With the goal of safeguarding its future in Washington, the Citi Open, which has brought top tennis pros to the D.C. region for a half-century, is in the late stages of negotiations to transfer management of the tournament to Washington-based venture capitalist Mark Ein.
As part of a complex agreement, Ein, who owns the Washington Kastles and a majority stake in World TeamTennis, would get an option to buy the event within five years, according to people familiar with the parameters of the talks but not authorized to speak publicly because the agreement is not final.
The pending agreement comes at a pivotal moment for the tournament, which marked its 50th anniversary this summer yet was in the final year of its title sponsorship with Citi, the global banker, that is key to its solvency. It is also coming off a calamitous, rain-drenched edition in August that resulted in a six-figure financial loss.
The agreement to secure its future is highly unusual amid the profit-driven climate of global sports. It was brokered between Ein and the Washington Tennis & Education Foundation, which owns the ATP sanction agreement that conveys the right to stage the event on the top men’s tennis tour. It is the story of a civic-minded entrepreneur and nonprofit foundation seeking to ensure that a staple of Washington’s late-summer sports calendar remains in town and continues the charitable purpose that has been at its core since its founding in 1969.
In hammering out an agreement, the WTEF board passed on more lucrative offers from potential buyers who would have moved the tournament elsewhere — some of whom were willing to pay $20 million or more to do so. According to one person familiar with the process, as many as a dozen entities inquired about buying the foundation’s ATP sanction. Among them was Larry Ellison, the billionaire co-founder and CEO of Oracle Corp., who probably would have relocated the tournament to California, where he is based. Ellison has poured millions into the sport since buying the Indian Wells Tennis Garden, widely regarded as the gold standard for U.S. tennis tournaments after the U.S. Open. Other interested buyers represented Russia, Qatar and U.S. domestic markets eager for the cache of hosting a top men’s tennis tournament.
The WTEF, however, came to terms for considerably less with Ein, who, according to two people familiar with the talks, made clear his intention to keep the tournament in Washington, honor the charitable component at the heart of the event and upgrade the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center that hosts the event each summer in Rock Creek Park.
Manuel Ortiz, chairman of the nonprofit WTEF, declined to discuss the negotiations in detail or with specificity. But when asked to comment on management’s decision in general terms, Ortiz replied in an email exchange, “WTEF is taking significantly less to stay in DC, but the board members made the right call.”
Ein declined to comment.
It’s unclear what Ein will pay for taking on management of the event, nor is it clear what he would pay to buy the WTEF sanction in the future, should he exercise his option to do so. But in taking over management, he assumes the financial risk of staging a roughly $10 million annual event that is vulnerable to capricious weather and is hemmed in, in many respects, by its unique setting on National Park Service land.
Founded by civic-minded Washingtonians who believed tennis could serve as a pathway to achievement for disadvantaged youngsters, the WTEF donates a portion of tournament proceeds to children in traditionally underserved areas of the city through academic-enrichment programs and tennis instruction.
Since its inception, the tournament has been overseen by veteran sports agent and former Davis Cup captain Donald Dell, an International Tennis Hall of Fame inductee, and more recently Lagardere Sports, at which Dell is a group president. Dell declined to comment.
In taking over management of the Citi Open, the 53-year-old Ein would raise his already-considerable profile in the tennis world. He is vice president of the U.S. Tennis Association, as well as the founding owner of the five-time champion Kastles and majority owner of the World TeamTennis league.
A Maryland native, Ein played tennis at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High and returned to Washington after earning his MBA at Harvard’s School of Business. Regarded as an investor and philanthropist committed to the city, Ein bought Washington City Paper in 2017 and broadened his portfolio as a sports impresario with his purchase of an esports Overwatch franchise in September.
In shouldering financial responsibility for the Citi Open, Ein assumes considerable risk in exchange for a payoff that is far from certain.
Among the tournament’s short-term challenges are securing a long-term title sponsor. While Citi’s title sponsorship was set to expire this year, the WTEF secured a one-year extension, according to a person familiar with the agreement, that provides breathing room for an orderly transition.
The long-term challenge relates to the tournament’s venue, built decades ago by the WTEF with special permission to locate its William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center in Rock Creek Park. Because the land is federally owned, there are strict limits on expansion, parking, commercial signage and the number of annual events that may be staged there. The upshot leaves the tournament in a bit of a bind — victim, in a sense, of its founders’ commitment to public access.
First contested in July 1969, the tournament stands apart from others on the pro tour in two key respects: It is staged in a public park and has a charitable focus. That’s largely because of the late Arthur Ashe, a Virginia native and then-world No. 1 player who insisted that the tournament be played in a public park, as opposed to a private club, if he were to participate when the event was launched amid the struggle and promise of the civil rights movement.
In the decades since, the tournament has drawn such top players as Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi (a five-time champion), Andy Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro and John Isner. During that span, the WTEF weathered periodic financial hardship, particularly as the sport’s popularity waned in the 1980s and ’90s. At each critical juncture, such as when the electricity was shut off at a board meeting decades ago, civic-minded supporters extended a financial lifeline, and the board redoubled fundraising efforts to sustain its charitable commitment and support the tournament’s growth.
In 2009, the Citi Open elevated its status to an ATP 500-level event, which entailed increasing its purse in exchange for a higher-profile field. In 2012, it added a companion women’s event, albeit on a lower competitive rung. The same year, WTEF opened a $10.2 million tennis complex and educational center in Ward 7, at the Benning Stoddert Recreation Center, to be closer to many of the students it serves.
With the Citi Open’s growth, however, have come greater expenses and expectations. The ATP sets minimal standards for venues that host 500-level events, for example, and the tournament’s 7,500-seat center court and player amenities at the Rock Creek Park facility probably will require upgrades to pass muster at its next ATP review.
In that regard, the tournament’s long-term viability probably hinges on one of two politically negotiated steps: obtaining a federal land transfer that would cede control of the portion of Park Service land it occupies to the District, on its behalf; or securing a long-term lease on the land with the prerogative of upgrading the facility to make it more attractive to corporate sponsors, ticket-buyers and top players.
Asked to comment on the significance of either agreement, Ortiz, a lawyer, lobbyist and former tennis player at the University of Kansas, said, “If the WTEF can work [the federal land transfer or long-term lease] out, this means the first step in a new chapter of tennis in Washington.”
There is no plan, however, for safeguarding the tournament against Washington’s late-summer weather. On one hand, the event’s early August date on the ATP calendar is ideal, serving as a hard-court tuneup for pros preparing for the U.S. Open, just three weeks afterward. On the other hand, August heat and humidity can be oppressive for competitors and spectators. This year’s event was drenched by nine consecutive days of rain that forced delays or postponements of matches each day. To compensate for lost playing time, some players had to play two singles matches in a day. It brought a rare rebuke from the event’s marquee player, former world No. 1 Andy Murray, after his third three-set match in four days ended at 3:02 a.m.
“Finishing matches at 3 in the morning is not good,” Murray told reporters following an exhausting victory eked out before a crowd of no more than 100. “It’s not good for the players. It’s not good for anyone, I don’t think, involved in the event. It’s not good for fans, TV. Nobody.”
Murray withdrew the following day.