MASON, Ohio — The next owner of the Western & Southern Open says he wants to “write the next chapter” of the Cincinnati tournament.
But his press release doesn’t mention any specific plans for the event, which bills itself as the oldest American tennis tournament still held in its city of origin.
The WCPO 9 I-Team has been looking into what impact the sale could have on the Mason complex that hosts the world's best players every August. The most likely scenario is a major expansion, but a relocation can't be ruled out.
South Carolina billionaire Benjamin Navarro intends to finalize the purchase by the end of September, according to a press release jointly issued Friday by the United States Tennis Association and Navarro’s family business, Beemok Capital.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
“It is an honor to partner with the USTA, ATP and WTA to help write the next chapter for the Western and Southern Open, one of the world’s premier tennis events,” Navarro said in the press release. “We welcome the opportunity to become a steward of this important tournament, as well as an ambassador of the USTA’s mission of promoting the development and growth of tennis. We are committed to providing the best resources to the world’s best players and look forward to elevating the Western and Southern Open experience for players and fans.”
In an interview before Friday’s announcement, the USTA’s chief executive for professional tennis, Stacey Allaster, said Navarro was “committed to Cincinnati and plans to make a very significant investment in Cincinnati.”
In an Aug. 5 interview, Western & Southern CEO Katie Haas declined to say whether the sale could lead to a relocation of the tournament. But she added details about future plans would be released once sale documents were signed.
‘We want what’s best for the event,” Haas said. “We have a home here and we hope the vision of the new owner will align with that.”
After the press release was issued, WCPO asked the USTA, Beemok Capital and the Western & Southern Open to clarify what the sale means for Cincinnati. None have answered the question.
“Going into this sales process, the USTA had clear goals,” USTA CEO Lew Sherr said in the press release. “We wanted to locate a potential steward who would invest in the event and invest in our sport to ensure more kids and more communities have access to our sport. We wanted to create a structure that was right for American tennis, and finally, we wanted to elevate one of the premier events on the tennis calendar to even greater heights. With this sale to Ben Navarro and Beemok Capital, we have surpassed these goals. Ben’s proven track record in Charleston, his commitment to tennis, and more importantly to communities, make him the ideal new owner in Cincinnati.”
The United States Tennis Association announced in February that it was looking to sell its 93.8% ownership stake in Cincinnati Tennis LLC, which owns an ATP Tour sanction that enables the Lindner Family Tennis Center to host a Masters 1000 men’s tournament in Mason every August. Cincinnati Tennis also leases the rights to bring a Women’s Tennis Association tour stop to Mason at the same time as the men’s tournament. The combined events operate as the Western & Southern Open, under a naming rights partnership that began in 2002 with the Cincinnati-based insurance company.
USTA paid $18.4 million for its ATP Tour sanction, according to its financial statements. Its February announcement about the sale process said USTA was exploring strategic options to “optimize the long-term growth of the tournament and take the tournament to the next level.”
Could sale lead to expansion?
The USTA sale process coincided with strategic planning initiatives by both tours that could lead to a major expansion in Cincinnati.
The ATP announced in June that it will add five new “top tier” tour stops to its schedule, including Cincinnati, by 2025. That means the men’s tournament at the Western & Southern Open would expand from eight days to 12, drawing 96 players to Mason instead of the current draw of 56.
According to published reports, the WTA is talking to private equity investors about a cash infusion that could elevate the Cincinnati tournament to a mandatory stop on the WTA Tour. Tour officials did not respond to questions about those talks.
But Haas said in her Aug. 5 interview that she was optimistic both tours will expand in Cincinnati.
“We are really looking forward to the plans the WTA is trying to put together to potentially elevate this tournament in the future,” Haas said. “And with that elevation that high tide will raise all boats.”
Haas also admitted being a bit worried about the pending ownership change.
“We don’t know what the vision of the new buyer will be just yet,” she said. “But I know (USTA) was really looking for the next person, the next steward to take the hundred years of history and legacy that this tournament has established and move it on to the next level.”
Navarro’s press release delivered his first public statement on the purchase since media reports surfaced in late July, indicating he would pay roughly $250 million for the ATP sanction.
The press release emphasized Beemok’s “advancement of tennis in the United States” and its investments in Charleston.
“Beemok also brings extensive operational and hospitality expertise to the Western and Southern Open, having recently completed a major renovation that transformed Charleston’s Credit One Stadium into a world-class tennis and concert venue,” said the release. “Credit One Stadium plays host to North America’s largest women’s only professional tennis tournament, the Credit One Charleston Open, acquired by Beemok in 2018.”
Navarro is the owner and founder of Charleston, S.C. -based Sherman Financial Group, which began as a debt collector and now owns Credit One Bank, one of the nation’s largest credit card issuers. Navarro is the son of former Ivy League football coach Frank Navarro. His daughter, Emma Navarro, competes on the WTA Tour and is currently ranked 166th with a career record of 71-55 in singles competition.
Could sale lead to relocation?
Buyers of sports teams and sporting events often look to relocate those assets after purchase, said Miami University assistant professor Adam Beissel, who teaches and studies the business of sports.
“We look at sports like NASCAR, where conglomerates purchase tracks in order to get the rights for a race weekend and move it to their other properties,” Beissel said. “One of the things to be mindful of is whether or not there is a contractual clause that requires that the tournament remains in Mason. If the investor wanted to move the tournament, could he legally do so?”
The tournament leases its stadium complex from Tennis for Charity Inc. It’s a 20-year lease that expires in 2029, but includes an option for early termination in 2024, according to USTA financial statements. Last expanded in 2010, the 19-acre site has four stadium courts that seat a combined 22,000 fans.
“The ATP Sanction is subject to termination if (Cincinnati Tennis LLC) fails to follow the ATP’s rules and regulations,” according to USTA’s financial statement. “Based on previous experience, including Cincy’s continued compliance with the ATP’s rules and regulations, it is expected that the sanction will be effective indefinitely.”
Allaster said the Cincinnati facility would be difficult to match in Charleston.
“The standards are incredibly high for an ATP Masters Series event,” Allaster said. “You need a center court with 10,000 (seats), a secondary court with 5,000. You need eight match courts. You need up to a total of 20 courts for practice. You need expansive locker rooms.”
Credit One Stadium has a 10,000-seat main stadium and an overall capacity of 11,000.
“It’s a beautiful stadium,” Allaster said. “He just put $60 million in it. But it’s still relatively small for a Masters tournament.”
Haas added there are lots of reasons to keep the Western & Southern Open at its current home.
“We have an incredibly active and passionate fan base,” Haas said. “Our box seat holders, many of them on average have been with us for over 10+ years. We have an incredible volunteer group of 1,200. The chair-people that lead all those committees have a combined years of service of 1,061 years.”
The Western & Southern Open generated a regional economic impact of $70 million in 2021 and raised $11 million for local nonprofits since 1974, according to figures posted on the web site of the event’s title sponsor, Western & Southern Financial Group Inc.