The Miami Open drew a record crowd at its new site. Here’s what might change next year

Hard Rock Stadium is not as cozy as the Crandon Park Tennis Center. And the scenery along I-95 and the Florida Turnpike cannot compare with the breathtaking vistas from Rickenbacker Causeway.

But neither of those facts kept a record 388,734 fans from showing up at the Miami Open during the past two weeks to check out the tournament’s new home. The previous record was 326,131, set in 2012. The tournament set 15 session attendance records, including one for the men’s final. An all-time best crowd of 17,373 was on hand Sunday as Roger Federer defeated defending champion John Isner.

Other than “a lot of little hiccups,” tournament director James Blake and Tom Garfinkel, president and CEO of the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium, said the feedback from fans and players was overwhelmingly positive. They liked the added space and amenities; and traffic flowed smoothly into and out of the grounds. One complaint they plan to address was not enough seating on the small outer courts.

Garfinkel said they will also consider lowering parking prices, although they were in line with other events at the stadium. A parking pass cost $25 online in advance, and $40 cash at the lots.

“We don’t want to overcharge for parking,” Garfinkel said. “We made an incentive to buy in advance and charge so much to buy on site because when people have to pay cash at the gate, and get change, the cars back up. If you buy in advance, you have a pass and the cars flow in. We’re trying to alleviate traffic flow.”

Blake predicts everyone will get used to the new site with time after 31 years on Key Biscayne.

“There have been a lot of little hiccups, but overall it’s been extremely positive and that’s great if you make a comparison to moving to a new house, you were comfortable, you know all the little quirks and intricacies of the old house and then you move into a new one and it doesn’t have the same feel initially, but then all those come with time,” Blake said. “You have unbelievable matches, memories that form in the new facility. That’s what I think is happening here.”

Miami Open fans watch Serena
Tennis fans watch Serena Williams of the United States practicing during the fourth day of the Miami Open tennis tournament on Thursday, March 21, 2019, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. DAVID SANTIAGO

He compared the move to the U.S. Open’s move from the West Side Tennis Club on Forest Hills, where it was played from 1915 to 1977, to the larger Flushing Meadows facility where the Open has been played since 1978.

“A lot of people when they left the West Side Tennis Club to go to Flushing Meadows, thought `Oh, this is too big’, but now the memories I have growing up of the U.S. Open are of Flushing Meadows and how amazing that is even though it’s so big and so grand. I think that’s the case here. We had to upgrade. We needed a better situation for the players and the fans. We have way more amenities now, way more space and the capability to do anything and everything the players are asking for.”

Although several players said it took getting used to playing in the cavernous football stadium, they liked the bigger locker rooms, gym, lounge and dining areas; more practice courts; suites for the top eight seeds; and a soccer field for warmups.

“It’s always going to feel very different in a massive place like this, especially very different to Key Biscayne,” Federer said. “It was a good atmosphere at the end. I thought it was quite electric, how it usually is in Miami. I’m happy that hasn’t gone away.”

Semifinalist Simona Halep said: “Everything is very big. But we are used to it in U.S. because it’s always big stadium, big centers. I feel it’s a big improvement and is much better for the players.”

Canadian Miami Open fans
Canadian fans show their support to Bianca Andreescu of Canada during her match against Irina-Camelia Begu of Romania at Miami Open tennis tournament on Thursday, March 21, 2019, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. DAVID SANTIAGO

Caroline Wozniacki was “pleasantly surprised” at the feel of Stadium Court, and liked the extra space, but still misses Crandon Park. “I think Key Biscayne, playing there for so many years, will always have that charm. You drive up, you see the Miami skyline, you have the beaches right there, that’s something you can’t replicate.”

Fans who watched the Miami Open on TV might be surprised to learn of record attendance figures, as there appeared to be many empty seats for some Stadium Court matches. There are two reasons for that, say tournament officials.

The first is that a large number of fans either bought the cheaper grounds passes, which do not allow access to Stadium Court, or chose to congregate outside the stadium, in the expansive fan village and outer courts — including a 5,000-seat Grandstand court and two other showcase courts of 3,000 and 1,500 seats. That was especially true the first week of the tournament, when the majority of the matches were played outside Stadium Court.

Even some fans who paid big money for luxury seats inside the stadium left their seats at times to lounge and dine in the 72 Club and The Nine suites, as suite-holders often do at Heat and Dolphins games.

The other reason for the appearance of empty seats is that some camera angles were shooting toward a portion of the stadium that was not being used for the tennis matches, seats that had no view of the court. Garfinkel said next year they will “find a way to better close off those open corners” to create a more intimate bowl feel and a better view on TV.

Federer fans
Roger Federer, of Switzerland, signs autographs for fans after defeating Daniil Medvedev, of Russia, during their match at the Miami Open tennis tournament on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. MATIAS J. OCNER

“We are definitely going to address the camera angles,” said Blake. “I had people text me or call and say, `Hey, it looks like it’s empty, what’s going on?’ and I’m sitting in the stadium at the same time and I say, `It’s packed.’ And they send me a screen shot of their TV and you see empty seats.

“We have to figure out how to make the product look better on TV because if you’re in the stadium, you see people are still excited. I was there for [David] Ferrer-[Sasha] Zverev, and the energy was palpable. Same with Ferrer-[Frances] Tiafoe, anytime Roger plays, Novak [Djokovic] and Roberto Agut, so we’ve seen there are passionate diehard tennis fans who are still enjoying it but it doesn’t translate on well on TV, which is a huge issue we will fix.”

As for fans choosing to stay in the fan village and outer courts, Blake has no problem with that.

“Every tournament has a stadium court that’s bigger and detached from the others, but not every stadium is a 65,000-seat stadium and this one is,” Blake said. “There’s going to be that figuring out period of where to go, and a lot of fans are still figuring that out. I love the fact that if a casual fan wants to sit at Kiki’s or Moet’s, have a drink, watch the video board and just have a good time and never come into the stadium, that’s on them.

“We have the space and can sell as many grounds passes as we want. We didn’t have that ability on Crandon Park. We wanted to sell out the stadium and then we could offer some grounds passes. Here, we have the ability to distribute thousands more passes and people can still have a good time and it doesn’t feel as crowded because we have the space.”

As they begin planning for next year, Blake and Garfinkel are optimistic the 2020 Miami Open will be better.

“We haven’t encountered anything like `Oh my goodness, I could never play here again’ or `Oh, I never want to come back here because this is so wrong,‘ ” Blake said. “There was no way we were going to get through an event like this with this kind of change without there being a laundry list of things we’d have to address at the end of it.”

Garfinkel added: “The partnership between our team and IMG Tennis has been fantastic. Year one of 30 of these. We’ve all worked really hard to create a great experience, something new and fresh for tennis and Miami. We’re off to a great start, and have a long way to go to make it even better.”

Related stories from Miami Herald

Miami Herald sportswriter Michelle Kaufman has covered 14 Olympics, six World Cups, Wimbledon, U.S. Open, NCAA Basketball Tournaments, NBA Playoffs, and has been the University of Miami basketball beat writer for 20 years. She was born in Frederick, Md., and grew up in Miami.