Game, Set, Tournament

All it took to keep the Cincinnati Open in Mason was lots of money, creative tax breaks, a 124-year track record of running world-class events, and “classic nose-to-the-grindstone” effort. Hear from some of the key players who made it happen.
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The sun goes down on an intense championship match in the Western & Southern Open (now Cincinnati Open) at the Lindner Family Tennis Center.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BEN SOLOMON

Nine months after an out-of-state billionaire purchased Cincinnati’s signature professional tennis tournament, those with a stake in the event staying in town still didn’t know for sure who they were competing against in their bid to continue hosting it. The new owners were thinking about moving the Western & Southern Open to a different city, that much was clear, but where?

Without knowing who the competition was, it was difficult to put together a competitive economic package to keep the beloved summer tournament here. Make an offer too low, and you could lose before the contest even starts. Make an offer too high, and you could get stuck on the wrong end of a bad deal.

“We were shooting in the dark,” says Martin Russell, administrator of Warren County, the tournament’s home for the past 43 years. “When you don’t know who you’re competing against, you don’t know what to aim for.”

That changed on May 9, 2023. One of the top executives of Beemok Capital, the tournament’s new owner, went before a public meeting of elected officials in Charlotte, North Carolina, and revealed the plans. The new owners had their eyes on moving the tournament to a brand-new development along the Catawba River, building a $400 million complex that would include 40 courts and four stadiums and serve as the home of an expanded tournament. “It will be a pinnacle of the sport,” Beemok Chief Operating Officer Ford Perry told the elected leaders. While several cities, including Cincinnati, were under consideration, he said, “Charlotte has always been at the top of my list with respect to what the opportunity could be for this tournament.”

To make the move, Beemok wanted public funds to cover a third of the cost of the new complex, Perry said. Charlotte leaders were enthusiastic. “It will be a generational opportunity for our city, county, and state,” one city official told The Charlotte Observer.

With that, the cards were on the table, and the tournament’s stakeholders in Cincinnati knew who they were up against. “We’ve got a couple aces up our sleeve,” Warren County Commissioner David Young said at the time. Despite Young’s bravado, it looked like a fait accompli that the Western & Southern Open was on its way out of Cincinnati and headed to the other “Queen City,” Charlotte, a place leaders here had long admired for its corporate headquarters, its growth, and its energy.

There were lots of reasons to be pessimistic about the tournament’s future here. Charlotte was pitching a new 1,400-acre development called the River District to host the tournament, where it would eventually be joined by offices, retail, hotels, and housing. Beemok Capital and its principal, Ben Navarro, are based just 200 miles to the south in Charleston, South Carolina. Executives of Charlotte-based Bank of America had worked behind the scenes to arrange the sale of the tournament. And Beemok’s point man for the project, Perry, had been a banking executive in Charlotte for more than 20 years and undoubtedly knew the movers and shakers there.

Mason Mayor Diana Nelson photographed on March 26, 2024 at the Lindner Family Tennis Center.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS VON HOLLE

It seemed like a done deal. How could Cincinnati, let alone the city of Mason and surrounding Warren County, where the Lindner Family Tennis Center is located, compete? “It wasn’t looking so great,” says Mason Mayor Diana Nelson.

“We were a little behind the eight ball,” says Russell. “We had to figure out what we were going to do to be aggressive.”

How they did it is a tale of the high stakes involved in hosting premium sports events, what it takes to keep them, and how Cincinnati area governments and private corporations rallied from behind in the final set to win.


Cincinnati sports fans have been mostly immune from their teams threatening to leave since the riverfront stadiums were built 25 years ago, a period of relative calm and stability here, while those kinds of civic dramas played out in places like Oakland, Jacksonville, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

No one expected the Western & Southern Open to be up for grabs. The tournament’s history here dates to 1899, when some well-to-do folks who had formed the Cincinnati Tennis Club a few years earlier invited the best U.S. men and women players to compete at the Avondale Athletic Club, on the site of what is now Xavier University. They called it the Cincinnati Open. “Just think of it! The leading tennis players of the United States are here!” gushed The Cincinnati Times-Star.

Beemok Capital agreed to keep the tournament in Cincinnati, where it’s been held since 1899.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE CINCINNATI OPEN

The Open was a success. A couple of years later, it was renamed the Tri-State Tennis Tournament, its name for the next 65 years, and moved to the Cincinnati Tennis Club. In 1979, the tournament moved to Mason and became known as the ATP Championship. Western & Southern Financial Group stepped in as the lead sponsor in 2002 in the wake of the unrest in Over-the-Rhine, when other sponsors backed out.

The tournament has been associated with the downtown-based insurance giant since then. Some of the best tennis in the world was played here—with the exception of 2020, when the pandemic caused a move to New York City. Big Bill Tilden, Bobby Riggs, Cincinnatian Tony Trabert, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Evonne Goolagong, John McEnroe, Serena Williams, and Roger Federer all competed here.

In the world of professional tennis, it’s a top-tier event, a so-called Masters 1000 level tournament, attracting the world’s best players. It shares that status with a short list of elite cities such as Rome, Paris, Shanghai, Madrid, Montreal, and Miami.

The tournament has raised millions for charitable organizations, including Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center. Tens of thousands have memories of the tournament, either from attending or from volunteering. Many hold memories similar to Chip Gerhardt, who recalls volunteering to shuttle players to and from the hotel to the court in his family’s Mercury Comet when he was a high schooler. Or the Chicago dad who shared his memories in a letter to Sports Illustrated: “I spent every August as a kid being dropped off at the Lindner Family Tennis Center and roamed the grounds all day until being picked up by my parents in the afternoon,” he wrote. He now brings his tennis-playing son back to Cincinnati every summer to see the tournament. Tennis aficionados enjoyed access to the practice courts, where they could watch the pros warm up and then go autograph hunting.

The players liked the Midwest feel, the low-stress vibe here, a tourney situated in the Ohio suburbs across the highway from an amusement park. “Always happy to be back in Cincinnati,” Venus Williams said in her news conference after her first-round win last summer. “It’s like my home away from home.”

Two-time winner Victoria Azarenka from Belarus recalled years earlier thinking, “Cincinnati is really boring; there’s nothing to do.” Now at the ripe old age of 34, “I’ve never been happier to be in Cincinnati,” she said during an on-court interview last summer. “I’m driving around with all the greenery looking at horses. I ended up in some small little town by accident because I got lost. I love being here.”

Were we really about to lose this gem of a tournament that everyone seemed to love? How did things get to that point?

It started more than two years ago when the U.S. Tennis Association, the nonprofit that owned the tournament’s rights, decided to sell. Published reports had the USTA, which also owns the U.S. Open, heavily in debt, a financial situation aggravated by the pandemic, when it held both tournaments without fans. At the end of 2021, the Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid was sold, a deal that certainly caught the attention of USTA leadership since it fetched a reported $420 million. (The sale also included a golf tournament.) The USTA had purchased the Cincinnati tournament for $12.6 million in 2009 from the local nonprofit Tennis for Charity.

“Now is the right time to explore potential strategic options and alternatives in order to optimize the long-term growth of the tournament,” the USTA said in a press release. “With a sharp growth in interest and participation in U.S. tennis and strong valuations for individual tournaments, interest in the tournament is likely to be high.”

Turns out that was true. The rare opportunity to own such a prestigious tournament attracted high-profile bidders. Tennis legend Billie Jean King led a group that also included the CEO of Wall Street investment firm Guggenheim Partners. Sports promoter and venture capitalist Peter-Michael Reichel, who owns a professional tournament in Germany, led another bid. Mark Ein, chairman of the DC Open tennis tournament and a part owner of the Washington Commanders NFL franchise, submitted a bid, according to Sports Business Journal.

Western & Southern made a bid that would have been supported by other local companies, says John Barrett, the firm’s chairman and CEO. “If we had won it, we would have gone back to a selected one or two companies to partner with us,” he says.

They were all outbid by 61-year-old billionaire Ben Navarro, founder of Sherman Financial Group and its big credit-card issuer, Las Vegas–based Credit One Bank. Beemok Capital is his “family office,” an investment firm whose name stems from the first initials of Ben, his wife Kelly, and their four children. His winning bid was upwards of $250 million, according to published reports.

Tennis is a passion of Navarro’s. In 2018, he bought a women’s professional tournament in Charleston and renamed it the Credit One Charleston Open. He did a major renovation of the tournament’s home, now called Credit One Stadium, turning it into a top-level tennis and concert venue. Beemok also operates two tennis complexes in Charleston that host tournaments for aspiring professionals as well as a prestigious junior girls tournament. One of his daughters, Emma, 22, is a ranked player on the Women’s Tennis Association tour.

“We are committed to providing the best resources to the world’s best players and look forward to elevating the Western & Southern Open experience for players and fans,” Navarro said in a prepared statement when the purchase was announced.

To do that, Navarro would either have to renovate and expand the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Mason or build a new facility from scratch in Charlotte. The catch is he wanted the public to pay for half of all costs.

Officials in Mason and Warren County began meeting with Navarro and his staff to learn firsthand their vision for the tournament and the facility. Mason officials and Beemok representatives traveled to Charleston and toured Credit One Stadium, where renovations had expanded seating by more than 50 percent and added hospitality suites and a VIP club.

The city of Mason, population 35,000, is home to some big companies, including Cintas Corp. and a major P&G facility, but this was a whole new ballgame in economic development. “The stakes were much bigger, the geography was bigger, the return on investment was bigger, the impact was much wider, and it was something very different for us,” says Nelson, Mason’s mayor.

But in fairly short order, Mason City Council approved a contribution of $30 million: $15 million in cash, mainly from its general fund, and $15 million to buy the tennis center, which is expected to be repaid over time through the city’s hotel tax. “We were scrambling to see what we could do to keep it here,” Nelson says. “From the get-go, we were 100 percent dedicated to doing everything that we could do to save the tournament.”

Warren County commissioners approved a $50 million contribution, with most of that coming from the county’s general fund. To get to the necessary $130 million level of public funding, the state of Ohio would need to chip in as well. A contingent that included leaders from Mason, Warren County, and area Fortune 500 companies traveled to Columbus in spring 2023 to make a first push for the state to invest in keeping the Western & Southern Open. They pointed out that local governments were financially committed and needed the state to join them.

Some time later, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted convened a meeting with Beemok representatives and state economic development officials at the tennis center in Mason to hear their plans. Those who attended that meeting say Husted wanted a measure of permanence if the state was going to get involved. “His main concern was for this to be a long-term investment,” says State Rep. Adam Mathews.

The first-term legislator had just arrived at the statehouse a few months earlier, and he set about working the legislative angles. But his sense of urgency to get state money committed—Beemok wanted to make a final decision by the end of the summer—wasn’t shared by the rest of the General Assembly. “This isn’t how things are done” was the message Mathews got from more experienced legislators. Funding for expansions or renovations are normally done during the capital budget process, he heard, and that will happen in 2024.

“We needed confirmation that this funding would be there,” says Mathews. “So I pushed and pushed and pushed and worked with whoever it was even in the midst of a chaotic start for the General Assembly.” Legislative business couldn’t begin until GOP House members picked a new speaker, a process that had devolved into intraparty controversy. When that was settled, legislators turned their attention to the budget. But the governor’s proposed budget didn’t include funding for the tennis tournament. The House proposal did, but it was taken out by the Senate. In the final budget compromise, $22.5 million was earmarked for the tennis center.


Meanwhile, officials in Charlotte, Mecklenburg County, and North Carolina were piecing together a similar package, but their subsidies were coming up short. Funding from the North Carolina legislature had been held up by budget fights over the expansion of gambling and Medicaid spending. When it was finally approved, the state’s contribution brought the total local and state subsidy to $115 million for Charlotte’s River District facility—$15 million short of Beemok’s original request.

But dollars weren’t the only factor in Navarro’s decision to stay in Cincinnati. The Charlotte facility existed only on paper, as ground had been broken just a few months earlier on the massive overall development. Cincinnati already had a perfectly good tennis stadium that fans had been flocking to for more than 40 years. “They were creating an asset, and we already had one,” says Russell, the Warren County administrator.

The Cincinnati contingent pressed home that point—as well as the tournament’s Midwest location—during last August’s tournament, which was attended by Navarro and other Beemok executives. “We said, If you move it to Charlotte, there’s already a good-sized tournament in Atlanta earlier in the year,” recalls Barrett. “There’s a big tournament in Miami in the spring. You’ll be just another tournament. If you stay here, you’re the pride of the Midwest.”

That selling point became clear during the 2023 Western & Southern Open, which turned Navarro’s decision. The tournament attracted nearly 195,000 fans, almost 10 percent more than the year before. Most of the sessions were sold out, and some ticket packages had sold out months in advance. Fans came from all 50 states and 39 countries to see the top-ranked men and women players in the world, including eight current or former No. 1 ranked players.

The tennis itself was thrilling. After knocking off the top-ranked player earlier in the tournament, Coco Gauff, a 19-year-old American, went on to win the women’s title, her first Masters 1000 championship. She would capture the U.S. Open three weeks later.

The men’s final was a rematch of the Wimbledon championship a month earlier between the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 players. Novak Djokovic, the 36-year-old Serbian, defeated 20-year-old Carlos Alcaraz of Spain in a match that lasted nearly four hours, the longest in Cincinnati history. “It’s one of the toughest and most exciting matches that I’ve ever been a part of,” Djokovic said immediately afterward. “These are the kinds of moments and matches that I want to be playing for.”

Six weeks later, Beemok Capital announced the tournament would stay where it began. “The passion and commitment of this community to keep the tournament here was an undeniable factor in our decision to stay,” Navarro said in a news release.

The energy of the fans and the 1,500 volunteers who make the tournament work had made an impression. “Getting to know how engaged everyone is from a community standpoint, the volunteers and the staff and the fans, for me was overwhelming,” says Bob Moran, the head of Beemok’s sports and entertainment division. “That definitely won the day.”

The 2023 champions made a short video to deliver the news. “Your wonderful tournament is staying in Cincinnati,” Djokovic said. “Cincinnati will forever be special to me,” Gauff added.

The effort had brought together multiple public bodies, nonprofits, corporations, and others who persisted even as Cincinnati was being written off. “The people who were doing the work on this just kept putting one foot in front of the other,” says Gerhardt, whose Government Strategies consulting firm worked on the project with the city of Mason. “It was classic nose-to-the-grindstone work.”

Under Navarro’s ownership, big changes are in the works. In 2025, the tournament will expand to two weeks and the size of the field will double, with 96 players invited. The nearly 12,000 seats in the Center Court stadium are already being replaced. Bleachers are being upgraded with chair-back seats, and many seats will be padded, with more leg room. Some suites have already been renovated, and more will be.

The stadium courts in Mason will be expanded and modernized over the next two years.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE CINCINNATI OPEN

Longer term, the tennis center will add new facilities that can be used for pickleball, indoor tennis courts for amateur tournaments, more space for dining, bigger locker rooms, more practice courts, and maybe a concert venue. “We should really make sure that it’s usable for other events, be it music, be it other tennis events, be it pickleball events, all of those things for year-round use,” says Moran.

A key to the deal, in addition to the $130 million in public financial contributions, is an agreement that will likely save Beemok tens of millions in taxes. Lawyers are still working out the details, but Warren County commissioners agreed to structure ownership of the tennis center through the tax-exempt Warren County Port Authority. That will potentially save Beemok millions in sales taxes on the construction materials it buys.

The commissioners also agreed to recommend the state exempt Beemok from paying property taxes on the facility. Over the course of its 25-year tenancy, that could add up to millions. “They are working on ways to achieve that,” says Matt Schnipke, director of the county’s economic development office.

Another incentive makes use of an obscure financing tool allowed by state law called a New Community Authority. This authority, which will be governed by a seven-member board composed of Mason, Warren County, and Beemok representatives, can impose and collect taxes and user fees to be earmarked for long-term maintenance and renovations at the tennis center. There could be a small tax attached to beer sales or hotel rooms, for example, to create a fund for renovations and expansion in the future, Russell explains. Those taxes and fees could apply not just during the tennis tournament but throughout the rest of the year as other events, possibly including concerts, are held on the grounds.

That fund can be drawn on to pay for expansions and renovations over the 25-year life of its lease. “Beemok is willing to assume all future demand and growth and capital improvements through use of the New Community Authority,” says Russell.

The kicker in the financial deal was Western & Southern’s agreement to back off of its title sponsorship even though it had the rights to the name through 2024. Some of Cincinnati’s biggest companies (Procter & Gamble, Fifth Third, Kroger, and Great American Insurance as well as Western & Southern and Navarro’s Credit One Bank) put up a total of $10 million in sponsorship money for this year’s tournament, which has now been renamed the Cincinnati Open—hearkening back to its origin in 1899.

“When we agreed to take our name off of it, it enabled them to raise more money for the coming year,” Barrett says. “Having our name on it is not the most important thing. Having it here is.”

It’s possible that the name will change again if a major national or international brand steps up with sponsorship money. “We are truly an international event,” Moran says. “We have a global audience, both on TV and streaming, fans coming from everywhere. Our intention is to keep it as the Cincinnati Open, but we will be looking at every opportunity that comes our way.”

From a monetary perspective, it took more than $100 million in taxpayer dollars, millions more in local and state taxes that will not be collected, and millions in shareholder funds to keep the tournament here. Was it worth the money and the effort?

“This is an international asset,” says Russell. “It puts southwestern Ohio, the city of Mason, and Warren County on the sports map.” The event is an economic development tool that helps court international companies in particular, he says. It will expand the county’s tourism and entertainment business, a point echoed by Mayor Nelson.

“It’s an economic powerhouse for the entertainment corridor in our community,” she says. Beyond the two weeks of the tournament, she expects the expanded complex to eventually host college tournaments and concerts, creating jobs and generating tax revenue. “It has a direct financial impact on not only Mason but on the whole Cincinnati region,” she says.

Psychologically, it was a big boost to beat one of the fastest growing regions in the country for a plum event. As State Rep. Mathews says, “This is where I grew up, where I went to high school, and we’re a world-class city with one of the best tennis tournaments in the world.”

And that, as the saying goes, is priceless.

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