Once-thriving tennis tournament struggles to stay relevant

July 21, 2008

A dearth of name players, slumping attendance and an outdated venue have some in the local tennis community wondering if the Indianapolis Tennis Championships--formerly known as the RCA Championships--needs some serious re-stringing.

Attendance at the nine-day event, which ran July 12-20 this year, was on pace through July 16 to be at a 20-year low. But attendance is far from the tournament's only challenge.

The ITC is still searching for a title and other sponsors to make up for lost revenue after Thomson's RCA brand pulled out in 2006.

The tournament's home, The Indianapolis Tennis Center on the IUPUI campus, needs millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades. The tournament is responsible for maintenance and that annual line item is five figures and growing.

A television deal with NBC ended after last year, being replaced by deals with ESPN2 and The Tennis Channel. TV viewership is expected to drop as a result, though tournament officials say a new deal with ESPN2 and The Tennis Channel that begins next year will give the tournament more exposure.

And the tournament's $525,000 purse may need to be bolstered to get more of the world's top players back to Indianapolis.

Tournament officials said they have a budget for appearance fees to draw top-name players. But a lack of star power in American men's tennis, along with larger competing tournaments--namely the Western & Southern Financial Group Masters & Women's Open in Cincinnati--make the near-term prospects of attracting the type of talent the tournament did five or 10 years ago seem bleak.

Jim Whipkey, a sales and marketing executive from Evansville and president of the Central Indiana Tennis Association, used to bring a group from southern Indiana up for three or four days each year.

"We'd stay at the Westin Hotel, and watch some of the greatest players in the world a short drive from home," Whipkey recalled. "It was great."

He estimated that more than 100 people came up from Evansville alone.

"Then the ATP changed the date," Whipkey said. "So we go to the tournament in Cincinnati instead."

The ATP moved the local tournament from August, where it was a key U.S. Open tune-up, to July, where it kicks off the nine-tournament U.S. Open Series. The Cincinnati tournament, set for July 25 through Aug. 3 this year, is a higher-level ATP tournament with more prize money, so it has drawn the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

"The Cincinnati tournament is a formidable competitor from a fan-draw standpoint anywhere in southern Indiana," Whipkey said. "The [Indianapolis Tennis Championships] needs an infusion of sponsors and resources."

Some in the tennis community said the ATP really hamstrung the local tournament when it changed the date. Many of the best international players don't want to play so soon after Wimbledon, and don't care to come to the United States so far in advance of the U.S. Open.

Inhospitable venue

Whipkey thinks the tournament's outdated venue is crippling corporate hospitality and sponsorship sales. He isn't alone.

"Well, you look around the corner at the new Lucas Oil Stadium, and you can see [the tennis center is] definitely not state-of-the-art anymore," said Larry DeGaris, director of academic sports marketing programs at the University of Indianapolis. "It's not a place you necessarily want to entertain corporate clients."

ITC Director Kevin Martin admits the venue is an issue.

"We are clearly focused on the facility," Martin said. "We have to figure out a long-term solution. We spend tens of thousands of dollars each year in maintenance. The facility is somewhat outdated."

Tournament officials are intent on staying downtown, Martin said, "but we have to evaluate all of our options."

IUPUI owns the facility and controls its fate. A university spokesperson didn't return a call seeking information about the university's plans for the venue.

Maintaining optimism

Despite the challenges, Martin remains bullish on the tournament's future. He said it has the income and reserves to keep it going for the foreseeable future.

"I'm very optimistic right now," he said. "This event is very, very healthy with great sponsors and a good charitable direction."

There's also some good news on the date front. Next year's tournament will be a week later in the schedule, which Martin thinks will help draw more top players.

With dates locked in for four years and a new television deal signed through 2014, the tournament will have the stability it needs to grow its fan and sponsorship base, he said.

The sponsorship base has broadened from last year and corporate hospitality activity is up, Martin said. And the tournament is proud of its new charitable initiative promoting healthy, active lifestyles throughout the state, Martin added.

"The positives of this tournament are a reflection of Kevin Martin and his staff," said Mark Saunders, executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association Midwest Section. "I think they have positioned this tournament wisely and have given themselves a lot of opportunities for growth."

While Indianapolis sports marketing executive David Morton admits the tournament has challenges, he agreed there is reason for optimism. Sponsors like Eli Lilly and Co. Inc., Anthem Insurance Co., Clarian Health, Mercedes and Olympus have remained committed, Morton said.

Morton, an officer with the local division of the USTA, said the role the sponsors play is significant.

Lilly, Anthem and Clarian are pillars in the tournament's new philanthropic initiative, Healthy Active Lifestyles--or HAL, which is taking the message of good health, fitness and nutrition to the community through schools and other youth organizations, as well as health fairs. The tournament itself is hosting a multi-day health fair that offers screenings and other free services.

"The activity level of these sponsors is a very strong sign," Morton said.

Martin emphasized that sponsorships--along with ticket sales, hospitality and other ancillary sales--still cover the tournament's $3.4 million annual budget. If there's a shortfall, he said, the tournament still has some cash in reserve.

Calling all fanatics

Lacking American tennis stars of the past such as Jimmy Connors and Pete Sampras, University of Indianapolis' DeGaris said, the event has had to lean on its core audience-tennis fanatics. The tournament's biggest stars this year were James Blake and Robby Ginepri, both of whom are well-known to tennis aficionados but hardly household names.

While attendance is down from the 90,000 range in the mid 1990s, it has been stable between 70,000 and 80,000 since 2002. Last year's attendance was near 71,000 for the week.

"This is a niche event," DeGaris said. "The good news is, central Indiana has a very good core tennis audience."

DeGaris thinks group sales will be key to sustaining the tournament.

"A league-wide group sales effort saved the NBA in the post-Michael Jordan era," DeGaris said. "That strategy can be used to bolster this tournament. But sports ticket sales through database marketing has become much more sophisticated in the last decade, and tournament officials have to keep up with that."

Tennis' niche market is showing solid growth.

USTA figures show Midwest Section membership has grown nearly 11 percent in the last four years, to 83,628.

"And there are many more players than that in the Midwest," Morton said. "But tournament officials have to find a way to tap into the core audience even better than they already are."

The total number of players in the United States has risen steadily, about 4 percent annually in recent years, to just more than 25 million, according to the Tennis Industry Association.

More important, said USTA officials, the number of players that report playing 20 or more times a year is up more than 15 percent in the last four years, to 5.3 million.

"These numbers show phenomenal growth in tennis, and it shows there's an audience in this market for this tournament," USTA's Saunders said. "This tournament is one of the key reasons USTA located a section office here, and I think it's an attraction for other people and businesses."

Saunders pointed out that there are only 14 major U.S. men's professional tennis tournaments, including 13 ATP Tour events and the U.S. Open.

"This tournament is a rare commodity," Saunders said. "It would be wise to safeguard it."

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