U.S. Open kicks off Monday with no fans, following week of sports protests

Key Points
  • Billie Jean King praises Naomi Osaka, the world's highest paid female athlete, for taking a stand on racial injustice.
  • U.S. Open revenue will be down 80% without fans, says USTA CEO Michael Dowse on Squawk Box.
  • USTA says it's seeing a surge in tennis participation at the recreational level in the pandemic.
Tennis icon Billie Jean King on athletes protesting against racial injustice
Tennis icon Billie Jean King on athletes protesting against racial injustice

The U.S. Open tennis tournament is kicking off on Monday, following a wave of protests across the sports world that brought competition in professional tennis, basketball, baseball, and soccer to a halt this week.

 After initially pulling out of her match in protest at the Western & Southern open, a precursor to the U.S. Open, tennis star Naomi Osaka won her semi-final match and ultimately finished in second place. 


"[The WTA and USTA] offered to postpone all matches until Friday and in my mind that brings more attention to the movement," Osaka told The Guardian.

Billie Jean King, a 39-time Grand Slam champion and part of the Original Nine who pioneered equality for women in professional tennis 50 years ago, praised Osaka for using her platform. 

"This is really the moment in time that we can truly, truly change things," King said in an interview with CNBC's Squawk Box taped Thursday. "We are going to continue to use our platform at the U.S. Open for positive change, for equality and for justice."

Osaka, 22, earned $37 million between May 2019 and May 2020, more than any other female athlete ever, according to Forbes.

U.S. Tennis Association CEO on athlete protests, playing during the pandemic
U.S. Tennis Association CEO on athlete protests, playing during the pandemic

"Immediately we knew the right decision was to support our athletes but also support our sport by taking that pause on Thursday," said United States Tennis Association CEO Michael Dowse in an interview on Squawk Box. "It is important that we restart again collectively, together on this global stage."

The U.S. Open draws tourists from around the world and is traditionally a boost for the New York City economy.

Dowse said revenue, which will rely on broadcast and sponsorship deals, will be down 80% this year without fans. The organization had to tap into its reserves to fund the tournament. In 2019, a record 737,872 people attended the U.S. Open over two weeks, generating $400 million in revenue. 

"We have no fans in sight but it doesn't mean we don't have fans around the world watching this sport. Everyone has been starved to see world class tennis again," Dowse said from an empty Arthur Ashe stadium Friday morning. 

Unlike the NBA's bubble, the USTA is implementing a multi-tiered system for monitoring the health of players, media, and event staff. Players and their guests, which are part of Tier 1, are tested every four days.

"The U.S. Open's been very, very adaptable," said King. "It really gets down to personal responsibility and that they have their two bubbles, one for the players and one for the support team and all--they're trying to do it right."

Dowse hopes the tournament will inspire more Americans to pick up the sport of tennis, which he highlights has been an outlier in the pandemic .

"People have realized tennis is the perfect social distancing sport," says Dowse. "We are cautiously optimistic we'll have fans back in the stadium next year."