Danny Zausner is in the fifth set of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center transformation. Unlike competitive tennis, this five-set mega-project requires that you win every set. He’s won the first four, one to go.
That five-year plan, announced in 2013, begun in 2014, scheduled to conclude in 2018, is a $600-million makeover that includes the roof over Ashe Stadium, the new Grandstand, a completely rebuilt south campus, the new Court 17, completely rebuilt practice courts and adjacent field courts. Plus new food offerings, entertainment, hospitality options, the whole entertainment package.
When fans arrive for the Open starting on Aug. 28, they will find the bones of the new Armstrong Stadium that will come into play for the 2018 Open with a roof of its own. Next to it is a temporary stadium for this year’s event built on a parking lot. The place was a typical construction mess in late July, but by the time the qualifying tournament begins the week before the Open, everything will be buttoned up.
“I don’t think we are ever on the home stretch until the event starts,” Zausner said. “We have one year for the permanent Armstrong to be in place. We’ve gotten a lot done for the new Armstrong, but we have a long way to go. We are in a good place at the moment.”
Born to Do This Project
That good place was a long time coming. It was a place that Zausner’s career prepared him for. The 55-year-old was recruited by the USTA in 2001 specifically for his background in the entertainment industry as a concert promoter and as a manager of sports and entertainment venues.
The board of the USTA was looking more and more at the Open as a grand entertainment venture and not just a tennis tournament. At the turn of the century it was clear that the audience for the Open was expanding beyond just avid tennis fans as a place for thousands to congregate for a good time. It just happens to be a place where the best players in the world whack yellows balls back and forth in the last Grand Slam of the year.
“I think Danny was born to do this project,” said Gordon Smith, the executive director and chief operating officer of the USTA. “Everything he had done in his career up until this had prepared him for one of the most difficult and sophisticated sports construction projects ever mounted.”
Zausner’s entertainment background was key, as was the USTA’s drive to continually upgrade the Open experience, even though in 1997 the tennis center had been completely transformed with the addition of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
“Danny came in when we were looking to increase revenues, we were looking to make the U.S. Open the best and most popular and most watched tournament in the world. Facilities are a huge part of that,” Smith said. “Danny brought the whole package. He knew about entertainment, he knew about venues, he knew about construction, he knew about food and beverage, he knew about ticketing. So he could come in and contribute to all areas in a unique way.
Building Support the Hard Part
The newest remaking of the tennis center began way before construction with the long, stressful, exasperating trek through the permitting and approvals process in the City of New York. The USTA leases this land in Flushing Meadows Park, and everything it does needs approvals from various governmental agencies. Zausner was the USTA’s point man for all of this, and he came under unfriendly fire while all the time keeping a cool hand on the helm.
There were Queens community board meetings, where he was spit upon, where a mariachi band played to drown out his presentation, where there were ugly shouts and challenges.
“When we were going through that process, we couldn’t envision anything being more difficult than that,” Zausner said. “I said jokingly that building this was going to be the easy part. The construction is complicated. Whenever you are building something in the city, let alone a New York City park, it gets complicated. The approval process is tough, it’s long, we knew that going into it.”
There are six Queens Community Boards that touch the park. While their approval wasn’t technically necessary, it would have been difficult if the Borough of Queens didn’t want to go along with the project.
“If all six had voted against this project it would have been very difficult for the Queensborough president to say he had no problem with this thing,” Zausner said. “Of the six there were two that were semi-supportive, two that made it quite clear to us that there was nothing we could have said or done that would have garnered their support, and two that were kind of in the middle. Our viewpoint was we wanted to make the two incredibly negative ones at least neutral and the two neutral ones positive and that’s really where we ended up. Our relationships with all six of them now have never been better.”
On this journey with Zausner, from the approval process through all the designs, has been Matt Rossetti, whose architectural firm is behind the transformation.
“In a nutshell, I have had the pleasure, luxury of working with 40-50 teams, company presidents, folks who run venues and very few, if any, have the capacity Danny has for combining vision with architecture and planning,” Rossetti said. “Very few people get the translation of strategy and value that can come out of good design and planning.”
Rossetti and Zausner have combined to provide the kind of facility that caters as much to entertainment as it does to tennis.
“We spend tons of hours, money on research with fan experience, trying to understand a new digital generation of fans, how they want to consume entertainment and sports,” Rossetti said. “The notion, the combined vision of Danny and myself about this tournament, was less about tennis and more about spectacle because in today’s world it’s a changing desire of how people want to enjoy an event. It’s not like sitting down and just watching the event. It’s more about sharing on social media, interacting with friends and strangers and moving around a venue for great food, great drink and people watching."
Delectably, the food and drink come under Zausner’s purview.
“That’s clearly one of the funner parts of the job,” Zausner said. “We look to change that up every year. I would say we were well ahead of the curve of venues, realizing that fans wanted to be treated to more than a hot dog and a beer. We feel that this is a food and wine event that just happens to play tennis.”
All the fun comes with a herculean effort of Zausner and his staff, which includes Andrea Hirsch, who works with government relations; Chuck Jettmar, overseer of construction and logistics, and Mike Carrasquillo, who handles finance.
“Danny has done an amazing job,” said Katrina Adams, chairman of the board, president, and CEO of the USTA. “The public only sees the finished product, the brick and mortar. They don’t see all the sand that lies in the gravel that Danny has had to sift through to get things put in place. All the approvals and the relationship building, the contractors, etcetera. On a daily basis there is always an obstacle that he finds a way to get over, and to get over in such a professional manner, and provide such a great product.”
So the fifth set begins for Zausner even before the first ball toss of the U.S. Open. There’s every reason to believe that come 2018 he’ll win this one, too.
Blog adapted from an article written by Jeff Williams for Newsday. To be directed to the original article, click here.