In an effort to make sure the Winston-Salem Open didn’t snag the U.S. women’s tennis tournament away from Connecticut, the state announced plans Thursday to purchase it for $618,000.
The Capital Region Development Authority is expected to approve the purchase of the tennis tournament at its meeting next week, Office of Policy and Management Secretary Ben Barnes said. The money to purchase it from the U.S. Tennis Association will come from the Manufacturing Assistance Act, which is funded with loans repaid to the state.
Barnes called $618,000 a “bargain in the world of owning tennis tournaments.” The state also invests about $400,000 in the tournament bringing its total investment over the next two years to about $1.4 million.
The New Haven Open at Yale lost its title sponsor — Pilot Pen — in 2010 along with the men’s tournament, which moved to Winston-Salem. Since then a group of corporate sponsors have helped keep the tournament alive.
Anne Worcester, who will remain tournament director, said they have received commitments from four of their five cornerstone sponsors. American Express, First Niagara, Yale, and Yale-New Haven Hospital already have signed on for another three years. She said they are still in discussions with Aetna.
In August, the state was notified that the Winston-Salem region was interested in purchasing the women’s tournament so that they could host both the men’s and the women’s tour. They weren’t able to get approval for the men’s tour in time to create a combined event, which gave Connecticut a brief window to match their offer, which it did, Barnes said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
“In other parts of the world it is common for governments to own tennis tournaments,” Barnes said. “There are no examples we were able to identify in the United States of public entities owning tennis tournaments or other sporting events in exactly this way.”
However, he said there’s a long history of governments heavily subsidizing sports events and venues through capital financing. For example, the state paid for the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale where the tournament has been played for the past 16 years. The state also owns Rentschler Field in East Hartford where the University of Connecticut football team plays its home games.
Barnes argued that the state was making a very “modest” investment given the size of the economic development return.
An economic impact study conducted in 2008 found that the tournament generates about $26 million in regional economic impact, including almost 300 jobs and $1.1 million in state tax revenue. It has brought more than 1.5 million spectators to the city.
But since that time, attendance has dropped off. Attendance this year was around 45,000, according to Worcester.
The tournament has lost or broken even in recent years, Barnes said.
Barnes maintained that the state understands the risk that it has taken on, given that weather and interest in tennis as a sport plays a big role in attendance.
Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, was left scratching his head over the news of the state’s investment.
“State government’s core mission is to provide for the public safety, educate our youth, and extend the well being of our seniors,” Cafero said. “At a time when our federal overseers are citing the state of Connecticut for its failure to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable youngsters in DCF care, Connecticut is now expanding its reach into professional tennis . . . is perplexing.”
Cafero went on to wonder if this investment had anything to do with the 2014 governor’s race.
“What are we buying into, except for votes in the gubernatorial race?’’ Cafero asked.