Organisers of the French Open said they are considering an airline style ‘overbooking’ ticketing system for next year amid claims staff were asked to fill empty seats at this year’s Roland Garros event.

The French Tennis Federation (FFT) and Roland Garros claim the 2019 French Open, which drew to a close yesterday (Sunday) with Rafael Nadal beating Dominic Thiem to claim his 12th men’s title, pulled in a record attendance of 520,000 spectators.

Despite these official figures, the organisations received criticism for empty seats and poorly attended matches, such as the heavyweight semi-final match between Nadal and 20-time Grand Slam title winner Roger Federer on Friday.

Corporate sponsor seats and boxes are often empty on Roland Garros’ main Philippe Chatrier Court around lunchtime, as dignitaries leave the tennis to enjoy the hospitality on offer.

However, the Reuters news agency obtained a copy of an email sent to FFT employees asking them to fill empty seats for Saturday’s men’s semi-final and start of the women’s final. Staff were told to remain “discreet” and remove their accreditation once sat down.

The FFT email to employees read: “Because of the scheduling changes for tomorrow, June 8, the management of the tournament has the pleasure to authorise the employees of the FFT (black and gray badges) and their privies (white badge with black stripe) to access the boxes from 12pm to attend the end of the men’s semi-final and the start of the women’s final.

“It is well understood that the following rules must be respected:

  • At every change over, when the guests enter the court, stand up and stay in proximity of the box. Step aside as the clients arrive.
  • Stay discreet. Take off your accreditation once in the box. Do not bring food.
  • Do not disclose this measure on social media.”

Tournament director Guy Forget and FFT president Bernard Guidicelli acknowledged the issues surrounding hospitality and its relationship to a sea of empty seats at lunchtimes, but maintains that it is an essential revenue source for Roland Garros.

Forget said during the end of tournament press conference yesterday: “The problem of empty boxes is not a new phenomenon. We have been working on it for several years. We will try next year to find new ways to fill our boxes, which are empty sometimes. From an economic point of view, we cannot afford today to refuse these partners… who choose to consume the tennis in a different way.

“That is why we are trying, with our partners, perhaps to put in place for the next year a kind of overbooking system, as is done today by airlines or hotels, so that they can bring some of their customers in the first part and others after lunch.”

Giudicelli added: “If we only sell general admission tickets with no hospitality, the very economics of the tournament and, even beyond the tournament, the economy of the Federation, would be affected. I’m not sure that we could offer prize money identical to what we are doing today. I am sure, however, that investments in the stadia couldn’t be secured.

“Remember this figure: between 2008 and 2021, it is €500m ($565.1m) that the Federation will have invested of its own funds, without any public support, to modernise these stadia.”

Image: Marco Verch CC author