Mark Ein saved Citi Open — can he make it a destination?

July 10, 2019

Summer in the Washington sports landscape has a rhythm.

Once the Wizards and Caps are done, we settle into the daily beat of baseball, punctuated by weekends of soccer, peppered in with Mystics games.

But two major events brought golf and tennis to the area: the Quicken Loans National and Citi Open. With a title sponsor change and a lack of interest from some of its former homes, the golf tournament fled for greener pastures. Mark Ein wasn’t about to let the tennis tournament do the same.

Ein has stewarded another Washington summer tradition, the Washington Kastles, into the rotation of sports in the city. With this season set to be played on the roof of Union Market, he pushed them back into the spotlight. But Ein’s been involved with Citi Open off and on his whole life, as a ball kid, helping with transportation as a college student, even sitting on the board briefly more than a decade ago. The dominoesd were never aligned for him to be more than that. Until now.

“It had to be the right time, and for a variety of reasons it was the right time for the foundation to find a new partner,” he told WTOP in a recent interview. “All of their other options would have involved it moving out of D.C., which is something they didn’t want. And I give them a lot of credit for prioritizing keeping it in Washington and realizing how important it is to our community.”

Ein has another, “real” job, but just weeks before both the Kastles’ season (starts July 15) and Citi Open (July 27), you wouldn’t know it from the promotional materials, renderings, overstuffed folders and notes spilling across the broad, glass half oval in front of him in his Rosslyn office.

“I mean, look at my desk,” he said, laughing.

For Ein, it wasn’t enough to simply keep the tournament as it has been, though. As is true with every other sporting event these days, he understands the importance of making the tournament a destination for more than just tennis, for bringing an appeal beyond what’s existed before.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done with the Kastles, elevating that in our local sports landscape and into the summer of Washington,” he said. “I thought that the same principles we used to make the Kastles something that a lot of people really embraced and loved were things we could bring to the Citi Open.”

That means bringing in food service provider Levy, which services nearly 200 sports venues including Wrigley Field, the Kentucky Derby, and the U.S. Open. It also means food offerings from José Andrés and Shake Shack, along with local businesses like Ice Cream Jubilee, Dolcezza and Compass Coffee. There’s even an açai bowl cart, from a business which Brazilian player Bruno Soares (also a member of the Kastles) is part owner.

There are also changes that anyone who has attended an outdoor summer event in D.C. will appreciate, namely that the food concession area, called Market Square, will be indoors and air-conditioned, overlooking the tournament’s practice courts. Previously, the only areas with AC were restricted to VIPs and suite holders.

A rendering of the Market Square, an air-conditioned, tented food court featuring local concessions. (Courtesy Citi Open)

Ein is also striving to improve the parking situation, something that the tight quarters of the Rock Creek Tennis Center always makes challenging. In years past, the lot next to stadium was dramatically oversold, causing problems for even those who had paid for premium spots.

Ein said he is looking to improve the grass lots as well, though that may be more of a long-term solution. For now, there’s a new bike valet, and the space will accommodate scooter rentals and encourage ride sharing for those who are able to do so.

Ein understands that he has one opportunity to make a good first impression not only on the fans, but on the participants. Citi Open is the fifth-biggest tennis tournament in America, but has struggled to draw the very top players year in and year out, especially on the men’s side.

In the past, the tournament has tried to focus on bringing in one headlining name — Andy Murray played last year as part of his attempted comeback from injury. That is no longer the philosophy under Ein, who is pushing hard for the next generation of exciting players.

“We really actively tried to recruit a deeper field,” Ein said. “Let’s go really grab the whole next generation and have them come…then let’s target specifically players who are compelling to fans as well.”

This year, that field includes 20-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, ranked as high as sixth in the world this summer, and Canadians Felix Auger-Aliassime (just 18) and Denis Shapovalov (20), along with hometown favorite Frances Tiafoe (21) on the men’s side. The women’s draw will feature the likes of 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu and 22-year-old Belinda Bencic, as well as Barbora Strycova, who just advanced to the Wimbledon semifinals.

Ein flew to London for the first week at the All England Club to meet with players and find out what improvements they want to see on the facilities side. After all, this is also his one shot to sell not just fans, but that next generation of stars on making this a permanent event on their calendars as they rise the ranks in years to come.

“That is an important constituency and that has to be an equal area of focus,” said Ein of the players. “We’re doing a lot of things that fans don’t see, but a lot of things to make it a great event for players.”

If he can convince the next generation of both fans and players to see Citi Open as not just a tennis tournament, but a destination — what he calls “a Washington summer tradition, re-imagined” — Ein hopes he can cement the tournament of his youth as a permanent institution.

“Really my motivation in this is I look at the young Mark Ein, growing up in the Maryland suburbs, and what this meant to me,” he said. “It would have been really sad if it had left our community. Because once you lose them, you never get them back. It would have been gone forever.”

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