CT Open in the black but needs crowds
Here’s the good news about this year’s just-concluded Connecticut Open tennis tournament: It will most likely end up in the black, director Anne Worcester told me Thursday night — not just barely but into six figures.
And for the fourth straight year, the CT Open sold more than 50,000 tickets.
Final numbers for the women’s tour event won’t be out until well into fall, but a 6-figure surplus is a triumph for a tennis event that lives in the shadow of the mighty U.S. Open. All the more in a week when many Connecticut shoreline tennis fans are at Martha’s Vineyard or in Maine, perhaps delivering kids to college.
And all the more still in an era when people entertain themselves on an iPhone and watch sports at home on a 60-inch screen.
“It’s good to be back in the black,” Worcester said, after a break-even year in 2017. “The site felt more vibrant, just had a really great vibe this year.”
The bad news is that attendance just wasn’t good enough. Not this year, not last year, not in any recent year without big names like Venus, Maria, Andre, Stefan and Sampras. Serena? Too much to ask.
The numbers on the $4 million ledger add up nicely. About $2.5 million from 75 sponsors, including Yale and Yale New Haven, the state of Connecticut ($250,000, down from $600,000 a few years ago) and the city of New Haven ($100,000 plus emergency services on the taxpayers). Another $750,000 from ticket sales, including box seats. Plus parking, food and beverage, merchandise sales and TV revenues.
But the bodies just don’t fill those seats, not even close. And that’s a shame, since Worcester and her crew do everything they can to make the CT Open an overall experience, not just a day or a night at the matches.
What can the tournament do, what can the city of New Haven do, what can you, dear reader, do to make the CT Open not just a surviving annual institution but a hot ticket? A place, as New Haven economic development czar and CT Open fan Matthew Nemerson recalls it once was, to see and be seen?
As you’re thinking, here are some numbers. With 14 sessions over seven days including qualifying rounds at the 7-day tournament, those 50,000 billets translate to 3,600 humans at each separate event.
That’s a great number in a stadium that holds 5,500 in the lower bowl. Forget the fact that the place was built for 15,000, with upper tiers that have no use beyond the recently installed solar panels on the sunny side.
We don’t know the actual in-stadium numbers because the tournament doesn’t release actual gate attendance. But it ain’t 3,600 a night even with decent crowds hanging around the pavilion for food and fun events.
What’s the problem getting more fannies in the seats?
Aside from the issues I mentioned, New Haven doesn’t still have a dozen banks and a large number of law and accounting firms doing corporate work, who can bring their clients to see Andre Agassi, Venus Williams and Pete Sampras, as this tournament saw back in the ’90s when it was a tour event for both men and women.
As Worcester argued at the tournament director’s meeting at the U.S. Open in New York last week, the tour requirements are too grueling, costing some top players. Still, New Haven had 22 of the top 35 so the quality on the court is great.
Traffic is worse these days on I-95 and the Merritt from Fairfield County.
And as Nemerson says, Yale and the rest of the world are more global, less local in the 21st century when it comes to how we view culture. “It’s part of the changing of society in America,” Nemerson said.
And it’s part of the balancing act for New Haven, I’d add the rest of Connecticut: Every event must be very high quality, “but it has to work in the icy shadows of New York.”
That’s where Daniel and Sarah Beth Del Prete and their six small children come in.
I was at the matches on the Wednesday night of quarterfinals, when Petra Kvitova, a three-time winner here and two-time Wimbledon champion, came from a set back to beat qualifier Zarina Diyas. But by 9:15 p.m. or so, when Kvitova finally took control of the third set, just a smattering of fans remained, scattered in a stadium the state built at a time of wealth and dreams.
Among them, right at courtside, were the Del Pretes, attracted by First Responder Night — he’s a New Haven city firefighter — but drawn to stay to the very end, just before midnight, when the last doubles match finished. Did I mention small children? There they were, five of them under age 9 (one was home, sick) — watching tennis, perfectly behaved.
Yeah, those kids ran around a bit, but quietly, not during points, and without sugar bribes. Here’s my guess: Those children will still remember their annual trips to the CT Open, having Kvitova sign a tennis ball for them, when they’re my age. Their friends will not remember another night of watching SpongeBob SquarePants.
This is the problem of Connecticut, and of anyone in the audience engagement business, not just the Connecticut Open. There isn’t one brilliant stroke of genius to solve it. Daniel Del Prete has an idea that the tournament should let fans into the pavilion area free, where the food trucks, early round matches and endless activities take place.
“You’d get a taste of it, you can see it, you can eat the food, you can check out the vending tables,” he said.
Or, have a concert to kick off the week, he suggested. Heck, back in the ’90s, New Haven closed off Chapel Street downtown every night. The players would show up, sometimes with their bands. “What it said was, ‘There’s something going on here,’” Nemerson said Friday.
There still is. The list of related events that Worcester and her folks put on seems endless. This year they added a craft beer day, which drew hundreds to the grounds to taste from 25 breweries and maybe catch some tennis. There’s an Aetna FitZone, Avangrid Power Zone, Porsche displays, kids day, women’s day and legends exhibition matches with John McEnroe and James Blake.
She’s doing it on a tighter budget, with $300,000 cut from this year’s expenses including several unfilled jobs. “We tried to make changes that would not be at all apparent to our fans,” Worcester said, and thanks to renovations in a $2.5 million state-financed capital improvement a few years back, the nonprofit foundation that runs the show is renting the stadium out now and then.
“We’ve become a really efficient business,” Worcester said.
That’s great. The numbers work. An earlier week in the summer would help, and could lure a name like Maria or Serena. But it’s also up to Connecticut residents.
Follow the Del Pretes’ example. Get out there with or without the kids. It’s a great entertainment value and if we lose it — as almost happened until Gov. Dannel P. Malloy saved it in 2014 — all those headwind factors won’t matter. It will be our own fault for staring at iPhones instead of seeing the real thing.