NEW HAVEN OPEN: Declining attendance is challenge all live sporting events face [New Haven Register, Conn.]
(New Haven Register (CT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 18--NEW HAVEN -- Venus Williams beat Jennifer Capriati to secure her third straight tournament title in New Haven nearly 12 years ago.
A record crowd of 11,584 was on hand at the Connecticut Tennis Center and tournament director Anne Worcester couldn't have been happier.
Women's professional tennis was thriving in New Haven.
But, as is life, the tournament changed and evolved over the years. Some, perhaps, for the better and some for the worse.
The inaugural women's tournament hosted stars like Lindsay Davenport, Steffi Graf and teen sensation Anna Kournikova. It's been a men's event, a combined event and a women's event. In-stadium entertainment and off-court events are being pushed now more than ever.
Many factors have played a role in the changes: technology, the economy, the players and the game itself.
Through strategic marketing campaigns and innovative ideas, Worcester and her team have strived to adapt, keep the tournament relevant and ultimately keep fans in the stands.
"We're always trying to keep things fresh and take fan-friendliness to the next level," Worcester said. "That's what's kept us alive and well."
Some may make the argument that professional tennis has worn out its welcome and simply doesn't work in New Haven anymore. A crowd of just 4,840 was on hand for last year's tournament final. But a number like that is accepted these days.
"It's the new normal," says Worcester, pointing out the New Haven Open is the fourth-best attended of the 39 women's-only tournaments in the world.
The tournament is not in a league of its own. When it comes to declining attendance, the New Haven Open is part of a much bigger picture.
Attendance at live sports events across the board -- everything from MLB, college football and even the NFL -- has taken a dip. According to Yahoo! Sports, at the all-star break, MLB attendance was down 417,192 in comparison to last season. For 30 of the 35 college bowl games, average announced attendance was down 8 percent from 2010-11 and the NFL saw total attendance fall by 746,061 when looking at 2007 compared to 2011.
Lee Igel, a professor of sports management at New York University, says, like any business model, there is somewhat of a shelf life for it. Executives assume fans will always come out for sporting events, so they increase ticket prices.
"It's really sort of a classic business problem of having enormous success and thinking it will continue and always work," Igel said. "The customer is getting the same, but paying more. They don't get it: 'Why should I go? What's in it for me?'"
Ticket pricing, he points out, is absolutely the starting point as to why there has been a decline. Add in transportation and parking. Technology, too. From streaming events on a phone, tablet or computer, HD channels, 3D television and more, the options seem endless.
"The biggest change is that all live sports entertainment events are challenged with getting people off the couch," Worcester said. "There are so many different choices for the consumer."
What's the answer? That is still trying to be figured out.
Some are trying high-end sushi bars, stadium-wide wifi access and dynamic ticket pricing.
Others, like the New Haven Open, are focusing more on in-stadium entertainment. The New Haven tournament offers the Aetna FitZone, a fashion show and a ton of promotional contests. It also consolidated all of its seating to the lower section of the CTC, with hopes of creating more buzz and energy.
The Tennis Foundation of CT, which owns the CTC, received $260,000 in bonding monies from the state to upgrade the facility.
In addition, the tournament continues to actively use social media and hired stadium producer Erin Wolfe. She works for professional teams and with a handful of other tennis tournaments, enhancing the experience for fans.
It's worth noting, Igel says, that fireworks nights are most popular.
"I don't get it," he says, "but there's a big increase in attendance."
But side events have proven to get fans motivated to come out for the main event only so much. The question then arises, what are the fans coming out for, and is the sporting event itself really worth it?
But Igel sees attendance bouncing back.
"It will go up," he says. "It won't return to where it was because it's different. Fans participate in ways they didn't before. They need to feel like they are involved. That's where sports need to go."
For women's tennis specifically, there are other issues at hand. Take a look at the lack of star power.
Serena and Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova are still around, but the list of household names is a short one. And though the future of U.S. tennis looks promising -- there are 10 Americans in the top 100, including a handful of young, talented players -- it's still perhaps not as bright as is expected by American standards.
"Lindsay, Monica, Jennifer," Worcester said. "It was a first-name basis then. But this is the new normal. I don't see it changing. Women's tennis is a global sport. The players are popular in their own countries. The larger issue is we don't want to lose anymore tournaments out of the U.S."
New Haven also faces the difficulty of having a massive, 15,000-seat stadium. Worcester says the size of the stadium, as it relates to the tournament's expense structure and financial model, along with the state of women's tennis, are the two toughest challenges.
This year the WTA is celebrating its 40th anniversary. WTA CEO Stacey Allaster says events like New Haven are critical, showcasing tennis as the premier sport for women and helping build the brand.
"New Haven and Anne Worcester are Exhibit A of how to do it," Allaster said. "She is so visionary and so adaptive to market forces. It's a sports entertainment business. She is more entertainment than sport. We need those type of entrepreneurial tournament directors and Anne is one of the best. That's why women's tennis has done so well."
The tournament is in the final year of a three-year deal with cornerstone sponsors Yale University, Yale-New Haven Hospital, Aetna, American Express and First Niagara. All, Worcester says, have indicated interest in renewing and she hopes for a new contract sometime in October.
The cornerstone concept is another example of Worcester and New Haven's innovative ways. The Winston-Salem Open followed suit, using three presenting sponsors with BB&T, Champion and Flow.
Worcester is always looking to add more cornerstones, rattling off potential additions like Alexion Pharmaceuticals, Jordan Furniture, General Electric and Xerox.
Whatever the formula, Worcester and her team will look to be inventive and evolve with expectations of keeping professional tennis relevant in New Haven.
"I certainly hope so," said Worcester about tennis returning here next year. "There are a lot of very powerful people that have invested a lot of time and money keeping this tournament alive and well in Connecticut. It's nice to have them on our side."
(c)2013 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)
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