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By Sandra Harwitt
On the occasion of celebrating its 30th anniversary the Miami Open continued its impressive run as a success story the past two weeks.
There’s no denying that through the years – decade by decade – the Miami Open has changed. Some for the better, some for the worse – as is the way of life. They have weathered many storms – and one of their biggest challenges is facing them now – but they keep on going.
Some might question the judgment above in recent times because the tournament’s been prevented from refurbishing and is living with somewhat antiquated facilities.
But in my mind you judge an event by the bottom line – is it fulfilling the purpose it’s designed to meet. And in that respect absolutely no one can take away the fact that the Miami Open thrives courtesy of its loyal fan base. Whether it’s locals enjoying one of Miami’s favorite sporting events or vacationers from all over the world, there is no question that each year when the gates open fans flock to the event. In fact, they consistently show up to the tune of 300,000 strong through the 12 days of the tournament. In the big picture, tennis is an entertainment business and in that respect the Miami Open is an undeniable winner.
Let’s take a walk down memory lane.
Back in the day — the tournament debuted as the Lipton Championships in 1985 – as the dream of former “Handsome Eight” player and ATP Executive Director Butch Buchholz, who remained the face of the tournament until 2010. His goal was to deliver to the sport of tennis a mid-winter tournament mimicking the four illustrious Grand Slams that were spread through the yearly calendar. Certainly there was room for one more bigger-than-life tournament for the men and women to play.
The tournament would shift from a year at Delray Beach, a year at Boca Raton to its permanent home on Key Biscayne by 1987. It also went through a number of identity changes – after a long run as The Lipton, it became the Sony Ericsson Open, the NASDAQ Open, then just the Sony Open. This year the tournament went safe and renamed itself the no-fault Miami Open.
From almost the outset the event became nicknamed the “fifth Grand Slam” or “the fifth major” for hosting both tours in a more than one week format. But being like a major doesn’t make a tournament a major. That’s not a knock, it’s reality. There are only four majors – the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and U.S. Open – and they’re a closed club not accepting new membership.
The tournament used the “fifth major” concept from a promotional standpoint for awhile, but eventually dropped the comparison realizing the innacuracy of the statement. Unfortunately, some of the local media continue to refer to the Miami Open as “the fifth major,” which actually hurts the tournament by setting it up to meet a standard beyond a non-Grand Slam. It also hurts even more now as the tournament struggles to keep up with their closest competitors, who’ve been able to modernize their facilities.
The Miami Open isn’t ignoring the need for a facelift. It has lofty plans for a grand $50 million venue improvement that would include the construction of two new permanent stadiums. Sounds fabulous – right? In theory, yes to almost everybody. Who doesn’t want to grow and get better. It would be a plus for the players, media, spectators and for the Miami Open’s reputation.
Unfortunately for the Miami Open, they have spent the past few years fighting one individual determined to keep the Miami Open from their desire to upgrade. Right now, that guy – Bruce Matheson – is winning the battle.
Matheson, the grandson of the man who deeded the Crandon Park parkland over to Miami-Dade County years ago, wants no 21st Century improvements, and would likely prefer if the Miami Open moved on to somplace else, say Miami, Ohio. The original deed came with certain restrictions of what the property can be used for and it had already been bent a bit to allow the event to set up shop on the island in 1987. FYI: Matheson wasn’t happy when Buchholz received permission to build his dream on Key Biscayne back in the 80s.
Let’s just say that Matheson was hopping mad when in 2012 Miami-Dade voters approved the Miami Open project refurbishment by a legal ballot referendum. The voters weren’t stupid – they understood the multi-millions of dollars that roll into Miami during the 12 days in March when the best players in the world are in residence.
Encouraging the tournament to stay put in Key Biscayne would be a positive for all of Miami, but not for Matheson. So he ignored the voters democratic mandate and took the matter to the court system, insisting the Miami Open would be violating put-in-place restrictions by undergoing an overhaul. The judge ruled with Matheson in September 2014 and for now the tournament is prevented from starting it’s renewal project.
The end result could turn out to be that if the Miami Open is permanently denied the right to improve it might have to abandon their beloved home in Miami for a more friendly community – probably not Miami, Ohio. If that happens it will be because of one man’s selfish need to keep his head buried in the sand and not living in the times.
But for now, fans should not fear as the Miami Open is set to return to Crandon Park as usual. And while an updated site would be a plus to the comfort and enjoyment of all, it isn’t a necessity. As the Miami Open fans continue to prove what matters is they get great value for the price of their tickets. And with the world No. 1s Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic winning the 2015 trophies it would be hard to argue the tournament doesn’t deliver.