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Open invitation | Change finally to be served at Roland-Garros

  • The authorities finally gave the green light to the redevelopment of Roland-Garros in February following years of false starts
  • After the roof is added to Philippe-Chatrier in 2020, the French Open’s in-stadia attendance is set to increase from 472,000 to over 600,000
  • The aim is to inject more breathing space into what is currently a cluttered complex

Few major sports facility projects have been as frustratingly protracted as the long-awaited redevelopment of Roland-Garros, the Parisian home of the French Open tennis grand slam.

However, after years of false starts, the light finally flickered from red to green back in February when the Paris Administrative Tribunal upheld an earlier decision by the Paris High Court in favour of the French Tennis Federation (FFT) in a legal battle with the heirs of architect Jean-Camille Formige, who designed the neighbouring Serres d’Auteuil botanical gardens.

The FFT greeted the news by declaring it was “game, set and match” – but such a triumphant tone has been rare in a project in which the governing body has attempted to respect the tennis grounds’ historic surroundings and appease local residents at every turn.

Careful steps

The project developers have had to tread carefully to satisfy the demands of local planning authorities who have been keen to avoid Roland-Garros trampling crudely over the historic gardens.

The layout of the French Open has changed relatively little since the inaugural tournament at Roland-Garros in 1928 and, as any visitor to the grounds will testify, the spectator experience has been one of charming chaos at times – more akin to visiting the Eiffel Tower at peak hours during the tourist season, rather than entering one of tennis’ four major tournaments of the year.

With that in mind, the aim is to inject more breathing space into a cluttered complex, featuring new spaces and establishing tree-lined walkways, with renowned landscaper Michel Corajoud having spearheaded the plans before his death in October 2014.

Whilst the overall capacity of the site will increase by a relatively modest 2,500 to 40,000, the actual number of courts will reduce from 20 to 18, amplifying four main show courts in the process.

The Philippe-Chatrier and Suzanne-Lenglen courts will retain unchanged respective capacities of 15,000 and 10,000 following the redevelopment work, but there will also be a 5,000-capacity Serres d’Auteuil Greenhouse Court and a 2,200-seat Fonds des Princes court – both of which will be semi-sunken to make them less conspicuous on the landscape.

By extending a pathway into the Serres d’Auteuil gardens alongside the Florist and Orangery buildings, creating a new landscaped pathway crossing the stadium from north to south, and by creating spacious new relaxation areas such as the Place des Mousquetaires, Roland-Garros will have a much more relaxed feel when the redevelopment work, led by VINCI Construction France, is completed in 2020.

IMAGE: Roland-Garros will be able to welcome thousands more fans following the redevelopment (French Tennis Federation)

The Place des Mousquetaires, which will be extended onto the site of the former Court No.1, will serve as a main thoroughfare, further improving the flow of spectators around the stadium, while a giant screen will show matches to fans outside the venue.

The Place des Mousquetaires will back on to the nearby Serres d’Auteuil gardens, with Court No.1 being replaced by the Greenhouse Court, which will take inspiration from the adjacent Formige greenhouses.

Although the surface area of Roland-Garros will increase from the current 8.5 hectares to 11.16 hectares for nine weeks every year – before, during and after the French Open – for the rest of the year the size of the complex will be scaled back to 9.6 hectares, with the Florist and Orangery burrstone buildings and the area around the new Greenhouse Court once again becoming part of the gardens following the removal of a sturdy temporary fence, which will allow 20,000 square metres of Serres d’Auteuil to be open to the public at all times.

New roof, new opportunities

However, arguably the most significant enhancement will be the complete renovation of the Philippe-Chatrier centre court, including a retractable roof and redeveloped stands to improve visibility for spectators with new areas underneath the stands for the players and members of the media.

Roland-Garros is currently the only grand slam without a covered court after the US Open unveiled its retractable roof over the huge Arthur Ashe Stadium for the 2016 tournament.

The maximum height authorised for the different buildings across the whole complex in Paris will be 18 metres, with the exception of the centre court, which will reach a maximum height of 31 metres, including its new six-metre-high roof made from steel and canvas.

The roof, which will be added in time for the 2020 tournament, a year after the redeveloped Chatrier court reopens, will have huge implications for the tournament from a commercial perspective.

Not only will the roof ensure that, regardless of the weather, play is uninterrupted on at least one court; it will also allow evening sessions to be introduced.

According to FFT sponsorship director Michael Tonge, the developments and the introduction of the evening sessions will increase the in-stadia attendance across the three weeks of the competition from 472,000 to over 600,000, with 10 new evening sessions offering 15,000 additional tickets for each session.

As a result of the introduction of evening sessions, the FFT is anticipating a double-digit increase in television audiences for primetime evening matches – expected to start at approximately 7pm – with the higher in-stadium audience also giving partners an opportunity to connect with 150,000 more fans than is currently the case.

“One option was to follow the lead of other tournaments and increase the capacity of the Philippe-Chatrier court, but that’s not the Roland-Garros way,” Tonge tells SportBusiness International.

“Rather than simply squeezing in additional seats to increase overall capacity, we want to ensure the Roland-Garros DNA is maintained and protected which means providing greater comfort for spectators on all courts and ensuring a premium client experience across the Roland-Garros campus and throughout the Roland-Garros experience.”

Bottom-line commercial revenues may not have been the central, driving motivation behind the redevelopment, in the short term at least, but return on investment is clearly important for a national federation that is coughing up 95 per cent of the project’s total cost of €350m ($416m).

Therefore, the rustic charm of Roland-Garros will be maintained, but simultaneously it will be underpinned by state-of-the-art technological advancements both within and outside the courts.

Connected

Roland-Garros will be a connected stadium complex with Wi-Fi available throughout, data gathering and analysis systems and various technological innovations enabling information to be provided to visitors via various platforms, including the official mobile app, which is being enhanced every year.

“Our aim is to allow fans to personalise their Roland-Garros experience by implementing relevant, value adding, technological enhancements year on year,” Tonge explains.

“As well as being able to communicate practical information such as queuing times for cafes, offers at the in-stadia retail points or the latest partner animations – which will improve efficiency and the customer journey – the technological developments will also help us gather data before, during and post tournament.

“Whether the data is retrieved through social platforms, bracelets or via the official app, our aim is to provide fans with the content they are interested in, via the platforms they choose at times adapted to their schedules.

“We understand the power of data but we also understand that it needs to be exploited in a customer friendly way so the client experience is enhanced and so it allows us and our partners to create a tailored, seamless, engaging experience.”

The FFT is currently considering the best future pathway for data gathering and management and is in discussions with a number of parties following the expiration of its deal with IBM this year.

“We’re talking to different companies which will be able to help us to enrich our data-gathering, analysis and communication for fans, for players, for sponsors and for our media partners,” Tonge adds.

“As well as moving ahead with targeted prospects for 2018, we are also looking at which services we can bring in-house to take back a little more control of certain elements of the client experience and touch points and which are the right suppliers and partners we need to deliver our long-term objectives.

“We remain open to different partnerships if we are sure they enhance the Roland-Garros experience and given the nature of our digital transformation requirements, it is likely, we will need a number of ‘technology’ partners.”

Courting exposure

Court-side LED advertising has already been tested at the French Open, and the FFT is considering whether it is the right option for the tournament in the future.

“It is an interesting technology with obvious advantages compared to a static system, but we need to be sure where the benefits are for our partners, for the FFT as the organiser of Roland-Garros, for the fan experience and for the image of the tournament before we take a decision” Tonge says.

“Currently we have 20 official partners of which seven have court-side visibility. We feel we can add one or two partners to those with court-side visibility, but we’re just as interested in enhancing the partner and prospect packages via digital activation, fan engagement and in-stadia concepts rather than risking the dilution of the value of partner packages by having too many global or regional partners.”

A state-of-the-art new sponsor village is being built ahead of Roland-Garros 2018, where catering partner Potel & Chabot will continue to provide services.

“When creating the new village concept, it was important not to lose the soul and energy of the existing Roland-Garros Village as partners and VIPs love the ambiance and the proximity to the tennis and to each other,” Tonge adds.

“The new village will be closer to a five-star hotel experience at the heart of Roland-Garros and we are confident it will set a benchmark for hospitality in the world of sport by combining a first-class guest experience, a Parisian touch of style, the charm of Roland-Garros and a view of certain courts which, for us, is the perfect positioning.”

IMAGE: The redevelopment is part of a wider ecosystem that includes an international strategy (Getty Images) 

Outside the new sponsor village, the more spacious layout at Roland-Garros will also give partners more opportunities to engage with the public.

“All of our sponsors are challenging us – and we are challenging them – to differentiate and come up with new ways to engage with fans and to create innovative concepts that set the Roland-Garros experience apart from other sporting events,” Tonge says.

“We want to make sure our partners are integrated into the client roadmap and not just part of a branding exercise.

“Partners need to be able to express themselves within the new stadium which will result in a more positive consumer experience and which will in turn drive value for us and for our partners.”

Hands-on approach

The redevelopment of Roland-Garros is part of a wider ecosystem that includes an international strategy.

Media partners will take footage of the French Open worldwide, but the FFT itself is taking a hands-on approach to promoting the Roland-Garros name across the globe via its international strategy in key target markets, including Brazil, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the US.

“We will take Roland-Garros outside of Paris in order to develop clay court tennis, to develop the Roland-Garros brand and to provide partners with an opportunity to activate their tennis strategy in multiple markets all year round,” Tonge adds.

“We know from our research and from television and digital audiences that there is an appetite for clay-court tennis, for Roland-Garros and its brand in these countries and we believe there is huge potential in these markets which is why intend to be visible via a number of local and national events and activations aimed at developing tennis and offering touch points and marketing platforms for us and for our partners throughout the year,” Tonge says.

“Our approach will be based on 360 activation involving local clubs, local federations, digital platforms and promotional events, for example, selected tennis clubs will have the possibility to become ‘Roland-Garros approved’ clubs provided they fulfil certain criteria in terms of coaching, facilities, clay court quality etcetera.

“Creating these touchpoints around the world – whether it is sporting or marketing – is a crucial part of our long-term strategy.”

EXTRA | Project timeline

February 2011: The FFT announces plans to keep the French Open at a redeveloped Roland-Garros

October 2011-January 2012: A public consultation is held

December 2011: The French High Commission for Sites, Perspectives and Landscapes approves the project outline

July 2012: A simplified revision of the local urbanisation plan is approved

May 2013: The FFT signs a new Convention for the Occupation of Public Land with the city’s authorities for a duration of 50 years

December 2013: The Paris Department Commission for Nature, Landscapes and Sites approves the project

November 2014: Following a public inquiry, the investigating commission rules in favour of the project

June 2015: Planning permission is granted

October 2015: Preliminary work begins on the site

November 2016: The Paris High Court rules in favour of the FFT following protests by Laurence and Virginia Formige, the great grandchildren of architect Jean-Camille Formige, who designed Serres d’Auteuil

February 2017: The FFT declares “Game, set and match” after an appeal by Formige’s heirs is dismissed by the Paris Administrative Tribunal

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