With Wimbledon here we dip into the tennis q and a archives with Tanner Simkins and his “Full Court Press” profiles. this one is with Skip Gilbert of the USTA talking tennis as the US hardcourt season approaches after the grasscourt season ends with the Hall of Fame event in Newport, Rhode Island after Wimbledon finishes…
We caught up with Skip Gilbert, US Open Tournament Manager, and Managing Director of Professional Tennis Operations for the USTA. Gilbert has left a lasting impact on every organization he has been a part of. Whether as a NCAA first team All American soccer goalkeeper, a professional athlete, or his time in executive roles with US Soccer, USA Swimming, USA Triathlon, the Arena League and more, we learned Gilbert is on a similar trajectory of growth and success with the USTA and the US Open. A detailed biography for Skip Gilbert is provided after the Q&A. Connect with Skip on LinkedIn.
Full Court Press: “Nothing beats being here”, a very appropriate slogan for the US Open – what does it mean, as tournament manager, to be involved in such a marquee international event?
Skip Gilbert: Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of working with a number of sport properties that create events, large and small. Each has in common a passionate fan base, unbelievable competitors and a unique environment to that respective sport which makes it special. The US Open is similar to those other events with the exception that it is the world’s largest sporting event being showcased on the world’s largest stage, New York. So you have fans, athletes, officials, media, staff, medical and other critical groups that are all integrated throughout the footprint of the venue. Of course there are many, many more of them to handle. When you do it well at the US Open, there is simply a sense of pride of accomplishment unlike any other annual event.
FCP: Walk us through the week leading up to the Open? Chaotic or finalized?
SG: The week before the US Open brings to close a year of solid planning. At the end of every tournament we ask each member of our team: full-time, seasonal and volunteers, to complete a comprehensive after-action report. We add to it player and partner surveys. A good part of the year is developing solutions to all of the issues raised to help make the subsequent US Open even better than the last.
FCP: How do you effectively bring together so many areas of the tournament – facilities, marketing, ticket sales, PR, hospitality, etc, to lead a successful event?
SG: Communication is critical. Nobody likes surprises so we bring all of the departments together on a regular basis starting months before the tournament to provide status reports, share ideas and concerns and basically put everything on the table. They are large, time consuming meetings but worth it
FCP: What is the most satisfying part of your role with USTA and specifically with the Open?
SG: David Baker, my former Commissioner at the Arena Football League, used to say that those of us who had the privilege of working in sport are in the business of “making dreams come true”. You can’t find a bigger canvas to paint those dreams than the US Open. So when it’s over and you think about the impact you helped to have on so many different people that underscores why we do these jobs and why they bring such an immense level of satisfaction.
FCP: What initiatives do you lead through the Open to push the USTA’s not-for profit mission?
SG: The mission of the USTA is to promote and develop the game of tennis. So we push that through everything we do. Offering free admission to watch our US Open qualification tournament provides people the opportunity to experience world-class tennis. Arthur Ashe Kids Day (Saturday before the US Open start) opens our facility to twenty thousand kids (and their parents) to enjoy the largest single-day, grassroots tennis and entertainment event in the world. The US Open, the world’s largest annual sporting event, allows us to continue to develop the best American tennis player and promote the game to millions of people in the US alone. And finally, adding the Junior and Wheelchair competitions within the US Open shows the width and depth of our efforts to push our mission.
FCP: What is your fondest US Open memory as a fan and now as tournament manager?
SG: I spent almost twelve years with The Sporting News and each year we had series packages to entertain our advertisers at the US Open. So I saw many great matches, but the one that stands out is the 1991 Semi-Final match with Jimmy Connors. His run that year at 39 (his last) ended in the Semis, but he put on a great show, even in defeat.
FCP: Any negative experiences or extenuating circumstances surrounding your time with the Open? How did you overcome or deal with it?
SG: With only one Open under my belt, there really aren’t any negative experiences of note to date. Perhaps the only real negative experience has been when it rains. We’ll overcome it in the future by building a roof on Arthur Ashe.
FCP: How has your past experiences either at the AFL, Times-7 or elsewhere, helped with managing the US Open?
SG: That sounds like an interview question! Every step throughout my career has provided a tremendous base to be able to step in help manage the US Open and oversee Professional Tennis Operations throughout the US. Having an experience mix of advertising/sponsorship sales, organizational marketing and being a CEO of a growing NGB has given me a wide background to handle almost any issue.
FCP: In addition to the Open, you manage the Cincinnati, New Haven, and Atlanta tournaments –how does your approach change when overseeing these other tournaments?
SG: We are a majority owner in Cincinnati, a minority owner in Atlanta and a partner in New Haven. With those tournaments, the staffs in place each are incredible and do amazing things to showcase tennis within their community. So the major difference is that instead of being hands-on as with the US Open, we become a source of information, a supportive resource for the Tournament Director and staff in each city.
FCP: Any creative packages you sell to tournament sponsors?
SG: Our sponsorship platforms are unique to each company given the size and scope of the US Open. Each of our partners brings a unique program to the tournament that helps to drive awareness and relevance to our fans. We have a very talented partnership team that spends the year working with each sponsor to map out what they want to accomplish and how they can do that on our grounds. For example, American Express has an interactive Pavilion that allows Cardmembers to literally “touch” the game while also providing devices so fans can listen to the radio broadcasts of the matches.
FCP: What are some innovative ways you embrace new media and the digital realm?
SG: Our New Media team has created a Social Media Wall, a 50’ x 8’ video wall, which will display social feeds from Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This is just one example of many different initiatives to integrate the wonders of the digital world into the sport of tennis.
FCP: What are some industry trends or developments that you are closely following?
SG: The issue of childhood obesity is a significant one that every National Governing Body (NGB) should be monitoring. If the pool of tennis players gets smaller due to fewer kids playing the sport, the number of competitive players will ultimately decrease. This would hurt our ability to develop world class champions. With childhood obesity, this is not just a tennis problem but an overall sport and society issue.
FCP: What’s the future hold for the US Open? For the USTA?
SG: The future for the USTA and the US Open is incredibly bright. The major news impacting the US Open is the $550m renovation of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. The design calls for two new stadium courts, better public access to our five practice courts, increased fan capacity with our field courts and we will install a roof on Arthur Ashe, the world’s large tennis stadium.
FCP: What’s your favorite book, sports business or otherwise?
SG: “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. It really has been a valuable resource for me. It shows how great companies are run by leaders who are humble, but driven to do what’s best for the organization. I’ve used often throughout my career his bus theory. Get the right people on the bus, then figure out where to go.
FCP: Any tips for aspiring sports professionals who may be reading this?
SG: The level of business professionalism throughout the sports industry has grown significantly stronger over the years. So for anyone really interested in working in the sports industry, the best advice is to come to the interview prepared. Do your homework about the organizations strengths and weaknesses. Show how you will have a positive impact by utilizing your unique skills and/or experience. And finally, don’t say you are a “fan”. Most of us could care less if you are a fan. Ultimately that’s nice but it won’t help you do your job.
Skip Gilbert brings over 25-years of sales, marketing and managerial experience from various sport organizations to his role as the Managing Director of Professional Tennis Operations and US Open Tournament Manager with the United States Tennis Association. Previous to the USTA, Skip joined USA Triathlon (USAT) as its CEO and guided that governing body through one of its most explosive periods of growth in its 30-year history. USAT under his leadership grew membership from 52,000 members to over 135,000, increased the organizational budget from $5.5m to over $11.5m per year and elevated their investment account from $1.5m to over $6.5m in just six years.
While at USAT, Skip was elected Chairman of the NGB Council, comprised of CEO’s and volunteer Presidents representing the interests of the 47 sport governing bodies within the Olympic Family and Chairman of the Association of the Chief Executives of Sport, membership trade association for 65 National Governing Bodies in and outside of the Olympic Movement. Prior to USAT, Skip worked in various sales and marketing roles for USA Swimming, US Soccer, the Arena Football League as well as with sport publications such as the Sporting News, Outside and Tennis magazines.
Skip graduated from the University of Vermont, attended the prestigious Lawrenceville School and was a soccer goalkeeper for the Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) before joining the business community.
Skip currently lives in Ridgefield, CT with his wife Jenifer and their three children Fritz, Austin and Greta.