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Why Connecticut Bought a Tennis Tournament

Connecticut may be the first state in the nation to purchase a pro tennis tournament. The deal has its skeptics, but Gov. Dan Malloy and other state officials say it will generate millions.

Yesterday Connecticut approved a deal to buy a pro tennis tournament in New Haven, Conn. Although state and local governments often subsidize sports stadiums, Connecticut officials say this is the first time a state has purchased a pro tennis tournament outright.

Connecticut’s Capital Region Development Authority voted in favor of paying $618,000 for the rights to a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) tournament.  Technically, the deal only pertains to the nine-day event in August, not the facility itself. In practice, the main use of the stadium is the tournament. Gov. Dan Malloy, who is up for re-election next year, touted the move as important for local economic activity. He also maintained that owning the event would elevate the city's profile nationally and abroad -- ESPN2 and Tennis Channel televise the tournament, as do networks outside the United States.

Some kind of pro tournament has operated on the Yale University campus in New Haven since 1991, though previously New Haven hosted a men's and women's combined event. Today it serves as a warm-up for women before the U.S. Open. Past champions include some of the game’s most illustrious names, such as Boris Becker, Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi and Venus Williams. This year the tournament attracted an elite field, including the No. 6, 8, 9 and 10 players in the world.

Prompted by declining attendance and revenue, the United States Tennis Association planned to sell the event to a venue in Winston-Salem, N.C., where a men’s tournament already takes place. When the men’s pro tour rejected an initial offer, Malloy and his budget director, Ben Barnes, swept in to buy the tournament. The move is in line with the state's past support for the sport: in 1991 the state funded the tennis center's construction with $18 million in general obligation bonds under the administration of then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr, a tennis enthusiast. This year Malloy set aside $400,000 to offset operating costs at the tournament. That's in addition to $258,000 the General Assembly designated in April for capital improvements, such as updating public restrooms and renovating a concession stand.

The fact that the CRDA would approve the deal was never in question. The governor and the General Assembly appoint the 13-member board for the CRDA,  a quasi-public agency established by the Connecticut General Assembly to promote economic activity, including regional sports events. The authority already has some experience managing sports venues, such as the XL Center, home to the state's American Hockey League team, and Rentschler Field, where the University of Connecticut's football team plays.

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Barnes has championed the tennis purchase as good for economic development, citing a 2008 study that found the New Haven Open event generated about $26 million in regional economic impact, including nearly 300 jobs and $1.1 million in state tax revenue. The state House minority leader, Republican Larry Cafero, says the 2008 study is outdated and fails to offer evidence for why anyone would purchase the tournament in 2013. After all, the event’s title sponsor, Pilot Pen, left in 2010, as did the men’s draw. Attendance has shrunk from a high of 100,000 -- when the men played as well -- to about 45,000 in 2013. (This year, the tournament closed off its upper bowl in the 13,000-seat tennis center.)

“Running tennis tournaments is not the job of state government,” blogged Ben Zimmer, executive director for The Connecticut Policy Institute, a think tank founded in 2011 by Tom Foley, the 2010 Republican nominee for governor. “Taxpayers should not be subsidizing entertainment services for which there is insufficient demand.”

In general, sports arenas do not catalyze economic activity to the extent public officials often suggest, said Geoffrey Propheter, a researcher at the George Washington Institute of Public Policy, who studies public investment in pro sports facilities. Usually the purchase or renovation of an arena gets pitched as a way to revitalize the community, but Propheter says the causal relationship is typically reversed: Stadiums open as “a consequence of a strong, already thriving community.” If attendance is decreasing in New Haven, that may indicate that residents of Connecticut don’t care about the tournament anymore.

By some measures tennis is on the decline in the United States. High-profile tournaments in Los Angeles, Carlsbad and San Jose have recently relocated to other countries. In an interview earlier this week with Daily Tennis News Business, an Atlanta tournament director bemoaned the dwindling number of pro tournaments in the United States, which he said correlates with the current absence of an American man ranked in the top 10. Given that trend, why would Connecticut invest in a tennis tournament?

Yes, attendance is down, Barnes said, but the tournament is still an economic boon for the community. “Let’s say it’s only half as much economic activity (today). Well, if it only generates $12.5 million, I would argue it’s still worth it.” Barnes agreed with conservative critics, however, who say the state shouldn’t be managing day-to-day operations of a tennis tournament, which is why the state has asked Anne Worcester, the tournament director for the past 16 years, to continue in her role.*

“We think it has life left in it,” Barnes said. “There are a lot of reasons to think that the tournament will come back stronger in the future.” For one, American women’s tennis experienced a minor revival in 2013. Serena Williams returned to No. 1 in the world, adding 10 titles to her resume. The New Haven tournament’s fourth seed, 20-year-old Sloane Stephens, reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and the semifinals at the Australian Open. Other American women who were relatively unknown before this year, such as Jamie Hampton and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, went deep in Grand Slams as well. This is good for the New Haven Open, Barnes argued, because fans like to see Americans in the finals.

For evidence, he points to the New Haven tournament’s peak in popularity, which coincided with the ascent of the last great Connecticut tennis player, James Blake. A native of Fairfield, Conn., Blake won the tournament in 2005 and 2007 on his way to becoming No. 4 in the world. That period also marked the last time an American woman won the tournament: Lindsay Davenport in 2005.

UPDATEAn earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut as the future operator of the New Haven Open. In fact, the Oct. 17 vote to purchase the event did not determine who would operate it.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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