The 1899 Room, Outside Looking In

The previous post discussed whether the new air-conditioned box seats in “1899 Room” in the new South Building at the Western and Southern Open tennis tournament were good seats for watching tennis. The upshot was that there are some very nice features of the 1899 room, but there are some problematic features too. The 1899 room is, in some ways, isolated from the rest of the stadium, and watching tennis there can be disconcertingly similar to watching tennis on television.

Today I traded tickets with one of my partner’s friends so that she could watch a set or two in the comfort of the 1899 room. I sat in her seat, which was high up (in the shade) along one of the sidelines of the center court.

From that vantage point, and from most of the seats in the stadium, you can see into the 1899 room. In fact, it draws the eye – the huge window wall that separates it from center court acts a little like a picture frame, and the different size and color of the 1899 seats attracts attention. Presumably many of the fans sitting in ordinary seats know that those seats on the other side of the window are the fabulously expensive air-conditioned ones.

So what do folks see when they look into the 1899 room from the outside?

First I noticed that, even when there’s an pretty good match being played, the seats are sparsely populated. I don’t really know how successful the tourney was at selling the 1899 room seats – it appears that they sold more than half of them. But except when there’s a really compelling match (e.g., any match with Roger Federer) on the center court, there are lots of empty seats. There can be empty seats in the rest of the stadium, too, of course, but to my eye it looks like the fans are spread much thinner in the 1899 room than they are in any other part of the stadium where the view is relatively good.

The second thing I noticed was that relatively few of the people I saw through the window look like they are paying much attention to the tennis. They’re eating, and drinking, and talking in small groups. They’re doing stuff with their tablets and smartphones. One man was reading a newspaper. There’s more coming and going than there is in the regular seats. You can’t hear what’s going on, of course, but you can tell that the talking and coming and going doesn’t stop when the ball is in play, the way it does in the regular seats.

Part of the fun of going to see live sports is the feeling of being part of something larger than yourself. You’re part of the crowd, and the crowd’s emotion and energy ebbs and flows in response to what’s happening in the sport. The game is an unfolding narrative, an experience you have in common with many others. Even if you decide to root for some team or player whose opponent is the one favored by the rest of the crowd, you can’t help responding as the crowd’s mood and energy rises and falls.

But then, perhaps, you look into the 1899 room, and you see something different going on. There are people in there, but they’re not part of the same crowd that you’re in.

I’ve been among them and I can assure you that they’re nice people – friendly, clever, knowledgable, polite – almost to a man and woman. But they’re not as involved as you are out in the cheaper seats. They look comfortable. But perhaps they’re not having as much fun. And perhaps their apparent lack of engagement make you feel a little less engaged yourself.

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