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The Miami Open upper-deck reality — change it or end it

Matt Zemek

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Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Less is more. You might have read those words in our story on Angelique Kerber after Indian Wells a week and a half ago. They also apply to the Miami Open, specifically the main court inside Hard Rock Stadium, a Big American Venue for sports which has recalled Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open.

There are two big differences between the upper deck at Ashe Stadium and Hard Rock Stadium… and they do not involve the difference in distance between a seat and the actual court. Both stadiums involve large distances between an upper-deck seat and the court itself.

The two big differences:

A) Ashe was built to house tennis matches, Hard Rock was not.

B) Ashe hosts a major tournament, Hard Rock does not.

From these differences, one can arrive at a basic point of understanding: A tennis-dedicated stadium at a major tournament can, more reasonably, require paying spectators to cough up a larger amount of money. It might not be entirely fair, and Ashe will always remain a terribly-built stadium which should have contained the intimacy of the new Armstrong Stadium, but at least one can say that a major tournament should command major prices. I can accept the argument even if I might not like or agree with it.

Miami, which chose to relocate from Crandon Park — where the stadium court is a lot more intimate — WANTED to put its main-court matches in an American NFL football stadium. It wanted to sell a ton of tickets. That makes perfect economic sense. Why not do that, and why not move to Miami Gardens, where a lot more space could be provided for players? Sure. That move has worked on a lot of levels. Fans and players are a lot more comfortable. Roger Federer himself said that the players really appreciate the dramatic increase in space for practicing and training.

This story documented how much more comfortable the fans are at the Miami Open this year in the new location. 

Let’s give the tournament due credit for the noticeable improvements it has created.

For next year and beyond, though, the Miami Open needs to address one basic fact: If a tournament doesn’t have a main stadium specifically built for tennis, and if an event doesn’t have a major tournament to offer, the way organizers handle upper-deck seating at Hard Rock Stadium ought to change.

You can see the cover photo for this story. This photo is taken from the lower section of the upper deck of Hard Rock Stadium. That court is a very long way away from a pair of human eyes. Do I understand the Miami Open selling tickets in that upper deck? Sure. Conceptually, I have no problem with keeping that portion of the upper deck open and allowing fans to buy tickets if they want to.

As I have remarked in other contexts at other times, the business of American sports changed forever when the Houston Astrodome hosted a 1968 basketball game between the University of Houston and UCLA. That game in 1968 made people in the sports industry aware of the idea that non-football, non-baseball sports — i.e., sports whose playing surfaces are generally contained inside smaller arenas with no more than 18,000 to 22,000 seats — could be played in stadiums with 35,000 or more seats.

It took some time for America to build enough domed stadiums to facilitate widespread use of “big stadium” events for smaller sports, but tennis was part of this story of American evolution. The Astrodome itself was used for the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes” match in 1973. Over 30,000 people witnessed that match. A “normal” arena would not have been able to fetch such a large crowd.

In 1982, the marriage of large domed stadiums with basketball developed. The college basketball national championship game was played in the (New Orleans) Louisiana Superdome, in front of more than 61,000 fans. That game was such a success that the governing body of American collegiate athletics, the NCAA, gradually moved from normal arenas to domes to host big basketball championship events.

In 1984, the college basketball title game was in Seattle’s Kingdome. In 1987, the Superdome hosted it again. In 1989, it was back to the Kingdome. In 1991, the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis hosted the event. In 1992, the Metrodome in Minneapolis played host.

In 1996, the NCAA held its last college basketball championship game in a normal arena. Every year since then has featured basketball in a large football stadium. It’s a very American thing. That means a lot of tickets sold, but also a lot of bad-view seats.

The difference, of course, is that the championship event is the culmination of a short (four-month) season. It is not merely “one event out of many” the way the Miami Open is. That championship event, called the Final Four, is a three-day, two game event. It is not a week-and-a-half ongoing tournament the way the Miami Open is.

I asked a fan who had sat in the upper deck in Hard Rock Stadium what a ticket cost. His response: $102 face value, plus a $22.44 fee, for a $122.44 overall price tag.

Moreover, this wasn’t just the upper deck; this was the 27th row of the upper deck, meaning it was closer to the very top of the stadium than the first (front) row of the upper deck.

The first two or three rows of an upper deck might not have that bad a view, since there aren’t many people sitting in front of a spectator in those seats. However, a 27th-row upper-deck seat is even more removed from the action and might as well be in another zip code.

Surely, one would think that if a tournament is being fan-friendly, those “nosebleed” seats would (could) be cheap. You don’t have to close the upper deck and put a tarp over it, but you can at least make those seats affordable for the people willing to pay for them.

You’re not a major tournament. You’re not playing in a stadium DESIGNED to house tennis.

Put the $15 grounds pass price (that’s the price of a grounds pass according to the same fan I talked to) on those upper-deck seats.

If you can’t do that, then close the upper deck.

Americans — I am speaking specifically of Americans in positions of power — often do things simply because they can. They can get away with it, or no one will punish them, or no one will care, or the public-relations hit won’t be large enough to matter, or any of the above.

The Miami Open can sell those upper-deck tickets for over $100 because it can. That doesn’t mean it has to or it should.

Let’s hope that flaw is addressed when 2020 rolls around inside Hard Rock Stadium.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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