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James Blake’s Miami Open evolution: ‘We need to make a great first impression’

After a change in venue and some heavy investment from IMG, the Miami Open's tournament director James Blake hopes to help the event regain its premier status.

by Joe Levy
James Blake’s Miami Open evolution: ‘We need to make a great first impression’

The ‘fifth Grand slam’ title has slipped from the Miami Open’s grasp in recent years but with a change in venue and some heavy investment the combined ATP 1,000 and WTA Premier event is bidding for a return to the top tier of the tennis circuit.

Of late the tournament has fallen behind the likes of Indian Wells, the winner of the Tournament of the Year award every year since 2014, in terms of standing. The restrictive elements of former home Crandon Park could not keep up with the Larry Ellison-backed event's ability to upgrade facilities and features to spec.

Now, with former world number four James Blake in his second year as Miami Open tournament director and having overseen the Hard Rock Stadium relocation, time is right for a revival. The home of the National Football League’s (NFL) Miami Dolphins was secured as the tournament’s new site by IMG after expansion plans at Key Biscayne were knocked back.

The new venue sees the big matches played on a 14,000-seat show court within the main stadium, with a further 29 match and practice courts built adjacent to the arena. Hard Rock also offers commercial upgrades on parking, hospitality and fan engagement for organisers to take advantage of.

The move has not come cheap. IMG and Hard Rock have invested US$70 million in the ‘festivalisation’ of the event, with as much US$10 million from the budget also reserved to renovate Crandon Park.

With a new location and a new vision Blake is looking to restore the event’s pedigree and return the Miami Open to highlight status in the early season swing.

Ahead of the event, SportsPro spoke to Blake (pictured below, far right) about the move, his hopes for the event and his unique perspective towards tournament organisation.

What are your feelings and expectations ahead of your second year as tournament director?

Well, I’m very excited. It’s feeling a little bit like my first year again because of the huge changes. There’s going to be so many things that are going to feel brand new so I’ve got the same level of excitement if not more for this year.

You’ve got the big relocation to Hard Rock, how’s that move been for you personally and the tournament generally?

To me it’s really exciting because I think the players are going to love it. There’s more space in the locker rooms, there’s more space for the eating areas, there’s more room for player’s suites, there’s more restaurants. There’s so many more amenities for everyone involved.

The parking is going to be right there which stops them having to take a shuttle. There’s going to be an upgrade in every single category that we’ve got. I can’t wait for the players to see the ground just to make some new memories. We missed the nostalgia of Crandon Park, the history that was there. It’s a pretty beautiful view over the causeway.

The Miami Open has transformed the Hard Rock Stadioum site for the tournament (pics: Hard Rock Stadium)

What are some of the new opportunities for you as organisers?

With suites there’s only so many suites around the court, we have allocated suites for the top eight men and women to have a suite for their own team. That’s part of the reason we got out of Crandon Park because the teams are getting a little bigger, there’s more people and it becomes a little crowded.

But now they can bring their team and their families so if Roger Federer shows up with his four kids and his wife, his trainer and his coach, he will have a suite as long as he in in the tournament. Having that flexibility to give the top players a little bit of space and room to spread out and be comfortable we can give that to them and they can get away from any distractions.

Was it an easy move?

Amazingly everything has gone smoothly. After building a house in California I realised building and construction can take forever but it seems like everything has been done from the start and it looks ready to go so I’m thrilled about that.

How important is it to make a big first impression in the first year?

Generally when you change something there’s going to be some growing pains or things that go wrong. So we want to make sure we have thought of everything and everything is going to be ready.

I was a little surprised that the players weren’t as excited last year but then we showed them the rendering and they got a little more excited and then they realised. A lot of people were nervous about putting a tennis court in a football stadium. A lot of people didn’t understand the logistics or how it was going to work, and after looking at drawings they got more excited and that it’s going to be positive.

We need to make a great first impression and make people get on board and not to think we should of stayed at Crandon Park.

Itau are still on board as presenting sponsor, that’s got to be good news?

[Itau] is an incredible sponsor I’ve only been on board for the last year and this year but I got to spend a little time with them at the US Open and we did the ceremonial resigning there. Especially as they are our title sponsors we want them to be happy - happy with the way the build is going, how the tournament is going, they’ve shown that they are happy and it is a great partnership.

What are they bringing to the table?

Well they are bringing in the sponsorship dollars that make it possible to run it and we are happy to afford them one of the suites and get their name out there. For a global brand, a bank from South America, with the culture in Miami with the Latin feel and flair we hope they get the publicity that it seems like it’s worth it for them. The client experience for them means they can now bring their biggest clients to luxury seating for a first-class experience. I do think that they think it’s worthwhile, their sponsorship and partnership with the event.

How have ticket sales gone?

I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me but last time I heard they were up 25 per cent on this time last year. For me personally, and this is based on no scientific evidence, but I think it’s going to keep going up more once people see them. That stadium is equipped to fit 50,000 people coming in on Sunday to watch football so it’s a little easier to get to, its more accessible for people to get to so I think ticket sales are going to go up even more.

Tournament director James Blake described the move from Crandon Park as relative painless

In recent years the Miami Open has fallen behind the likes of Indian Wells in terms of prestige. Is your goal to re-establish the event as one of the top non-slam tournaments?

I think it seems to me not something you want to fight for or compete with other events. I’d rather grow the game as a whole. I do think this is one of the premier events along with the Grand Slams, along with Indian Wells, along with all the other Masters Series [events].

I don’t want to start getting into a “we can do this, they can’t do that”. As a player, I always wanted the entire sport to get better, not for one event to over shadow all these others. I want the sport to grow as a whole. We would want to be considered that fifth Major but I never felt like it stopped being considered that. I respect it so much being and American player, I always wanted to do well here.

I just want the game to continue getting better and this is a way that the game gets better we keep the event in Miami, by having it at Hard Rock stadium, we keep the history by having it in Miami. It’s not something where we are trying to outdo this tournament or outdo that tournament. We are just going to be as good as we possibly can here in Miami.

You’ve been a player and you’re now an organiser. How does your past inform your present?

What I bring I think is the ability to separate what is necessary, what is important and what is unimportant for the players. There’s a lot of requests that come in, there’s a lot of talk because every player has a different opinion. I remember what it was like when I was a player.

It’s scheduling, it’s the commercial obligations, it’s the appearances, and it’s what they are supposed to be doing.  Where their time is valuable, where it’s not. If there’s a rain delay who is getting the first priority to get onto courts that are dry. All the little things that are important for the players.

A ton of different things go into the logistics and the operations side and I feel like everyone has got a different opinion because everyone wants what works for that specific individual.

That’s where I learned that you can’t please everyone, you can’t be everyone’s best friend. As much as I’m a former player and I want to be friends with all the guys that I used to play against and the guys that I’m just meeting, I have to be understanding of what’s best for the tournament. Maybe what’s best for the media and what’s best for the fans.

In a lot of the meetings I’ve realised that some people who have just seen it from the tournament side, will say “oh this is the way it should be because this is what’s best for the tournament”. So I’ll say “hold on a second because this something which is really important to a player and can that happen with the tournament”

And if it is that important then we’ll have to switch something to do it. So it’s just letting them know from a player’s side what is going to make them think about the next year because they’ll think that they really took care of me and that’s something that’s important so we want to come back and we want to be there. We appreciate the fact that they are doing a lot of things for the players.