Players’ desire to shorten season could doom RCA Championships

Officials for the WTA, which represents women professional players, and the ATP, which represents men, are considering shortening the lengthy tennis calendar by imposing a short off-season–possibly a three-week, midyear respite that would collide with the RCA Championships. They could make a scheduling decision as soon as October.

A shorter season could help the players' associations achieve another goal: creating more elite events with bigger prize lists that would attract top players. And that could doom smaller tournaments like the RCA Championships, said Peter Bodo, senior editor at Tennis Magazine.

"This is a complicated issue, and if the players flex their muscle here, this could be a big problem," he said. "A number of tournaments could really take a bath over this."

RCA Championships leaders aren't convinced.

"We know there's a question about there being too many tournaments worldwide, but we think we're in a good position as part of the U.S. Open Series and with our strong reputation with the players," said event Director Kevin Martin.

Once a key U.S. Open tournament tune-up held each August, the RCA Championships moved to July three years ago to kick off the 10-tournament U.S. Open Series. This year's event is set for July 15-23. Attendance has been inconsistent since the change, but the event has seen significant increases in sponsorship revenue, TV viewership and national exposure, thanks to marketing by the U.S. Tennis Association, a not-for-profit dedicated to the growth of American tennis.

RCA Championships has remained financially healthy since the calendar change, Martin said, due in part to an 8-percent increase in sponsorship revenue. The tournament has a $3 million annual budget and continues to make six-figure donations to charity annually.

"We're gaining momentum right now, and that goes beyond live attendance," Martin said. "We've never been stronger financially."

Back and forth

While players and tournament promoters agree the cluttered tennis calendar needs reorganization, the two sides disagree about how to achieve order.

USTA has forwarded a plan to grow the sport by linking tournaments into a single series with an overall champion, like the U.S. Open Series does on a smaller scale. That series provides consistent programming, marketing dollars and a buildup to the U.S. Open, which the USTA owns.

Many tennis promoters, including those running the RCA Championships, have aligned with the USTA.

But some top players–through their associations–have complained that demands to play in too many tournaments have caused a growing number of injuries in the physically taxing sport.

And when players withdraw from tournaments due to injury, that takes a toll on promoters, sponsors and broadcast partners, WTA and ATP officials said, threatening to collapse the entire system.

"At the WTA event in San Diego this year, four of the top five players pulled out," Bodo said. "When something like that happens, there's an immediate and long-term financial impact there. And it's just bad for the game."

Even so, the scheduling volley isn't coming at an ideal time for the local tournament, which is in the final year of deals with 16-year title sponsor RCA and broadcast partner NBC. Officials at RCA are in discussions with tournament officials about continuing as title sponsor. NBC likewise has expressed interest in keeping the tournament's finals weekend on the air.

The debate also comes as RCA Championships officials work to lure a WTA event to coincide with the men's event. With the men's tournament finances improving, industry sources said moving a WTA event to Indianapolis is becoming more likely–if the schedule scuffle doesn't have a disastrous outcome.

"Adding a women's event would really add a new energy level," Martin said. "Our patrons and sponsors really want it."

The calendar controversy is complicated further, Tennis Magazine's Bodo said, by the fact that players themselves can't agree on the best course of action.

"Some of the players think they're being stretched too thin," he said. "But not all the players agree on this."

While some of the highest-ranked and highest-paid players are seeking to trim the tour calendar, lower-ranked players want to play in more tournaments to increase their chances of winning prize money and advancing through the rankings, Bodo said.

Playing favorites

Fortunately for local tournament organizers, the RCA Championships has long been a favorite of players on the ATP Tour.

"That has really helped them maintain a relatively healthy field," said Jon Wertheim, a Bloomington native who now covers tennis for Sports Illustrated.

This year, the tournament has drawn 15 of the top 40 male players–including aces Andy Roddick and James Blake–into its 48-man field.

"It's not easy these days to draw the top players unless you're a Grand Slam or one of a handful of the world's other top events," Wertheim said. "When you're not able to do that, trust me, there are some irate sponsors."

The local tournament has a strong ally in the USTA, which has much invested in the U.S. Open Series, industry experts said. Since its 2004 debut, the series has signed multiyear, multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals with major national corporations including Mass Mutual, American Express, Olympus and soap brand Lever 2000.

This month, USTA launched a $3 million marketing and advertising campaign with TV spots scheduled on ESPN, CBS, NBC, The Tennis Channel and print ads set to run in such publications as USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times. The ad campaign is tag-lined "The Greatest Road Trip In Sports … 6 Weeks, 10 Tournaments, $2 Million On The Line."

The early marketing efforts appear to be paying off. TV viewership for the U.S. Open Series tournaments has grown from 20 million in 2003 to 41 million in 2005, according to the USTA, and total attendance has climbed from 923,000 to 973,000.

Attendance isn't everything to organizers of the local tournament. In fact, they've removed 1,600 seats on the west and east ends at the Indianapolis Tennis Center at IUPUI–where the tournament has been held since 1979–in favor of posh courtside seating at "champagne tables."

The facility now seats 6,800.

"We're trying to create a more intimate feel," Martin said. "People were telling us they wanted to be closer to the play."

Martin projects the local tournament will draw 75,000 spectators this year, well off the record 97,891 who attended in 1993. Plenty of affordable tickets are still available, he said, but there's a renewed emphasis on premium seating and corporate hospitality.

Tickets range from $8 to $65, while a champagne table for four to the nine-day tournament costs $3,000. The 12 champagne tables were almost sold out a week before the tournament, local organizers said, with little marketing. More close-in seats on the north and south sides of the venue will be added next year, Martin said.

And after that? Who knows?

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