French Open organisers fire back at attendance criticism

French Open organisers have hit back at criticism over empty seats at this year’s edition of the grand slam tennis tournament, claiming the event at Roland-Garros drew a record attendance and the sale of corporate tickets is essential to its financing.

The 2019 French Open drew to a close yesterday (Sunday) with Rafael Nadal claiming his 12th title with a four sets win over Dominic Thiem. However, the closing stages of the tournament saw the French Tennis Federation (FFT) and Roland-Garros draw criticism over instances of poorly attended matches, with Friday’s semi-final between Nadal and Roger Federer opening up to a sparse crowd.

Indeed, the Reuters news agency reported that organisers asked employees to fill empty corporate seats for Saturday’s men’s semi-final and the start of the women’s final, demanding they “stay discreet” and take off their accreditation once seated.

Speaking at yesterday’s end of tournament press conference, tournament director Guy Forget said: “We reached a record attendance of 520,000 spectators. We passed the bar of half a million, on which we had stumbled for a few years. Our tournament has always been ‘sold out’ from the first day of the sale of our tickets.”

However, Roland-Garros has long faced issues on the main Philippe Chatrier court, which can often appear deserted around lunchtime as corporate ticket holders choose to enjoy the hospitality on offer rather than the tennis.

Forget and FFT president Bernard Giudicelli conceded this is an issue that organisers will try to address, but maintained that revenue through such sources is essential for Roland-Garros.

Forget said: “The problem of empty boxes is not a new phenomenon. We have been working on it for several years. We will try next year to find new ways to fill our boxes, which are empty sometimes. From an economic point of view, we cannot afford today to refuse these partners… who choose to consume the tennis in a different way.

“That is why we are trying, with our partners, perhaps to put in place for the next year a kind of overbooking system, as is done today by airlines or hotels, so that they can bring some of their customers in the first part and others after lunch.”

Giudicelli added: “If we only sell general admission tickets with no hospitality, the very economics of the tournament and, even beyond the tournament, the economy of the Federation, would be affected. I’m not sure that we could offer prize money identical to what we are doing today. I am sure, however, that investments in the stadia couldn’t be secured.

“Remember this figure: between 2008 and 2021, it is €500m ($565.1m) that the Federation will have invested of its own funds, without any public support, to modernise these stadia.”

Roland-Garros is in the midst of a long-term redevelopment plan. The new Court Simonne-Mathieu, a venue organisers claim is the most beautiful tennis stadium in the world, was unveiled for this year’s tournament. Court Philippe Chatrier was partially renovated for 2019 before it is equipped with a retractable roof for the 2020 tournament.

Updating on the next wave of development, Forget said that from next year lighting will be provided for the four main courts – Suzanne Lenglen, Chatrier, Mathieu, and Court No. 4, with this being extended to the others for 2021. Matches at Roland-Garros currently finish by 9:30pm local time at the latest, when play is no longer possible due to the fading light, but Giudicelli added that 2019 will be the last time matches will end because of night time.