Open for business: how IMG is reimagining its Miami tennis festival

Hamstrung for years by local opposition to its proposed expansion of Crandon Park, the historic home of the Miami Open, IMG has finally shored up the long-term future of its crown jewel tennis tournament. A move to the Miami Dolphins’ Hard Rock Stadium in 2019 brings with it a chance to reimagine the event in a revamped setting.

Open for business: how IMG is reimagining its Miami tennis festival

Sometimes moving forward means moving altogether. Relocation, as contentious as it so often is in sport, almost always offers a chance for renewal, an opportunity to refresh and rethink and reimagine and reinvent.

For the tennis division at IMG, one of the largest and most powerful talent management and promotional companies in all of sport, 2018 heralds both the end of an era and the dawn of a new chapter. This year’s edition of the division’s blue riband event, the Miami Open - which got underway this week - is the last to be held at the Crandon Park Tennis Center on Miami’s Key Biscayne before the tournament relocates to Hard Rock Stadium, the newly renovated home of the Miami Dolphins National Football League (NFL) franchise, in 2019.

It is a move that has been a long time coming, one that will bring to an end the tournament’s at-times tumultuous 32-year run on Key Biscayne and a lengthy period of legal wrangling over IMG’s proposed expansion of Crandon Park. It is also a move that, as Fernando Soler, the head of IMG Tennis, explains, might never have happened.

THE BACKGROUND

Relocation has been part of the Miami Open story pretty much since day one. Originally held in 1985 in Delray Beach, the event moved to Boca Raton only a year later, but when construction work on a new stadium there was hit by delays, the tournament’s founders, Butch and Cliff Buchholz, were forced to look elsewhere.

At that time, Crandon Park was little more than an 800-acre wasteland; a landfill littered with dead animals and old furniture. Keen to see a prime yet unloved portion of the city’s waterfront transformed, local authorities deemed the glitz and glamour of professional tennis an attractive proposition. Within weeks a deal was struck between the Buchholzes and Miami-Dade County that would see the event relocate to a new 15-court complex in time for the 1987 edition.

In the ensuing years, the open gained in prestige and popularity. Each March throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, the great and good of the tennis world would descend on Key Biscayne, crowning champions such as Chris Evert, Steffi Graff, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Back then, the 12-day tournament was known as the Lipton International Players Championship thanks to a seven-figure sponsorship deal with the Lipton Tea Company, and prize purses and attendances mushroomed in line with the event’s growing stature.

After IMG purchased the tournament from the Buchholz brothers in 1999, the event continued on the same trajectory. Over the course of the next decade, modern greats including Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Kim Clijsters and the Williams sisters all claimed at least one singles title, helping to cement the Miami Open’s position as a highlight of the tennis calendar, not to mention a top-category tournament on both the elite men’s and women’s circuits.

The event’s rising profile garnered further big-money sponsorships from the likes of Sony Ericsson, while some within tennis took to declaring South Florida’s annual showpiece the sport’s unofficial fifth Grand Slam. Yet developments happening elsewhere had heaped pressure on IMG to expand and modernise the tournament, which remained one of the few top tennis events to depend largely upon temporary infrastructure.

By 2012, representatives for the company had begun lobbying Miami-Dade county commissioners to give the green light to a suite of improvements. Their pitch was simple: IMG would finance US$50 million worth of much-needed upgrades to Crandon Park, including the installation of expanded stadiums with permanent seating and new public spaces, while the local region would continue to benefit from the US$380 million in economic activity the tournament was estimated to generate each year.

That proposal was voted through in a late 2012 referendum that saw 73 per cent of local residents vote in favour of the upgrades. But it wasn’t long before the plan met a familiar foe in the shape of Bruce Matheson, a wealthy local landowner who had previously fought to prevent infrastructural developments at the tournament on several occasions.

Matheson contested that IMG’s latest proposal contravened the terms of a prior settlement agreement that prohibited organisers from developing new structures on stadium grounds. In 2015, Florida's Third District Court of Appeal ruled in his favour, leading one local newspaper to proclaim Matheson as the man who had ‘single-handedly killed’ the Miami Open.

Facing the prospect of ceaseless litigation, IMG was forced to return to the drawing board. “Over the last years, we have looked at every option to upgrade the facility in Crandon Park in Key Biscayne,” recalls Soler, speaking during a February interview. “Unfortunately this was not possible.”

Over the course of the past three years - years punctuated by persistent questions and lingering uncertainty regarding the future of the tournament - IMG has scoped out alternative solutions. There was, as Soler recalls, no shortage of offers on the table, including several from overseas: the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires and Shanghai, China were both mentioned as possible destinations, while the USTA National Campus in Orlando - a new US$60 million, 100-court facility which opened in January 2017 - was also mooted as a potential option closer to home.

“It is true that we got enquiries from places outside of Florida and outside of the United States,” confirms Soler (left), “but in the calendar of the ATP and WTA you need to follow a flow. You are not free to go anywhere you want; you have to respect the flow of the tournaments, not only geographically but also in terms of indoor and outdoor, hard courts, clay courts.”

That reality saw IMG resolve to seek a solution on US soil, but it wasn’t until Stephen Ross came calling that a viable option materialised. Eager to keep the tournament in South Florida, the billionaire owner of the Dolphins - and self-confessed lover of tennis - had publicly stated that he would be willing to fund the construction of a new US$53 million tennis complex at the site of his soon-to-be-revamped, 65,000-seat football stadium, situated just 18 miles north of Key Biscayne.

It was the get-out IMG had been searching for.

“Once we analysed all the possibilities and understanding that our goal was to stay in Miami, and quickly understanding that we had this possibility with Stephen, that’s what we wanted to do,” says Soler. “It took us more than a year to put everything in place and finalise all of the agreements, but that was our goal.

“From the moment we took the decision to stay in Miami, we stopped talking to other people. We were very transparent that that was our decision and that’s what we wanted to do.”

THE DEAL

The contract IMG would go on to agree in November with Ross and the office of Carlos A. Giménez, the Miami-Dade County mayor, is a complex one. As revealed in documents made public when the move was formally announced late last year, the original deal would see IMG terminate its lease at Crandon Park by paying the county a fee of US$1.3 million, while the company would also commit to keeping the event in Miami-Dade for at least 20 years.

For his part, Ross would be in line to receive US$1 million each year from the county commission, which had previously agreed to pay up to US$5 million a year in bonuses for major sporting events held at Hard Rock Stadium as part of the agreement that saw Ross privately fund his US$500 million renovation of the venue in 2014. Those payments would begin in 2024, a year after the tournament’s lease at Key Biscayne was due to expire, and were expected to total US$13 million.

“The biggest role for the mayor was to keep the event in Miami,” reflects Soler, “and I have to say that we had very deep conversations and negotiations with them, which is never easy. But I have to say that the spirit from those parts was also positive and always with the idea of reaching an agreement.”

Looking back, Soler adds that Ross and Tom Garfinkel, the Dolphins president and chief executive, were both “extremely collaborative" throughout negotiations. “[They] were extremely passionate from the first moment about the idea,” he recalls. “They’ve been the greatest partners for us.” But even with their support, there were concerns the move might be derailed at the eleventh hour.

We want to make sure that this is going to be one of the best tennis tournaments in the world, not just for sponsors but for fans and for the players.

In December, with the relocation already provisionally approved by county commissioners, reservations were raised over the terms of the original agreement when authorities realised the tournament had not been audited for several years, and that IMG could, in fact, owe far more than the agreed US$1.3 million. Those reservations led to a brief impasse before a revision of the severance payment eventually put IMG on the hook for the increased sum of just over US$1.8 million.

“We have no regrets,” Soler says now. “Nothing is easy; it’s a very complex agreement. But we’re very happy that we overcame all the problems and we’re ready to go on.”

Though its desire to improve the tournament has been a pressing concern - and public knowledge - for several years, Soler explains that IMG actually had plenty of time to ensure it secured the right deal given it had eight years left on its Crandon Park contract when Matheson’s appeal was upheld. “Keep in mind that we had an agreement until 2023, so there was no sense of urgency,” he notes. “The thing that was most important for us was to grow the event. To grow the event, unfortunately, we had to move, but if we could find the right place, the sooner the better.”

He adds: “Here is where we were lucky. We were lucky that we were able to find an alternative in Miami, and then understanding that there was no urgency. We had the luxury to spend the necessary time to finalise the agreement with the county, to finalise the agreement with the Dolphins, to have the right designs, the right budgets.

“Everything was done at the same time with the understanding that if we could move in 2019, fantastic. But if we had to move in 2020, that would be the case. We wanted to make sure that it would be right, and that we would go to a place where we can grow the event, where we can entertain people like they deserve, that they can have a fan experience from the moment they park the car to the moment they leave the site.

“It’s not just the tennis - it’s the festivalisation of the event. It’s going to be the hospitality, the facilities for the players, it’s going to be all the things that Miami can offer as a city around an event that has proven to be excellent over the years.”

THE FUTURE

Throughout the relocation process, a key motivating factor for IMG has been the need to keep pace with infrastructural developments happening elsewhere in tennis, not to mention the wider world of sports and entertainment. Once a genuine pretender to the title of fifth Grand Slam, the Miami Open has fallen increasingly behind the times, its operators handcuffed by their inability to expand at a time when rival tournaments have dramatically improved their on-site offerings.

One of the tournaments in question, the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California, is staged each March, in the week immediately prior to Miami. Also a top-level combined event, it is bankrolled by Larry Ellison, the tech billionaire who bought the tournament in 2009 and whose multi-million dollar investments in lavish new facilities and a wholesale landscaping project have garnered universal praise from both players and members of the media. Indeed, Indian Wells has been the recipient of the ATP’s Masters 1000 Tournament of the Year award every year since 2014, usurping the tour’s top-tier event in Shanghai, which itself had replaced Miami, winner of the award six times between 2002 and 2008, five years previously.

Intent on reclaiming that best-in-class distinction, Soler insists IMG will do everything it can to raise the bar once again. He reveals that the company is planning to invest around US$60 million in improving the Miami Open once it relocates, up from the US$50 million it had earmarked for upgrades at Crandon Park. More importantly, he is adamant that every stakeholder has been catered for in the new tournament master plan conceived by ROSSETTI, the architecture firm that has overseen several major tennis projects, including the renovation of the US Open’s Flushing Meadows and even the Indian Wells Tennis Garden.

“We want to make sure that this is going to be one of the best tennis tournaments in the world, not just for sponsors but for fans and for the players,” says Soler. “That’s the goal and if we have to spend a little bit more, we will. We won’t compromise the quality of the event due to budget reasons.”

Operationally speaking, the new Miami Open will occupy every inch of the Hard Rock Stadium grounds. A 14,000-seat show court will be constructed within the stadium itself, which will be temporarily revamped for the purposes of a tournament that attracts more than 300,000 spectators each year. A further 29 match and practice courts will be erected outside the venue in adjacent parking lots, while improved player amenities including expanded locker rooms and fitness spaces, a sponsor and entertainment village, permanent retail facilities and the largest video screen of any tennis event will help bring the tournament in line with other leading stops on tour.

29 match and practice courts will be installed around Hard Rock Stadium, along with improved player amenities, a sponsor and entertainment village and a range of other facilities.

“We’ll have so many improvements in terms of infrastructure because the space is much bigger than what it is in Crandon Park,” says Soler. “It will be a whole new experience for the sponsors and the guests. The level of concessions, retail, merchandising, all the activation that the sponsors are going to be able to do won’t be restricted by space. All the things related to parking for guests are going to be much closer than they were in Crandon Park. Now you’re literally going to park and be watching tennis or at your hospitality suite in a few minutes because it’s all integrated into the same site.”

That the relocated tournament will rely upon a good deal of temporary infrastructure is nothing new; at Crandon Park, much of the event is installed and dismantled each year, including thousands of seats, restrooms, lighting rigs and hospitality marquees. In any case, Soler insists the modular nature of the event will incorporate certain commercial benefits, affording IMG the freedom and flexibility to enhance the spectator experience and better tailor its hospitality offerings to the needs of sponsors in future.

What’s more, he says, staging the tournament in a revamped NFL stadium will be “something very innovative and spectacular”, adding that much of the credit for that must go to Ross, whose personal vision has transformed the venue into one of the finest in the NFL “in terms of VIP [hospitality], in terms of parking, in terms of fan experience”.

“We believe that that might take the event to another level, might take tennis events to another level,” Soler continues. “To be honest, the VIP opportunities that we are going to provide to our sponsors are far beyond the ones that are currently offered by Grand Slams, for example.

“It’s easy to imagine that because, obviously, we are going to a stadium that is in place and is already offering VIP opportunities to sponsors for football matches. It’s not like I’m inventing the wheel; it’s something that is tangible and exists already.”

A 14,000-seater show court will be built within the Hard Rock stadium itself to stage the Miami Open’s biggest matches.

By incorporating the company’s network of music, fashion, culinary and art properties, as well as some of the best-known talent on its books, IMG has long sought to position the open as a glamorous, star-studded social occasion, first and foremost. That “festivalisation” approach won’t change following the move, says Soler, but there will nevertheless be a new executive calling the shots.

James Blake, the former professional player and long-time IMG client, took up the role of Miami Open tournament director in January. The 38-year-old American, who retired in 2013 having reached a career-high ranking of world number four during his 14 years on the ATP circuit, assumed the posiiton ahead of this year’s event, and is tasked with overseeing player relations and media as well as other ‘improvements and innovations’ before and after the move.

“He’s going to be an invaluable asset for us in our relationship with the players,” Soler says of Blake. “He understands the players better than anybody. The players understand his criteria, they will understand his point of view. He’s going to be able to transmit both ways, between us and the players, what we think, what we want to achieve.

“He was our first option and we are so happy that he’s with us.”

This is an edited version of an article that appears in the forthcoming Issue 99 of SportsPro magazine. Subscribe to the magazine today here.