Aussie Tennis Open

Charter flights, quarantines and “little sleep”… Craig Tiley reflects on the 2021 Australian Open

Staging major events during the coronavirus pandemic has been an exercise in crisis management as much as it has demanded extensive scenario planning. Organisers of all shapes and sizes have had to deal with extreme uncertainty, curbs on mass gatherings and international travel, and newfound complexities brought about by ever-changing government restrictions – conditions which have conspired to force more than a few to simply throw in the towel.

In February, however, Tennis Australia defiantly pressed ahead with the staging of its flagship event, the Australian Open, despite facing some of the most challenging circumstances imaginable. The tennis season’s first Grand Slam, an annual highlight of the Australian sporting calendar, had long been viewed as the first real test case for how a major international occasion could be delivered amid a global pandemic. Many observers had circled it on their calendars in red ink as a harbinger of post-Covid sport, and so it would ultimately prove.

On reflection, the organisational headaches for Tennis Australia and its chief executive, Craig Tiley, who doubles as the Australian Open tournament director, were manifold. Firstly, after the tournament’s start was delayed by three weeks to 8th February, there was the small matter of overcoming the sizeable logistical challenge of ensuring all stakeholders, not least the players, could attend the event. All told, more than 1,000 players, coaches and officials were flown in on 17 charter flights from 62 countries for eight tournaments – the Australian Open, plus seven lead-in events – over a period of seven weeks.

Now I look back, it feels like a bit of a blur because it was so intense for such a long period of time with so little sleep.

During the Australian Open itself, on-site attendance at Melbourne Park was capped at 30,000 fans per day, around half the number typically expected in a normal year. Yet a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in the state of Victoria from 12th February meant the event had to be held behind closed doors for five straight days, prompting the organisers to issue more than 100,000 ticket refunds.

Naturally, the unprecedented scale and sheer fluidity of the situation required all hands on deck, forcing Tennis Australia’s 600-strong staff and an additional tournament-time workforce running into the thousands to labour round the clock just to keep the show on the road.

“Interestingly, now I look back, it feels like a bit of a blur, to tell you the honest truth, because it was so intense for such a long period of time with so little sleep,” reflects Tiley. “After the event we gave everyone a forced two weeks of paid leave. For many, two weeks may not have been enough because it was so intense.

“On a day-to-day basis, it was up early in the morning and to bed late at night, often the next morning as well, just working through issues management. I used to wait on my phone and there was a particular number – it was the health office – that when I got that call it was like, ‘this is not going to be good’, and it never was.

“The health office is not calling to say, ‘congrats, things are going great’. They’re calling to say we’ve got a close contact, we’ve got a potential positive, we need to shut down. We had many things thrown at us.”

“Persistence and resilience”

To mitigate such unprecedented operational uncertainty, Tiley estimates that his team devised “40-plus plans” prior to the tournament, none of which, he admits, were perfect. “We had a plan of not having the event,” he recalls. “We had a plan of moving the event, we had a plan of moving the time of the event, we had a plan of an event with no crowds, an event with half crowds, an event with 20 per cent.

“You have so much uncertainty and you’ll set a plan to manage through that uncertainty and then the plan changes by the time you wake up the next morning. I think really having the nimbleness and the fluidity of plans needs to be important, but one thing I learnt was you must have a plan, because you at least have a baseline of what you can measure the changes against, instead of just waiting to see if the situation is going to improve.”

Another lesson, says Tiley, came in recognising the importance of taking care of people “more than you’ve ever had to take care of people before”.

“In March 2020, we made three very clear commitments to staff: we said you’ll stay in your jobs, we’ll find you a safe working environment, and we’ll make sure that the values of our event and our organisation will live as we move through these tough times,” he adds. “A year later, I was able to report back after the event that we met those three objectives.”

And yet, in what became something of a personal trial by fire, Tiley himself faced a fierce backlash, including criticism on social media and even direct verbal abuse. His was, in many ways, an impossible task. On one side sat a group of VIPs – the players and their entourages, as well as tournament partners – who had to be taken care of diligently, while on the other resided a local community whose freedoms remained curtailed and within which there were more than a few who believed the event should not be taking place at all.

At the time, anti-lockdown protests were being staged directly outside Melbourne Park. Many pointed out that while the world’s elite tennis players were being welcomed with open arms, thousands of Australian citizens remained stranded overseas due to travel restrictions. Further exacerbating matters was the fact that around 170 players had been forced to undergo mandatory 14-day quarantine hotel stays at Tennis Australia’s expense after several positive Covid-19 cases were discovered among passengers arriving on chartered flights.

“You’re stuck in the middle,” says Tiley. “You can’t take sides but you’ve got to support the playing group because they’re ultimately your guests, and you’ve got to support the community because that’s where you live. So that was a challenge but we just hung in there, kept the message consistent, and we just became very clear on the plan, what we were trying to achieve.

“Even in our own team, a couple of times I said all we have to picture is two of the best players in the world at the end holding the trophy up and everyone will forget this pain we’re going through now. And it has turned out that way, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.”

Anti-lockdown protests were staged outside Melbourne Park as thousands of Australian citizens remained stranded overseas

Indeed, it was only through “persistence and resilience” that Tiley and his team were able to weather the storm. Beyond that, adapting on the fly required the courage to make big decisions in an instant, while clear and regular communication was paramount to keep everyone aware of fast-moving developments. Briefings for all the key stakeholders became a daily occurrence and Tiley, whose openness has earned him a reputation as a popular administrator within tennis, was widely commended for his ability to candidly communicate organisational decisions throughout.

“Stakeholder relations don’t just happen during that period, it’s a journey you go on,” he notes now. “I don’t have a problem with telling people that this is not going according to plan, or I’m really struggling to deliver on this and need some help, and just telling the truth.

“One thing that became a challenge was that the media wanted some feedback every day, and fair enough, because there was so many things that were changing. So we just reverted to doing press conferences down the street of my home because it was easier than having to always go in.

“Everyone got used to it, so it kind of became a bit collegial in a way. Everyone knew they were in it together but everyone had a job to do and appreciated and accepted that job. And I did as well. There were times when we’d get criticism and we deserved it, and there were times when we didn’t deserve it, but that just goes with the territory.”

I made a decision early that, because of my role and responsibility and accountability, I had to front it all: the good, the bad and the ugly.

Tiley’s approachable, straight-talking leadership style has undoubtedly contributed to the Australian Open’s stature as a revered stop within tennis, as well as currying him favour among the players and their support teams. But his personal relationships throughout the locker room were strained to the limit this year, particularly when certain factions alleged favouritism over what they deemed to be preferential treatment for the top stars in the build-up to February’s tournament.

While the vast majority of players were confined to Melbourne hotel rooms, only able to train for five hours a day under strict protocols and subjected to regular testing, it soon transpired that the likes of Novak Djokovic and Naomi Osaka, the eventual 2021 singles champions, were accommodated in Adelaide, outside of the more populous and harder-hit state of Victoria, under rather more luxurious conditions.

Dealing with player grievances and concerns over unfair advantages thus became a daily challenge for the organisers, not least for Tiley himself. “From the players’ point of view – and our team did a great job – it was all about over-communicating,” he says. “I made a decision early that, because of my role and responsibility and accountability, I had to front it all: the good, the bad and the ugly.

“I was willing to front it and wanted to front it at every turn. Even if it was the smallest complaint, it was always amplified because it was done over Zoom. We had 15 straight days of six hours a day with the playing group and with our critical staff.”

“A massive financial hit”

From a financial perspective, staging this year’s event has left Tennis Australia in a dire, if not perilous position. Its pre-tournament cash reserves of AUS$80 million were entirely depleted due to the considerable expense of covering travel and accommodation costs for players, while a concessional loan from the Victorian state government, which could reportedly total AUS$60 million, now sits as debt on the organisation’s books.

Unlike the other three Grand Slam organisers, Tennis Australia does not own its tournament facilities and is therefore unable to borrow against those assets. For that reason, the favourable terms it was able to secure on its loan from the local government came with the caveat that talks would be opened over an extension to the Australian Open’s current lease agreement in Melbourne.

“We’re probably looking to stay in your garden shed, maybe,” jokes Tiley, when asked to paint a picture of Tennis Australia’s financial situation. “I don’t know, we’ve got to figure it out. Financially we had a cash reserve, which was for self-insurance. It was designed for a rainy day, and it was raining.”

He adds: “We made a decision early to keep the prize money the same as 2019 and to have that as a priority spend, and then to have everything work around it. It was a massive leap by our organisation and a specific business decision to run the event at a loss.”

According to Tiley, Tennis Australia was able to salvage a “surprisingly high” portion of its commercial revenue as a result of hosting its premier event. Even so, a huge reduction in spectator numbers and an associated decline in income from hospitality and official merchandise contributed to “a massive financial hit” from which it could take years to recover. Around 130,000 spectators visited Melbourne Park over the course of the tournament fortnight, down from a record 821,000 in 2020, while domestic broadcaster Nine reportedly negotiated a ten per cent discount – amounting to AUS$6 million – on its annual rights fee for 2021. Then, of course, there was the sky-high outlay, said to be more than AUS$40 million, needed for player quarantine and other Covid-related protocols.

“We’re pretty confident that we can come out of this pandemic,” Tiley continues, “[but] I think we’re going to be in a compromised position still as a world in 2022 and 2023. I hope I’m wrong with that, but I think it’s heading that way. I never forget Alan Joyce, who is the CEO of Qantas, saying they’re moving all the planes to the desert and they’re going to keep them there for probably three years because we’re not bringing back international travel until 2023 or 2024. And everyone was saying ‘you’re crazy’, but he’s going to be right.

Players and coaches were subject to strict health and safety protocols after arriving on chartered flights

“In our case, financially, we can’t have a repeat of the year we had this year in 2022 or 2023. So we are going to need some crowds and some continuity with the event, and then we’re going to get back on our feet. But it’s going to carry debt for quite a few years. If we do well in the next five years we can come out of that debt, but it’s probably going to be, more realistically, seven to ten years.”

That cold, harsh reality spells leaner times not only for Tennis Australia, but for the wider sport within the country. There are understandable fears that support for the grassroots game could suffer as a result, while plans for future investments in infrastructure might need to be put on hold as the organisation recovers.

“It just means there’s less money,” Tiley says. “When there’s less money, there’s going to be more vigilance about how you approach what you spend it on and what kind of return you get. I think it’s a really good thing for the sport across the world because you’re going to look at your ROI more specifically and with more diligence, and then I think, for us, you’ve got to find more creative ways to make money. It’s a different narrative now.”

Thankfully for Tiley, though, it is possible to find the odd silver lining amid the gloom of the past 18 months. He notes how Tennis Australia, which has long been a national governing body with an internationalist mindset, embarked on a process of business diversification several years ago, not long after the organisation decided to bring its entire broadcast operation back in-house.

As well as investing in sports-adjacent areas like music, food, entertainment, esports and gaming, the body has launched two venture capital funds in partnership with American firm Techstars and, by extension of that, taken equity in a dozen emerging technology startups. It also holds other diversified assets such as an ownership stake in the Laver Cup, a men’s team tournament co-founded alongside Roger Federer’s Team8 agency, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and Brazilian billionaire Jorge Paulo Lemann.

Whether by luck or by design, those non-traditional investments have helped buffer the economic headwinds brought on by the pandemic. Indeed, according to Tiley, most are now beginning to generate a return, even if the financial upside pales in comparison to the highly profitable Australian Open.

“These, on the short term, were investments; on the medium term, which is now, we’ll start to return on that,” he explains. “If we ever get stuck, we can just cash in on those investments, but then of course you are at the bottom of the barrel, and that would be too risky for a business.”

This year's tournament saw Naomi Osaka claim her second Australian Open title

“This is not going away”

Looking ahead, Tiley says Tennis Australia will continue to seek out investments that help sustain the body and provide “a great foundation for future growth”. He reveals that, immediately after this interview in early June, he’ll be joining an internal call to explore the commercial possibilities around non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies, two burgeoning yet largely untapped areas which could offer a new avenue for monetisation around Tennis Australia’s “great content and assets”.

“We continue to look at other opportunities,” he says. “We’re right at the forefront of some of those right now. They’re not going to make the massive return that the Australian Open makes. We’ve got to protect that – it’s the goose that lays the golden egg – and keep building on that, but we have to find diversified revenue. We have to structure ourselves from a governance point of view so that there’s no shackles or handcuffs on growth and educate people about the opportunity of that.

“The mistake, in my view, people will make now, in this Covid era, is that they will try to build their business to return to what it was pre Covid. Anyone who does that, in my view, dies.”

That commitment to embracing new ways of doing business is nothing new for Tennis Australia, but it could prove especially important as the organisation adapts to changing times.

“Our brand is one of innovation, forward thinking, and I think the proof is in the pudding,” says Tiley. “When you have these federated sporting structures and everyone gets into the weeds really quickly, you really get handcuffed on the ability to grow. We haven’t had that, we’ve been lucky in that way, so we have been able to step out of our lane and innovate and invest in innovations.

“We don’t advertise ourselves as innovators and we don’t tell the world that we innovate, we just do it.”

With planning for the 2022 Australian Open now well underway, Tiley says “it feels like 2020, in many ways”. Many of the same challenges remain, he notes, especially since Australia has adopted and maintained some of the strictest measures in the world to combat the coronavirus.

“The analogy that we’ve used, and I’ve repeated it a few times, is that as an organisation we felt like we were climbing Mount Everest, and now we’re back at base camp for the next ascent,” he says. “But the advantage is we know the path we’ve got to take because we’ve done it once.”

Still, the potential for unforeseen curveballs to arise, including future waves of coronavirus infections, demands that Tiley and his team continue to plan for multiple scenarios.

“We still have in Australia very strong protocols and processes in place to keep the virus out,” he notes. “That means you’ve got to isolate and quarantine. However, we’re in the process of making it clear to the government that to have players quarantine under those same 14-day conditions is too long. There’s a way to get through it, through a combination of testing and vaccines, and if we get the government to accept it, then we’re good to go.

“We know we’ll have crowds. We’re having sporting events with full crowds right now, although we’re coming out of a second lockdown [in the state of Victoria]. These are all good things and the amount of people in Australia that have been vaccinated has been drastically improved. A combination of vaccinations, testing, managing good health protocols are things we’re going to have to have in order to deliver the event next year.

The analogy that we’ve used is that as an organisation we felt like we were climbing Mount Everest, and now we’re back at base camp for the next ascent.

“I’m pretty confident that we’ll reach some solution, where it’s acceptable to the playing group and acceptable to the local authorities, that we’ll be able to deliver on the event again in a different environment – one that’s more opened-up around the world. But as with everything, this is not going away.”

Despite reports to the contrary, Tiley insists there is virtually no chance that the tournament will be relocated away from Melbourne – to the Middle East or elsewhere – in 2022.

“You know, we’re running a business so we’ve got to look at all options,” he says. “But really, from our point of view, 100 per cent it’s going to be in Melbourne, it’s going to be in January. I said that last year with the Open; I said we’re going to have it in Melbourne, the question is do we have the lead-in events in the other cities, or in Melbourne, and do we have it in January or February or March?

“This year, there aren’t those questions. January is locked, the lead-in events will be in other cities, and the only thing that changes that is if we have border closures and spikes in the virus, spikes in sickness and hospitalisations, and we’re unable to get people into the country.

“I think that’s not going to be the case because if we’re still shutting borders two years later, I think everything is going to be hurting, not just the Australian Open.”

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