The buyer wants to “elevate” the Western & Southern Open.

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 investigating how the sale could affect the Mason complex, which hosts the world’s top players each August. The most likely scenario is a major expansion, but a move cannot be ruled out.

South Carolina billionaire Benjamin Navarro intends to complete the purchase by the end of September, according to a press release issued Friday jointly by the United States Tennis Association and Navarro’s family-owned company, Beemok Capital.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“It is an honor to work with the USTA, ATP and WTA to 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 stewards of this important tournament as well as ambassadors for the USTA mission to promote the development and growth of the sport of tennis. We are committed to providing the best resources to the best players in the world and look forward to enhancing the Western and Southern Open experience for players and fans alike.”

In an interview ahead of Friday’s announcement, USTA executive director of professional tennis, Stacey Allaster, said Navarro “is 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 result in the tournament being relocated. However, she added that details of future plans would be released once the sales documents were signed.

“We want the best for the event,” said Haas. “We have a home here and we hope that the new owner’s vision will match that.”

Following the release of the press release, WCPO asked USTA, Beemok Capital and the Western & Southern Open to clarify what the sale means for Cincinnati. Nobody answered the question.

“At the beginning of this sales process, USTA had clear goals,” USTA CEO Lew Sherr said in the press release. “We wanted to find a potential steward who would invest in the event and in our sport to ensure that more children and more communities have access to our sport. We wanted to create a structure befitting American tennis, and ultimately we wanted to take one of the most important events on the tennis calendar to even greater heights. We exceeded those goals with this sale to Ben Navarro and Beemok Capital. Ben’s proven track record in Charleston, his dedication to tennis and, more importantly, to the communities make him an ideal new owner in Cincinnati.”

The United States Tennis Association announced in February that it intends to sell its 93.8 percent interest in Cincinnati Tennis LLC, which owns an ATP Tour sanction that allows the Lindner Family Tennis Center to host a Masters each August 1000 men’s tournament in Mason. 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 will operate as the Western & Southern Open under a naming rights partnership that began in 2002 with the Cincinnati-based insurance company.

The USTA paid $18.4 million for its ATP Tour sanction, according to its financial statements. In its February sale process announcement, USTA said the USTA was reviewing strategic options to “optimize the long-term growth of the tournament and take the tournament to the next level.”

Could the sale lead to expansion?
The USTA sales process coincided with strategic planning initiatives at both tours that could lead to significant expansion in Cincinnati.

The ATP announced in June that it will add five new “top-tier” tour stops to its schedule through 2025, including Cincinnati. That means the men’s tournament at the Western & Southern Open will be expanded from eight to 12 days, attracting 96 players to Mason instead of the current draw of 56.

According to published reports, the WTA is in talks with private equity investors about a cash injection that could make the Cincinnati tournament 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’s optimistic both tours will expand in Cincinnati.

“We’re very excited about the plans the WTA is trying to put together to potentially improve this tournament in the future,” said Haas. “And with this height, this tide will lift all boats.”

Haas also admitted to being a little worried about the upcoming ownership change.

“We don’t yet know what the new buyer’s vision will be,” she said. “But I know that (USTA) has really been looking for the next person, the next steward to take the hundred year history and legacy that this tournament has built to the next level.”

Navarro’s press release provided his first public statement on the purchase since media reports surfaced in late July suggesting he would pay around $250m for the ATP sanction.

The press release highlighted 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,” it said in the press release. “Credit One Stadium hosts North America’s largest women’s-only professional tennis tournament, the Credit One Charleston Open, which was acquired by Beemok in 2018.”

Navarro is the owner and founder of Charleston, South Carolina-based Sherman Financial Group, which began as a debt collector and now owns Credit One Bank, one of the country’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 166thth with a career record of 71-55 in singles competition.

Could the sale lead to a move?
Buyers of sports teams and sporting events often try to relocate those assets post-purchase, said Miami University assistant professor Adam Beissel, who teaches and studies sports business.

“We look at sports like NASCAR, where conglomerates buy tracks to get the rights to a race weekend and move it to their other properties,” Beissel said. “One of the things to consider is whether there is a clause in the contract that requires the tournament to stay at Mason. If the investor wanted to move the tournament, could they do so legally?”

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 reports. Most recently expanded in 2010, the 19-hectare site has four stadium seats that can accommodate a total of 22,000 fans.

“The ATP sanction may be terminated if (Cincinnati Tennis LLC) fails to follow the rules and regulations of the ATP,” the USTA statement said. “Based on past experience, including Cincy’s continued compliance with the ATP’s rules and regulations, the sanction is expected to be effective indefinitely.”

Allaster said the Cincinnati facility is difficult to access in Charleston.

“The standards are incredibly high for an ATP Masters Series event,” said Allaster. “You need a center court with 10,000[seats]a secondary court with 5,000. You need eight playing fields. You need up to a total of 20 courts to practice. They need big dressing rooms.”

Credit One Stadium has a 10,000 seat main stadium with a total 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 many reasons to keep the Western & Southern Open in its current location.

“We have an incredibly active and passionate fan base,” said Haas. “Our box placeholders, many of them have been with us for over 10 years on average. We have an incredible volunteer group of 1,200. The Chairs who lead all of these committees have a combined tenure of 1,061 years.”

The Western & Southern Open generated $70 million in regional economic impact in 2021 and raised $11 million for local charities since 1974, according to figures posted on the website of the event’s title sponsor, Western & Southern Financial Group Inc..

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