USTA Pride Month spotlight: Michael Fiur
If you’ve ever enjoyed a show-stopping musical performance on Opening Night, a commemorative on-court ceremony honoring a tennis legend, or an Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the US Open, Michael Fiur is among those who helped make it possible.
A New York City native and graduate of Binghamton University, Fiur has been involved with the US Open for the past 25 years and is currently the executive producer of the event’s entertainment — the show within the show.
In layman’s terms? Fiur and his team of associate producers are responsible for much of the on-site experience outside of the actual tennis competition: from securing Grammy Award-winners like Phil Collins and Kelly Clarkson for Opening Night performances to staffing the stadium DJs who soundtrack changeovers and set breaks.
The career is a logical intersection of longtime interests for Fiur, who first found a calling in theater as a student at the Dwight School in Manhattan and came to tennis after a stint as an entertainment executive for Radio City Music Hall. Having also produced the Super Bowl halftime show for the better part of two decades, he uses his background to play an integral role in making the US Open tennis’ grandest stage.
“A lot of what I’ve ended up doing has been in sports, somewhat ironically — never having been a major sports person, though a fan of hometown team growing up in New York,” he said. “I wasn't out there playing baseball or football or soccer or hockey… Tennis was one of the only sports that I really liked and played, never at any kind of major or competitive level. From 1997, with the opening ceremony for Ashe stadium and first AAKD in Ashe, I've worked on every US Open since.
“Over the last 25 years, we’ve created the entertainment blueprint for the US Open that’s grown as sports and entertainment have merged. For instance, [early on], we brought in video screens for Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day and Opening Night that were at the top of [Arthur Ashe] stadium, and then they left and were gone for the tournament. It wasn't until a couple of years later that we had video screens that eventually got enlarged over time and became a permanent part of the stadium. Serena and Venus' first primetime women's final was in 2001. 2002 was the first time we brought in a DJ to Arthur Ashe Stadium, and then we we added one at Louis Armstrong. Then we had on-court announcers, added that to Armstrong and Grandstand and then Court 17.
“As this has all evolved, we’ve really helped create what is the US Open as we know it today.”
Outside of the three weeks every summer in New York, Fiur and his team are omnipresent in tennis. They’ve also partnered with the USTA to provide on-court production at U.S. Davis Cup and Billie Jean King Cup ties, and worked on the BNP Paribas Open, Miami Open, Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and the WTA Finals in Singapore.
As he’s traveled worldwide on the tour behind-the-scenes, Fiur has nonetheless had a front-row seat to how the game itself has changed between the lines.
“When you think about diversity, equity, inclusion and tennis, I think great strides have been made, but I think there's still so much more work to be done,” Fiur said. “It's about creating opportunities for kids in particular to see themselves in, to see someone that they would want to emulate as a role model. I think you have to look at it on a couple of levels. One is creating the ways for young people to get into the sport, and then the other is promoting the people that will allow the kids to see themselves in the sport.”
Fiur, who is openly gay, says that while he feels that these role models need not be limited to players, it is important for anyone who chooses to use their platform in this way to be actively engaged.
“You can build programs and you can get out into the local communities, but I also think about the notion that success breeds success. You’ve seen the emergence of next generation of players of color after the incredible influence that Serena and Venus have had,” he continued.
“In terms of the LGBTQ+ community, tennis is a place where there are almost no male role models. You have Brian Vahaly, who's a former player, and as far as I know, the only openly gay male player, past or present, among American male players. You have the legends like Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova and many other women. So the more that young people see that… that will encourage young people that may not have ever thought that this could be a sport for them.
“From the LGBTQ+ perspective, you often have to make a conscious, active decision to come out. Nobody should ever feel like they ‘have’ to come out, and that's obviously always a big debate, whether in sports, in film or in any career. But I think at the end of the day, people who are in a position to be role models at any level, whether you're a CEO, whether you're a carpenter, whether you're an elite athlete, or whether you’re just starting out in professional life, that part of serving as a role model for the LGBTQ+ community requires you to share who you are.
“I've become more out over time. I think that for a long period of time, it was sort of a ‘don't ask, don't tell’ kind of thing. I never really hid who I was, but I didn't necessarily wear it on my sleeve. People who were close friends knew… and so when that was convenient, I did avoid it in a way. Now, I'm in a much different place. I now put it out there versus letting it passively be there. It's been difficult at times, having very high testosterone-driven client organizations like working with the NFL. That, at times, has been intimidating for me, but I'm very grateful that with all of the individuals I've always worked with, that I never felt judged in any way, that I really always felt accepted for who I was.”
As the US Open’s executive producer, Fiur is constantly imagining new ways to bring the event to life each year. One of the off-court events he is most proud to have been a part of the inaugural US Open Pride in 2019 — a panel where tennis legend and WTA co-founder Billie Jean King, former NBA player Jason Collins, former MLB player Billy Bean, former ATP player Brian Vahaly, Olympic figure skating medalist Adam Rippon, and active WTA players and partners Greet Minnen and Alison van Uytvanck from Belgium spoke candidly LGBTQ+ participation in sports, including their own coming-out stories.
It was one of the latest in a long line of events that has leveraged the US Open to highlight the USTA's commitment to inclusion and equity, and Fiur hopes that fans of all origins and backgrounds will again feel welcome on the grounds of the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this summer when the US Open opens its gates to spectators for the first time in two years.
“Just from an entertainment standpoint, one of the things we've been able to do with the USTA as an organization over the last 25 years is — if you look at Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, if you look at our opening ceremonies, if you look at our women's and men's final ceremonies, if you look at our nightly national anthem singers — we've strived to be a reflection of the country from a diversity, equality and inclusion standpoint,” Fiur said.
“We’ve had openly gay performers, we've had openly trans performers. We can look back and see people who performed for us and weren't out at the time, who are now out. We’ve had performers of color, a balance of men and women. For me, growing up, there were no openly gay athletes, there were no openly gay actors. There were no television shows with openly gay characters. There were no films with openly gay characters… I think about tennis in the same way.
“Everything we've tried to do, that we’ve put forth from an entertainment standpoint as the US Open, as an event and as a sports and entertainment experience, is to use the platform that we have, that I have been lucky enough as an individual and business to have had, to raise awareness, to create sensitivity, to increase [inclusivity.]
“What I love doing is having a vision, or a shared vision, and translating it and delivering it to other people to see and enjoy. I see it like this: I also enjoy photography and painting. Photographers capture an image on film and share it. Artists capture something by painting it and sharing that with others to create a feeling, to create an emotion. This is the same way I look at producing. We use the US Open to tell stories and share stories. All the ways that we can use our voice as the US Open to make a difference is very important. And I think we've been very successful at it.”