How the Delray Beach Open “decided to bite the bullet” and start the 2021 ATP season

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The Delray Beach Open had to put its 2021 plans into overdrive when the ATP schedule blew up this month. We talked with executive director John Butler to find out how they've thrived under the pressure.

Back in November, with the first quarter of the 2021 tennis calendar hanging in the balance, the Delray Beach Open was working through myriad contingencies in the hopes that it would be able to stage its event on the planned dates of February 12-21. 

Before Thanksgiving, when we talked to Delray Beach Open’s executive director John Butler about the tournament’s plans for 2021, we learned that his staff was getting ready for all possible scenarios and hoping to keep the tournament’s tradition going during this uncertain period. 

Then, thanks to the Australian Open’s decision to move to February 8-21, the script flipped – again! 

2021 ATP calendar starts with Delray Beach 

We learned last week that the Delray Beach is now set to begin the 2021 ATP season. The event, now in its 29th staging, will be held from January 4-13. 

We scheduled a second call with Butler to learn about the eleventh-hour schedule change and found that the harsh realities of the pandemic have not damaged the enthusiasm of Butler or his tournament director Mark Baron

Nothing has changed, but now the work is even more urgent.

“It was kind of laid out as soon as it went into play that the Australian Open had been pushed back to February 8, then the writing was on the wall for us,” Butler said. “We really had no choice. We could have discussed playing later in the year. We decided to bite the bullet. ATP really wanted some jobs for some players and right now, Florida is a friendly place to actually get to do that, so we were like ‘Let’s do this.'” 

Although the Australian Open’s last-minute planning issues made it far more stressful for organisers in Delray Beach, the tournament is confident that they’ll be able to execute on their plan and be ready in two week’s time.  

2,000 spectators per session 

Though the US is hitting record numbers in terms of new positive Covid-19 tests, Florida is one of the few states that is still open for business. Florida is recording over 10,000 new cases per day, and in Palm Beach County, where Delray Beach is located, about 550 new cases a day were averaged over the last week, per the New York Times on Friday

Reilly Opelka, 2020 Delray Beach Open champion

Reilly Opelka is the 2019 Delray Beach Open champion.

That’s plenty of cause for concern, which is why the tournament is working hard to ensure social and physical distancing protocols are maintained for its fans. Currently the tournament plans to run at 25 per cent spectator capacity for all sessions. 

“We’re capping it at 2,000 fans per session,” Butler said, adding that the physical distancing plan has been in the works for months already. “I don’t think there’s any extra impetus to nail it [based on the new dates] because we have to nail it – period. You have to be extra special committed. There isn’t anything that is going to change that. Right now we are implementing at the highest standards.” 

“Every other row, four seats on, four seats off, staggered, so that nobody is sitting in front or behind anyone. We don’t have to do that, based on rules in Florida, but we are doing it to ensure the comfort level and safety of fans.” 

New dates, new players?

Owning the first week of the ATP’s 2021 calendar means that the Delray Beach Open may play host to a significantly improved player field. With many playing opportunities now off the table due to the mandatory two-week quarantine in Australia, virtually all American-based players will be looking into making the trip to Florida – if they aren’t already there. 

On Twitter on Friday, tennis insider Jon Wertheim tweeted rumors of several top players who might be a part of this year’s field. 

Butler says the incentive for players to sign up by the December 22nd cut-off could be amplified if the ATP and Tennis Australia provide direct flights to players from Florida to Melbourne. 

“There are talks of the players having a direct flight from Florida,” he said. “Originally it was going to be from LAX and players were going to hustle from here, fly there and take the charter from LA. But I’m hearing, and this hasn’t been confirmed yet, but there are talks about possibly having a flight from Palm Beach, so that players can just get on a plane from here to Melbourne. That would be another incentive for people to play here.” 

He’s confident that they’ll have a strong field – it seems to be the least of his worries. 

A flight from Florida to Melbourne, which would eliminate the need to first fly to California, will certainly go a long way to ease the mind of players, who are all concerned about testing positive for the virus ahead of the first Slam of 2021.

Humpday for the trophy

A true ATP rarity will occur on January 13th in Delray Beach – a Wednesday final. Butler says that the tournament will host its legends event and qualies from January 4-6 which will then be followed main draw action from January 7-13. That means that the final will take place on Wednesday, which will then give players ample time to hop on flights and get to Melbourne. 

“I think we could have a really solid field,” he says. “That’s why we have these dates. Players can finish by the 13th and have ample time to be in Melbourne.” 

Providing fans with comfort – and distance – in case of rain 

With potentially 2,000 fans in attendance, Butler says that the tournament is doing whatever it can to spread out beverage and food tents so that fans won’t be forced into close quarters in the event of rain. It’s an important element because strict social distancing in the bleachers won’t help fans if they are all jammed together on a line for beer or the bathroom, or huddled into one tent during a rain delay. 

Butler says that his team has invested a lot of energy into spreading out the site to avoid potential problems. 

“We are really spreading everything out all over the property, so you don’t have those choke points where there are a whole bunch of people,” he said. “We are spreading things out. We have a lot of covered areas that we’ve added this year, because one of the operational issues you have when you are creating physical distancing is … what if it rains? All these people are going to run out of the stadium and where do they go? We’re building bigger tents where people can enjoy themselves and sit and eat if they want – something so that people can stay under cover and still have some distance.”

Eastbourne, 2017

“We want everybody to find their comfort zone at the tournament, it’s a very, very important point.” 

Thankful for the work, on any timeline

The work is a blessing for the players, and also the many vendors and associates of the Delray Beach Open, in a very tough economic environment. Butler says that most of his partners and staff don’t mind rushing to meet the new deadline.

“Of course you have to work with all your site people as well,” he said. “All your vendors, your structures, your tents, your power, your plumbing, your bleachers, you are building when staff and crews generally have off – Christmas and New Year’s – now I have to say: ‘Guys, new story! We need to be basically shut down and ready to go by December 31st, I don’t want you to even think about building or doing anything on January 1, 2 or 3.'” 

Butler says the alternative, which is not having the tournament at all, or waiting until mid-February when things in the state might end up being shut down, was worse. 

“People were probably wondering if it was going to happen at all,” Butler said. “A month is a lot of time when you are dealing with the pandemic. Things can change in the world between now and February 12. With inauguration, with flu, with where people’s heads are at with the vaccine – who knows what is going to be out there.” 

New year, new deals with sponsors… 

Harsh economic times have been disastrous for many in 2020, but the Delray Beach Open has been fortunate. The event even managed to work a new deal with its headline sponsor, Vitacost. They rely on key sponsorships and strong ties in the community to keep the event moving forward. 

“Our market is exactly what they need,” Butler claims. “We hit thresholds and benchmarks that they were hoping for and even bigger. Extending our deal was a great opportunity for us to continue growing together.”

Milos Raonic, Delray Beach Open, 2020

All that good news aside, the prognosis is for financial pain in 2021 and all parties enter into their agreement for this year’s event with that knowledge in mind. 

“We absolutely are in a new era,” Butler added. “Either this tournament is going to happen with a little bit of flexing by all parties – we are not asking everybody to take the same hit as we do – but really examine your operational costs, your financial costs and work with me this year. That’s also a good deal because our sponsors know that we have an agreement with the city – the current contract we have with the city is through 2030 as is.”

Covid testing doesn’t come cheap 

One of the biggest expenses for this year’s events will come from Covid-19 testing, says Butler. 

“The costs of testing, you’re talking hundreds and hundreds of tests over the course of 10, 11, 12 days. You are significant six figures in just that part of protocol alone and on top of the lost income. It’s tough, it’s going to be tough, and it’s going to be a couple years to get back to even.”

The Bubble is the biggest challenge

Thanks to the new dates, the tournament had to get in touch with all its lodging and transportation providers to ensure a seamless transition from its original dates to January. That wasn’t easy either, says Butler. 

“The immediate challenge is the health and safety protocols and the Covid testing, because that was new to start with and we are talking about on site testing, creating a bubble with the hotel, transportation from the airport from the hotel, hotel to site, then back and forth between site and hotel. We are talking about getting with the hotel to make sure they had the ability to do it. There were a lot of operational details, when you take the ten days of the tournament from February 12 to 21 and plop it on January 4 to 13, that’s a lot of moving parts that you have to pick up and move and hope that they still keep spinning when you replant them.”

Electronic line-calling in effect, with mixed feelings

Like many tournaments, the Delray Beach Open loves having the human element of linespeople on court during matches and in-person media members on site to cover the tournament, but it just can’t happen this year. Could this be a part of a general trend in the direction of full-time electronic line-calling and virtual media? 

Butler says it’s just a matter of making ends meet and maintaining physical distancing protocols. 

“We just didn’t want to have linespeople on site that are travelling and showing up, and there’s an umpire’s lounge and you can really only seat so many people, and it would be like a petri dish. So we worked with the ATP and we were able to make that happen so we will have live electronic line-calling on Stadium all week and then on Court 1 for qualies through the main draw. We’ve reduced the draw from 32 to 28, again just to have a smaller footprint of bodies on site.”

Whether line crews come back after the pandemic remains to be seen, but Butler says they’ll be missed in 2021. 

“You become close with these guys that are here calling lines. You really do because you become friendly with them, you see them, you eat with them, you learn their stories, where they’ve come from. … It’s not just a tournament going, ‘We don’t care,’ but it’s just a matter of survival right now.” 

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