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AO ramifications

The ramifications of moving a vast event such as the Australian Open in the schedule are complex, not only on both Tour calendars, but also on arrangements with commercial partners and the formalities with local authorities, not to mention hundreds of volunteers.

The group will most likely introduce external funding in the form of a line of credit to cover the significant costs that have arisen as part of the COVID-19 response to meeting quarantine and bio-security measures for the Australian Open 2021. Tennis Australia Annual Report.

It has been widely reported the Australian Open will run from 8-21 February to incorporate a period of quarantine for players and allow for the preparation of other measures to limit the risk posed by COVID-19 required to be implemented at the event, but this has yet to be confirmed.

In fact, this is the earliest it can take place and the uncertainty is causing frustration and anxiety for those working at the tournament and those wanting to play in it, not to mention sponsors and broadcasters and the financial impact on the event itself.

At the corporate level, the Nine Network has sold advertising for both January and February based on the tennis season and opening ratings month, while for ESPN, the tennis in Australia covers a soft month in the United States and an 8 February 8 would see the Open clash with America’s biggest sporting event, the Super Bowl.

TA also has similar television deals with dozens of other countries.

Nine Entertainment Co, the AO Official Broadcaster, is expected to demand a discount from Tennis Australia for the delay on the grounds it has defaulted on its broadcast rights agreement, while global sponsors providing contracts of up to $20m annually that make the AO the biggest sporting event in the country will be assessing those contracts closely at a time of economic difficulty.

Organisers, however, have received AUD4.5 million (£2.6 million/$3.4 million/€2.8 million) in Government support to help offset the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic as they continue with plans for the AO in its re-arranged February slot.

According to Melbourne daily newspaper The Age, TA will use up some of its AUD80 million (£46 million/$60 million/€50 million) reserves and is seeking external credit in its efforts to stage the AO, which most likely will be held behind closed doors, thereby increasing the expected considerable financial hit.

“The group will most likely introduce external funding in the form of a line of credit to cover the significant costs that have arisen as part of the COVID-19 response to meeting quarantine and bio-security measures for the Australian Open 2021,” Tennis Australia said in its annual report.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic holds the Norman Brooks Challenge Cup trophy after winning the Australian Open last January

© David Gray/AFP via Getty Images

The first Grand Slam of the year is officially scheduled to take place from 18-31 January 18 to 31 at Melbourne Park but restrictions imposed by the Victorian Government mean that players will have to undergo quarantine upon arrival in Australia, so the tournament is likely to start one or two weeks later than planned.

Talks between the relevant parties are ongoing, and the new dates have not yet been confirmed.

In 2020, the Australian Open was the only one of the four Grand Slams not to be impacted by the coronavirus crisis, when Serbia’s Novak Djokovic and American Sofia Kenin won the men and women’s title respectively on Melbourne’s hard courts.

Nine Entertainment Co, the television, publishing and radio group, is one of several media companies to have successfully renegotiated broadcast rights deals with sports partners on reduced terms this year because of delays and social distancing restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

It is now concerned that the delay could affect the launch and size of audiences for one of its best performing television shows, Married at First Sight.

Industry sources briefed on Nine’s strategy have said the broadcaster will seek a reduction on its $300 million five-year deal with TA, which includes events in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart, once the final date of the Grand Slam is confirmed.

One of the key reasons Nine has grounds to ask for a discount is because a rescheduled tournament would not meet the broadcaster’s contracted dates, but it is unclear how much money Nine, which owns The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, is hoping to receive.

Sofia Kenin (R) poses with the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup as runner-up Garbine Muguruza looks on

© Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The Age and Herald claim to have seen correspondence between TA Chief Executive Craig Tiley and players that outlined the strict guidelines they would operate under and the revised February 8 start date, which sources say is now the earliest that the competition will begin.

Any discount of the rights agreement will come at a huge cost for TO which is paying for charter flights, player and entourage quarantine costs, meals and accommodation.

The bill to keep everyone in quarantine is expected to cost about $40 million.

Under the guidelines, players will be allowed out of quarantine for 5 hours a day and will spend that time on court, in the gym and eating at Melbourne Park.

TA will receive rent relief from The Melbourne and Olympic Parks Trust to support them as they attempt to foot the bill for hundreds of players and support staff.

The impact of the AO delay on the schedules of both the men’s and women’s Tours will lead to inevitable multiple adjustments to the 2021 calendar and discussions between the ATP, WTA and event organisers are already well under way.

Peter Johnston, a long-time tennis administrator who has worked for the ATP and WTA Tours, said shifting the date of a Grand Slam is a monumental challenge in terms of logistics: “It is like rearranging a chess board. With every move you make, there are massive ramifications,” he said.

The uncertainty has effectively wiped out the opening two months of the tennis circuit, although it seems likely tournaments will be announced in the UAE in the opening fortnight of the year as soon as the AO’s start date is confirmed.

The shift of the AO has ramifications for indoor events in Europe in February, which have contracts with halls and partners and broadcasters as well.

Indian Wells, considered the biggest tournament outside the Grand Slams, was the first event cancelled due to the pandemic in March, and it now appears set to fall by the wayside again in 2021.

Delray Beach Open is reported to be interested in moving into the vacant 4 January slot from its usual mid-February dates, while there is speculation over whether the AO qualifying will take place outside of the Australia ahead of flying competitors to Melbourne for the mandatory 14-day quarantine.

While by most accounts the ATP Cup is to be cancelled for 2021, there is now an outside chance a shortened event could be held the week before the AO in Melbourne.

The ATP Cup was inaugurated in 2020, when it was played across three Australian cities over ten days, featuring 24 countries.

A second event in Melbourne during the latter stages of the AO is also being considered to give players losing early the chance of playing more matches.

According to reports, the Indian Wells Masters may be postponed, with the indoor-hard event in Marseille reported to be eyeing the spot.

On a local level, there are all manner of people, not just the superstars, who are in a state of flux.

Consider the pool of hundreds of drivers TA calls on every year to transport competitors and workers to and from Melbourne Park and other events.

Some are retirees, but many are teachers and parents and, by February, they will be at work or back ferrying their kids to school.

A portion of those children will be the ball kids, while lines people and other officials are similarly affected.

For higher-ranked players, the better the deal in terms of personnel who can accompany them to Australia is a key factor in their participation, while for others, a first round loss guaranteeing $100,000 in prize money will probably ensure they make it to Melbourne.

It is not an understatement to say hundreds of millions of dollars are at play for a sport dealing with the dire landscape created by COVID-19.



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