Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

A Modest Proposal For Improving The U.S. Open Fan Experience

Photo: Streeter Lecka (Getty)

For as long as there have been ticketed events, people have tried to inch their way to better seats, and the people tasked with maintaining order at these events have tried to stop them. It happens at every sporting event, all the time, and the scene usually plays out like this: Person sits down in an empty seat out of the sun or out of the rain or closer to the action or away from an obstacle blocking their view, etc. An usher tells them they can’t sit there if they don’t have a ticket. The person is chagrined and leaves quietly.

For a few reasons, this last part is not how it plays out in one of the most famous tennis stadiums in the world. Section 131 in Arthur Ashe, an imposing three-tiered stadium with a retractable roof, is a large corner section reserved almost entirely for members of the media. There are “media seating” stickers on the backs of the seats and unfailingly polite ushers guarding the section and making sure the stickers are obeyed. The section is usually not full and often not even half full (it’s no secret many tennis reporters don’t watch the matches from inside the stadium as they’re busy writing, interviewing, or covering multiple matches from the monitors inside the press center), and so it’s ripe for would-be invaders.

Over the course of four matches on three different days during the second week of the U.S. Open, I saw dozens of people get kicked out of the media section. It was awkward and fascinating and cringey and almost immediately became a second screen of sorts. The tennis was being played below; tiny dramas were playing out all around me. Watching the ritual dance of the fans and ushers became a weird sort of pastime, perfect for lodging little mental predictions: How far will the newest intruder make it into the section? Are they oblivious to the rules or are they knowingly sneaking in? How long will they get to sit in the good seats before they’re discovered? When discovered, will they be a dick about it or will they comply like a well-adjusted human?

The fans were just doing what opportunity demands—so many empty seats!— but all empathy (especially that of anyone who has ever worked in food service or hospitality) has to lie with the ushers. Repeatedly, tennis fans struck impossibly huffy attitudes when asked to leave seats that weren’t theirs, and the ushers, who are definitely not paid enough to deal with harumphing 50-year-olds clutching $18 vodka lemonades, are on the receiving end. 

During one (1!) set in Daniil Medvedev’s quarterfinal win over Stan Wawrinka, a very patient usher watching over section 131 gently removed a constant stream of people from seats that weren’t theirs. Of those people, a surprising number were extremely put off—offended!— that they would be asked to leave seats they did not pay for.

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One guy and his companion sat down next to me, and had been there maybe five minutes when the usher came over asked to see their tickets. Ah well, five minutes in better seats, not bad! But the guy ignored the usher at first, and then when the usher told them they would have to leave the section, the man, without taking his eyes off the court, snapped, “On the changeover,” meaning he would leave when the players changed ends. (This is standard protocol so as to avoid distracting the players but it does not apply in this situation.) The usher repeated himself and pointed up the stairs until the grumbling couple left.

In another instance, a group of ladies seated a few rows behind me had to be asked six times to leave their seats. “Ladies, ladies, these are not your seats, I have to ask you to leave this section,” the usher repeated blandly. Finally they did so, snorting derisively on their way out. Another time, two guys were stopped by the usher before they sat down, innocently flashed their tickets (they were for another section), were asked to leave, and then tried to argue that they should be allowed to sit in section 131 because their section was too sunny!

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In one instance, a man in a blue-and-white-striped golf shirt, who was with his family, was sitting at the very front of the section and was then asked to leave. That’s life, pal! But on his way up the stairs, he leaned close to the usher’s face and said something. I saw the usher blink back an eye roll.

Later, I asked him if these huffy fans are the norm. I told him I was surprised by the fans’ reaction and that I saw the golf-shirt guy get in his face.

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“It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last,” he said.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with sneaking down to a better seat at a sporting event. It’s fun to live on the edge! But if you get caught, don’t be an asshole to the usher tasked with busting you. Just accept the loss and move on.

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The obvious fix for the section 131 issue would be to make fewer seats available to the media. It would open up more seats for fans willing to pay for them and prevent rows of empty seats from luring people who would like a better view. There’s a more radical change, however, that would fix the section 131 problem AND create a better atmosphere for the matches AND make tennis more affordable to fans who can’t shell out hundreds of dollars for a ticket: Don’t ticket each individual seat, at least not all of them.

The U.S. Open can still sell reserved seating tickets for the lower level and the suites at exorbitant rates, and then sell general admission tickets for the middle and upper levels. These levels would fill up on a first-come, first-serve basis, just like every other non-stadium court on the grounds. There wouldn’t be yawning gaps of empty seats, like there was at the women’s semifinal matches on Thursday night, because people would cluster closer to the court, thereby creating a more concentrated and “electric” atmosphere, to borrow a favorite word from U.S. Open on-court presenters. Many sections of other sporting events, especially in college, are already general admission, with the biggest issue being asking someone to save your seat while you go to get beer. And there could still be a section reserved for media, but it could be in the upper tier of the stadium (which already often functions as de facto general admission anyhow).

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Seat-unspecific ticketing would mean more affordable tennis and better crowds. And no more problems for the poor ushers working section 131.

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