studded schedule promises fans the sort of edge-of-your-seat excitement that you can only find on a world-class thrill ride. The storylines are many. None are less-than-fascinating. Consider: How will the hottest new rivalry in sport—Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal—play out on the hard stuff? Do Venus and Serena Williams have the drive and desire to work their way back into the winner’s circle? Can Kim Clijsters repeat her magic run of ’05? Who’s the best hope for the red, white and blue—Roddick or James Blake? Can a living legend from Las Vegas—one Andre Agassi—hit the hard-court jackpot again? Will Maria Sharapova learn to love cement?

Building even more interest among fans—and most certainly among players—is the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge, which links players’ performances at Series’ events to their singles prize money at the US Open. The top three men’s and women’s finishers will qualify for bonus bucks at the end of the Flushing fortnight (see page 15), with the top man and woman playing for a potential payout of at least $2.2 million. Last year’s US Open Series winners, Roddick and Clijsters, will have to use every gear—and then find at least one more—if they are to defend their titles against this high-octane fleet of challengers.

Of course, that’s the whole idea. The US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge was developed to encourage and reward more top players for playing more often, with an eye toward ensuring more high-horsepower head-to-heads throughout the long summer drive to New York. Fans benefit, TV benefits, players benefit. Win-win. Then win some more. Just ask a guy who’d know.

“I think the US Open Series is a win-win for everybody involved in the sport of tennis,” says Agassi, who finished second in the 2005 Series. “It’s a win for the players because it gives us something to really focus on and to care about, to be motivated by. I think it’s great for fans because they have a way of understanding what tournaments we’re playing, what importance they do have. And it’s been a great thing for all the governing bodies of the sport to send a signal that we can work together.”

A third season of US Open Series thrills is about to commence. Players and fans alike are already mapping their treks to their favorite summer stops. The greatest road trip in sports commences in Indianapolis and ends in New York. There are any number of routes available for reaching that destination; some more direct than others, some longer but perhaps, more lucrative. None should be short of excitement or adventure.

Nine cities, two countries, 10 tournaments, six weeks. That’s one heckuva trip. That’s the US Open Series.


THE BIG PAYOFF

The US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge directly links players’ performances in the US Open Series with their earnings at the US Open. Simply put, those who win the most along the way come to New York with the most to win. The top three men and women in US Open Series play will qualify for bonus prize money at the Open. First-place finishers will come to Flushing Meadows with a shot at increasing their US Open prize money to at least a $2.2 million payout.

Last year, Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters finished first in US Open Series play. Although Roddick then lost in the first round of the US Open, Clijsters went on to win her first US Open crown, and her first-place prize money, coupled with her bonus payout for finishing atop the US Open Series point standings, resulted in a $2.2 million payday—the largest prize ever in the history of women’s sports.
In 2006, the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge will again reward the top three finishers in US Open Series play with bonus prize money based on their US Open performances. To qualify for the bonus, players must earn points in at least two US Open Series events.
With at least 2.2 million reasons for players to play often—and play well—the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge should help guarantee more marquee matchups throughout the summer.

STAY CONNECTED WITH USOOPENSERIES.COM

USOpenSeries.com is a fan’s best source for news and information from the 10 stops along the journey to the US Open.
At the site, you’ll find weekly broadband highlight shows, player standings in the US Open Series Lever 2000 Challenge, and the Series television schedule. Tournament pages provide important information and statistics, and link fans to the tournaments’ official websites. US Open Series sponsor Lever 2000 also will be featured on the site.

The “Pick ’Em” fantasy game returns for this summer season, allowing fans to pick the winners of each tournament, with weekly prizes and a grand prize. Fans also can connect to USOpen.org and USTA.com from the US Open Series site. In addition, the USTA will be hosting and running the website for the Pilot Pen Tennis Series stop in New Haven, Conn.

“The goal of USOpenSeries.com is to provide all the news and information, and to serve as a welcome for fans to the Series,” says Jeff Volk, the USTA’s director of Advanced Media.

PLAY IT AGAIN!

Continuing its tradition of instituting innovation, the US Open Series will this year incorporate instant replay and a player challenge system on line calls at all 10 of its events—a system that also will be used at the US Open. The Hawk-Eye line-calling system, which made its official tournament debut at the Nasdaq-100 event in March to largely rave reviews, adds a new element of excitement for fans and television viewers while improving line calls for players.

“With the speed and power of today’s game, the time has come for tennis to benefit from new technology—while adding to the fan experience,” says Arlen Kantarian, the USTA’s chief executive of Professional Tennis. “With the anticipated debut of instant replay at this year’s US Open, it is vital to incorporate the technology into the US Open Series this summer.”

Each player receives two challenges per set to review line calls. If the player is correct with a challenge, they retain that number; if the player is incorrect, one of the challenges is lost. During a tie-break, one additional challenge is added. Of the 161 calls challenged during the Nasdaq-100, players were correct 53 times.

“I think it’s great,” says Andy Roddick. “The technology makes umpires more accountable, and it adds another element to TV and live tennis.”

Adds James Blake: “With instant replay, we can take advantage of technology and eliminate human error. Having just a few challenges makes it both fun and dramatic for the fans at the same time.”

 

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