One key factor helped the US Cellular Center in Asheville land the first round of a big time international tennis tournament in February, civic center officials said last week. They’re allowing the United States Tennis Association the use of the Explore Asheville Arena for free.
Chris Corl, the center’s director, outlined the deal during a Civic Center Commission meeting last week. The details follow the recent announcement by local city, sports and tourism officials that the women’s Fed Cup would hold its first round event at the US Cellular Center. The event pits the US team against the Netherlands on Feb. 10-11. Here’s the breakdown:
Star power: Corl said the USTA won’t confirm players until about 10 days out, but they’ve said that Sloane Stephens, the winner of the U.S. Open this year, and CoCo Vandeweghe, have indicated that they’ll be in Asheville. There’s also continued speculation that superstars Venus and Serena Williams could show up. The U.S. women won the Fed Cup last year for the first time in 17 years, and they’re looking to repeat in 2018. That star power, and generally high interest in up-and-coming female U.S. tennis players, has translated into some of the best ticket sales the center has seen in years, Corl said.
Free rent: Corl explained that local tourism officials have the ability to dictate that the cost of renting the arena space – $40,000 – be waived for one event per year. That agreement is part of a $1.5 million grant awarded by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority in 2016. The money went toward the installation of a curtaining wall system to transform the 7,200-seat arena into a theater with flexible seating capacity for 2,500 to 5,000 people, as well as a sound and light package and the conversion of a storage area into meeting space. In similar grants awarded in 2010, 2012 and 2013, the Buncombe County TDA has invested a total of $4.175 million in improvements to the US Cellular Center.
The tennis tournament will use the curtaining wall and the sound and light system that the TDA grant funded, Corl said, and the Explore Asheville CVB will be a sponsor. Other sponsors include Rolex, New Belgium Brewing and Ingles.
Economic impact: Corl noted that members of Asheville City Council were concerned about “giving the building away for free” at the time of the grant application. Those are well-founded concerns, because the city-owned center is taxpayer subsidized. Despite the increasing number of events hosted at the US Cellular Center, it still doesn’t bring in enough money to cover its operating costs.
But Corl said the center will still earn money on things like facility fees and the sale of food and drinks, “so there’s revenue to be had.” Not to mention the additional revenue that will be gained by increasing awareness and desire to play post tournament. Local coaches utilising Play Your Court could well find an increase in potential customers after this event.
There are other benefits, too. The Fed Cup event will be televised on the Tennis Channel, Corl said, and “Asheville NC” will be painted on the court. There will be international media coverage. That’s all a “big boon on the PR side,” Corl said.
Also, the USTA works on “legacy projects” with parks and recreation departments in cities where it hosts events. Those projects, such as tennis court resurfacing, vary but the USTA will be looking to invest $10,000 to $50,000 in Asheville on such a project, he said.
The event is estimated to have an overall economic impact of $2.5 million, officials said at the press conference announcing the Fed Cup in Asheville.
Finally, a successful Fed Cup event could improve the city’s negotiating position in 2020, when the naming rights deal with US Cellular comes back up for renewal, Corl said. (Asheville City Council agreed in 2011 to sell naming rights to US Cellular for $1.3 million.) A great event could translate into more money for naming rights down the line.
The Corl connection: At that press conference, Corl told me he worked for the USTA for a handful of years putting on events. His intimate knowledge of the USTA’s inner workings helped him craft a smart bid.
Strong ticket sales: VIP tickets are sold out and the remaining single-day tickets are going fast, according to Corl. The arena will be set up to hold about 5,000 people each of the two days of the event.
Asheville’s tennis community: The USTA will be in Asheville Feb. 4-13 for the Fed Cup event even though the tournament play is just Feb. 10 and 11, according to Corl. There will be an array of events, some not yet announced, connected to the tournament. Those events will be spread around the community at the Omni Grove Park, Crowne Plaza and other venues.
Another factor that helped in the effort is a high interest in tennis expressed by a significant number of residents in Asheville, according to Corl. One obvious example is the existence of the Aston Park Tennis Center, a city-funded park featuring 12 lighted clay courts. The center is one of only two or three municipal tennis centers with clay courts in North Carolina. There’s an ongoing effort to reduce the high cost of operating Aston Park, another amenity that’s subsidized by city taxpayers.