Roland Garros tennis centre in Paris plans £240m expansion
- 23 May 2011
- From the section Business
If it is May in Paris that can only mean one thing - crowds of enthusiastic tennis lovers flocking down the Avenue Porte d'Auteuil towards the French Open at the historic Stade Roland Garros.
Built in 1928, this venerable old stadium has seen many dramas in its time; from the skills of the famous Four Musketeers players of the 1920s and 1930s to the modern day champions of Rafael Nadal and Francesca Schiavone.
Now this clay-court home of French tennis is to take a large stride into the 21st century with an ambitious 275m euros ($392m; £241m) expansion plan.
This willl see the building of a new 5,000-seater stadium and a new training centre, and the tennis complex is set to grow by 60% in size.
"For years we have known we were really short of space - the issue was always about getting more space for players and the public," declares Gilbert Ysern, director general of the FFT (French Tennis Federation) and French Open tournament director.
When we meet at the compact and picturesque tennis complex in the west of Paris he is attending to the dozens of last-minute details necessary to make sure the tournament is a success.
"The level of comfort here is not what it should be, for spectators it is not as convenient as it should be if they need to go to the toilet, or want to buy food," says Mr Ysern.
"We want to have the best tournament that we can, which is why we are developing Roland Garros."
Part of the scheme involves adding a roof over the main Court Philippe Chatrier, which will enable playing sessions in all weathers and in the evening.
"We hope we are going to have everything completed by the 2016 tournament," says Mr Ysern. "It will be an evolution process over a number of years."
While previous development at Roland Garros has used FFT funds, the new project will receive 20m euros from the city of Paris and 20m euros from central government.
"We will be able to have a great wide open area - for spectators to have more room, and for the public waiting to come in for the evening sessions," says Mr Ysern.
The expansion project has been in the pipeline for eight years and was considerably cheaper than the other mooted options, such as starting again from scratch at a new site at Versailles.
However it has not been a trouble-free decision.
"This is France - there are always people who think they will suffer from what we are doing, and do something to oppose it," he says with a wry smile.
"We think this is a nice project that will not harm the environment, or architectural environment."
He says there have been incorrect statements that the federation wants to destroy some greenhouses in the nearby Auteuil Greenhouse Garden which surrounds Roland Garros.
"We are in a gorgeous place here, it is part of the history of the event, we are lucky enough to have this location, and are going to make it nicer," he said.
And he says that more credit should be given to the revenues the event brings in to Paris.
"The city gets a lot of money from the tournament; the spin-off is worth 250m euros to the local economy," says Mr Ysern, the former referee at the French Open in the 1990s.
The event itself makes 60m euros, which Mr Ysern acknowledges "is a lot of money".
About one third of the sum is used on the upkeep and improvement of Roland Garros, and the other two-thirds goes into French tennis.
Mr Ysern adds: "For us, being the national federation and not a private company, it means it gives us the financial means to develop our policy or strategy on tennis in France.
"Making money is not the primary goal, but all the money we make goes into French tennis."
Tournament revenue streams are, says Mr Ysern, "fairly well balanced" to ensure they do not become too dependent on any one sector.
Media rights bring in about 35% of cash, with tickets 20%, hospitality 20%, and sponsorship and the licensing of the tournament logo for merchandising another 25%.
Sponsors include BNP, Lacoste, Fedex, Peugeot, IBM and tennis racquet maker Babolat.
For the TV rights, the organisers look to reach the biggest possible global audience - and that often means selling to free-to-air broadcasters even when pay-TV might pay more.
"We could make more money from TV but as a federation we prefer to reach the biggest audience, and believe we have the biggest global tennis audience in the world," says Mr Ysern, at the helm of his third French Open.
The tournament is broadcast to 178 countries in 2010, with 11,000 hours of broadcasting reaching three billion viewers.
For the public wanting to attend the tournament, tickets are sold over the internet and "they are generally gone within two days", he says.
Mr Ysern says that about a quarter of spectators are from outside France, but says the atmosphere is more intense when a local player gets through to the second week of the competition.
And just two or so weeks after the tournament finishes they will start preparing for the following year's event.
"We have a first debrief and talk about what went wrong, what we could do better - that is so we can improve for the following year," says Mr Ysern.
"It is so pleasant to be here, it is a great job organising an event like this, watched by people all over the world.
"We are not just money-driven; we develop the sport. We make money but we know how to use it for the good of the sport, and we fell good about that."