NEW HAVEN — Last year, the fourth-best crowd for a women’s-only tennis event was swallowed up by the seventh-largest tennis center in the world.
It’s been that way for a while at the New Haven Open. The tournament drew a total of 53,004 during its nine-day run last August. But the 13,000-seat Connecticut Tennis Center always looks empty.
So the tournament, which runs through Saturday, has made some changes.
The biggest change is that all ticketholders are consolidated into the lower ring, which seats 5,500.
“We’ve accepted that 55,000 is our new normal,” tournament director Anne Worcester said before the tournament. “We can fit everybody in the lower box ring. People enjoy the increased buzz and electricity.”
Rich Rumery of Berlin has been going to the tournament for the past 10 years and sat in the lower box seats for the first time Monday.
“This is nice,” Rumery said. “When you watch it on TV, there would be nobody in the lower section. It was embarrassing being on ESPN. Why not make it better for the viewing audience and let everybody sit down here? They refused to do that [in the past]. It was a nice surprise this year.”
There were 4,198 fans at Sunday’s session, and 3,393 on Monday afternoon.
So far, after four days, attendance is slightly down from last year. Worcester said that across the board in sports, it’s been harder to get people to come out to a live event.
“We are all challenged to work even harder to make sure that the in-stadium experience is far superior to sitting at home,” she said.
To that end, some small improvements have been made to the center, which the state built for $18 million in 1991 to house the Volvo International tournament. The state gave the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut a $400,000 grant to cover the maintenance of the center this year and it also approved $260,000 in improvements, which included painting railings and steps; new concession stand facades, counters and lighting; and upgraded bathrooms.
“This is stuff that’s just been driving us crazy,” Worcester said. “The concession stands honestly looked like they were at a middle school sporting event. I’m not exaggerating.”
Different food will be offered at the concession stands, such as New Haven pizza, but the food booths near the outer courts have been consolidated as well, which could lead to longer lines during busy times.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited the tournament last year, which encouraged the organizers, and was on board with using the tournament to help boost tourism in the state. The state has a booth at the tournament promoting tourism, and the word “Connecticut” has been painted on the court so it’s visible to TV audiences.
“Every past administration has been so busy looking at attracting new sporting events, they turn their back on their existing sporting events,” Worcester said. “This administration is different. They’re very focused on business attraction, but they’re just as focused on business retention. The governor got out on the court [last year] and talked about $26 million of economic impact, almost 300 full-time jobs, the marketing of the state around the country and around the world. I mean, he got it.”
For years, the stadium has been in need of upgrades, but the tennis foundation didn’t have the money. The initial agreement was that the maintenance of the building would be funded by the revenues from the tournament.
“We went to the state and said we need to do something to the stadium, because it hasn’t had anything done with it in 20 years and we’ve had no subsidies from the state in 20 years, which is why I think they listened to us,” said Jay Brotman, an architect in New Haven who has been a board member of the foundation for 18 years and is also the treasurer.
“We were very pleased we were able to achieve the money. It’s like a reinvestment in tourism dollars.”
Despite the difficult economic times, Worcester said she hopes that the relationship grows.
“This is the first time a governor has come to the tournament, first time I’ve known the chief of staff, first time I’ve known the commissioner of [the Office of Policy Management], first time I’ve had a relationship with anyone in the state of Connecticut for 16 years,” she said. “Even though for 16 years, we’ve been paying them taxes, we’ve been generating $26 million of economic impact, and even though we’ve been marketing the state of Connecticut around the world.”
Initially, the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut asked for money to update the 22-year-old building, to build permanent infrastructure on the grounds, such as kitchens and sponsor suites, to make the building more multipurpose.
“On top of significant six-figure rent payments, we have always had to build temporary infrastructure to the tune of a half-million dollars,” Worcester said. “Before we could even think about a profit, we have to clear something like $700,000 in very unusual expenses.”
Every year, temporary kitchens and sponsor suites must be built because no permanent structures exist. A video scoreboard — because the original scoreboard is obsolete — also must be rented.
If improvements are made, the plan is that the stadium would be able to be used for other events, instead of sitting idle for the other 51 weeks of the year.
“I get asked once a week, ‘Why don’t you do more there? Why don’t you have concerts?'” Worcester said. “The TFC, in the past, has spent a lot of time on this. We’re sure, with some physical improvements, you could do more than have a nine-day tennis tournament.”
Worcester told a story about the time that Schick, a tournament sponsor, offered her an appearance by the singer P!nk during the tournament, but Worcester had to turn it down because the facility couldn’t handle it.
“If you produce a concert here, you have to crane in all the stage and the equipment,” she said. “[When Schick] said, ‘We will give you P!nk,’ I looked at it and after I did my due diligence — with the folks at the Shubert Theater helping me — it was going to be $150,000 just to produce the show. That’s before I took a risk on tickets and took people’s time away from the tennis tournament. I had to say thanks but no thanks.”
Said Brotman: “As an architect and a board member, I know we’d like to have the stadium used for more than tennis, but the facility needs more of the basic infrastructure than it has. Bringing in permanent suites and food service, the cost of building [those temporary structures] every year is a burden on the facility. If it was permanent, it could be utilized for other activities.”
The improvements come at an important time for the tournament, whose five main sponsors are all up for renewal this year after an initial three-year commitment.
“We’re in the process of talking to them about the future,” Worcester said. “It’s going to be a busy fall.”
Text By Lori Riley, Hartford Courant; Video By Jim Altman, Fox CT