Local tourney to test new blue tennis courts: RCA Championships hopes to enhance fan experience

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The RCA Championships is preparing for its biggest on-court change since the local tennis tournament replaced clay with hard courts in 1988.

As part of a branding campaign led by the U.S. Tennis Association and U.S. Open, courts at the Indianapolis Tennis Center are being repainted from the traditional green to an eye-catching blue. The courts will be resurfaced and repainted-at a cost of $25,000-the week of July 4, just in time for the RCA Championships July 16-24.

The RCA Championships will be the first tournament in the 2-year-old U.S. Open Series to unveil the court color change.

With USTA and U.S. Open organizers ready to provide marketing muscle to boost the local tournament, the RCA Championships could be set for an attendance and TV ratings boost.

“The USTA and the U.S. Open are taking a bigger interest in the RCA Championships because we set the tone for the rest of the series,” said Sarah Brelage, RCA Championships executive director of staff operations. “The jury is still open whether the fans understand we’re a part of the U.S. Open Series, so we’re supportive of anything to increase the awareness of that relationship.”

The RCA Championships became part of the U.S. Open Series last year. The series is overseen by the USTA, and is an attempt to bring order to a string of disconnected summer tournaments.

A two-year study conducted by the USTA showed one of the major complaints by tennis fans is difficulty tracking the yellow-green ball against the green court. A blue court, the study found, enhanced visibility. Dozens of color variations were tried until USTA came up with a shade of navy blue it favored.

“This change is being made with the viewing audience in mind, especially the TV audience,” Brelage said.

Local tournament organizers will shoulder repainting costs, though they said the eight courts used for the tournament are routinely resurfaced and repainted, so additional costs for the change will be minimal. The blue paint, they said, is more difficult to obtain than the traditional green, increasing the cost slightly. Locally based Leslie Coatings Inc. will handle the work.

Sports marketers said being the first of seven men’s and six women’s tournaments in the U.S. Open Series to use the blue courts in competition will raise the profile of this year’s RCA Championships.

“The color of these courts is certainly a pretty major departure and should create some excitement,” said Jay Hacker, president of USTA’s Midwest section. “Longterm, we think it’s going to have a real positive effect on players and fans.”

Officials for NBC, which broadcasts the RCA Championships semifinals and finals, support the change.

“We’re very excited to see how this turns out,” said Jon Miller, NBC Sports senior vice president. “Great tennis is what’s going to be the critical factor in attracting viewers, but we think this is a good change.”

Not only do the blue courts enhance the viewing experience for the live and television audience, USTA CEO Arlen Kantarian said the distinction is also part of an effort to brand the U.S. Open Series and its tournaments.

“The court color is one of a handful of critical elements that creates this seasonlong, league-type consistent look and feel,” Kantarian said.

RCA Championships officials hope the changes raise the tournament’s profile and grow attendance, which climbed from 73,499 in 2003 to 79,967 last year.

Tournament officials believe being part of the series proved valuable in helping the local tournament continue to draw the world’s best players, even after the ATP Tour in 2003 moved the tournament to July from its traditional calendar spot as a U.S. Open tune-up in August.

“Fans now track players all the way through the series, and it starts here,” Brelage said.

If the winner of the series also wins the U.S. Open, the champion takes home a $2 million purse-the largest payout in the history of the sport.

The USTA has launched a national campaign to market the series with print and broadcast advertising. The RCA Championships is working with Roman Brand Group to market the event locally.

“I see this most recent move to change the color of the courts as a power play by the USTA in their effort to create and market a league-like atmosphere,” said Milton Thompson, president of Grand Slam Cos., a locally based sports marketing consultancy. “This is a solid first step in branding the series and could make the RCA Championships an even more premier player in North American tennis.”

The visibility of a blue court on television was tested in April at the U.S.-Belgium Fed Cup quarterfinal in Delray Beach, Fla.

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