Tennis

No sponsor, no problem at Winston-Salem Open

Posted August 23

— No title sponsor is no problem for the Winston-Salem Open. Actually, Bill Oakes, the only tournament director in the history of the event, insists that’s been the plan all along.

It’s a questionable strategy considering how unstable the sports marketplace has been for the past decade, what with athletes, teams and leagues perpetually clawing to obtain or maintain sponsors and partners. Yet the Winston-Salem Open began earlier this week at the Wake Forest Tennis Center as it has every year since its inception in 2011 –– without a corporate name attached to its title –– and organizers aren’t sweating it.

Make no mistake: It’s not alone. Other tournaments across a variety of tennis tours and sports also operate sans marquee sponsorship. The difference, however, is that it’s usually out of necessity, leaving the entities without sponsors always one bad year, or stretch of years, away from losing relevance, if not completely dissolving.

By comparison, the Winston-Salem Open has experienced growth during its seven years while purposely going without a title sponsor in an effort to highlight the community and the state.

According to Oakes, the purse has increased about 3 percent annually, with this year’s prize money totaling $748,960. Overall partnerships below the title sponsorship level are up both in quantity and dollars, while the amount of televised tennis has swollen. This is the third year of an 11-year deal with ESPN that has coverage alternating between ESPN2 and ESPN3 for a total of 36 hours of television coverage. The tournament is also shown on nearly two dozen international broadcasts in more than 100 countries.

Earlier this week, Oakes was presented the award for his event being named the ATP World Tour 250 co-Tournament of the Year, an award determined by player vote that it shared with the Stockholm Open. Only three American tournaments have won the award and none since 2004.

And, remember, the Winston-Salem Open won it without having a title sponsor.

Numbers indicate the Winston-Salem Open’s business model is sustainable, though it’s difficult to quantify that the original goal –– to have the tournament serve as a global branding platform for Winston-Salem, the Triad and the state –– has been achieved. That is, unless you lean on anecdotal evidence, and Oakes can break out a doozy.

He tells a story about a family from Winston-Salem traveling through a small French village a few years ago during the Christmas holiday. Obviously recognizing Americans, locals asked where the family was from and they replied “North Carolina,” leaving the French still confused. The family’s son said he lived in Charlotte and, again, the locals just kind of shook their heads. However, when the mother said, “I live in Winston-Salem,” one of the locals quickly responded.

“Winston-Salem,” he said. “Winston-Salem Open. Andy Roddick.”

Roddick, the former No. 1-ranked player in the world, played in the first two Winston-Salem Opens before retiring after the 2012 U.S. Open.

“When I travel the world to visit other tournaments, these people I talk to know about Winston-Salem,” Oakes said. “It’s a really unique opportunity to kind of be the center of the tennis universe for the week.”

He’s only slightly exaggerating.

The Winston-Salem Open is the lone men’s tournament in the world this week, making it the only non-Grand Slam or 1000-level tournament to serve as a standalone stop on the calendar. Given that many weeks see up to three events competing for top talent, the Winston-Salem Open benefits from its place on the docket as the lead-up event to the U.S. Open.

But that also puts it in a precarious place on the schedule as it leaves higher-ranked players with the dilemma of either resting up for a shot at winning the final Grand Slam event of the season or to polish their games so that they head to New York with momentum.

That lays the onus on Oakes to spend seven days a year making sure his event runs like the tournament’s official timepiece and the remaining 364 weeks recruiting players, their agents and even their families. His pitch: the Winston-Salem Open is a 250-level tournament –– the bottom rung on the ATP World Tour ladder –– but it’s the best 250 event in the world, and you’ll be treated as a welcome guest before taking on the Big Apple. You won’t be handed a swag bag with the latest tech gadgets, but the menu will be dialed in, and you’ll have easy transportation to and from the tournament.

The consensus, according to Oakes and some players, is that the conveniences trump HD televisions and noise-canceling headphones.

“It’s how easy-going this tournament is –– it’s the complete opposite of New York City because when you get there, it’s on,” said John Isner, who won the first two Winston-Salem Open titles and is the No. 3 seed this week. “The city wears you out. Sometimes it’s an hour drive to the courts, an hour drive back. There are all sorts of commitments from sponsors. The days are long, and the next thing you know you go to bed completely exhausted and were only able to practice one hour that day because the courts are far away. This is very different. The players stay five minutes away.

“A big drawing point of this tournament, and I think it’s what Bill does well, is that it’s very relaxed. In my opinion, it’s perfect preparation for the U.S. Open.”

That has to be taken with a grain of salt since Isner is a Greensboro native.

And, at No. 14, he is not only the top-ranked American player, but the highest-ranked player in the Winston-Salem Open field. No doubt his ties to the Triad and success here played a role in his decision to play this week.

Yet the elite of the elite likely won’t make this stop unless fate intervenes such as an injury or other extreme circumstance manifests that might limit a player’s court time leading up to the U.S. Open. The stars seemed to align two years ago for 15-time Grand Slam champion Rafael Nadal, then nursing an injury, to make a trip to the Triad until plans changed at the 11th hour.

Still merely being in consideration up until the last minute was testament to the tournament’s quality and Oakes’ ability to sell it.

“Bill is known for having great relationships with players on the tour,” said Kelly O’Brien, tournament director of the City Open in Washington, D.C, the only 500-level tournament in America. “That’s something I hope to eventually have. For him, it’s almost an easy phone call, an easy email to ask ‘Are you coming to my tournament?'"

Indeed 40 of the top-100 players in the world are in Winston-Salem this week (the total was 41 before No. 21 Sam Queerey pulled out because of fatigue). That’s become a normal haul for the tournament over the years.

Instead the biggest challenge has been seeking ways to keep the event relevant and fresh for fans with an ever-growing list of options for both their time and their money.

For example, the tournament has consistently massaged start times to better accommodate other events (such as an earlier-than-normal start to the school year in 2015) and pack more tennis into smaller windows. This year it has moved the doubles final to Friday in an effort to highlight that event while shifting the singles championship to 5 p.m. on Saturday, a time that’s much more fan-friendly than its usual midday start.

“The first and second year, I’d say the novelty of having it here, in the community, was an easier sell,” Oakes said. “But we’re in a very competitive marketplace. … We have a core tennis fan that will come out to see any of the players, relatively speaking. But the marginal sports fan wants to see the guys they see on TV. And the marginal sports fan is the difference between us having a really good year and just a good year.”

And the average sports fan couldn’t care less about the lack of a title sponsor.

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