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Timing called key in snaring events

The Davis Cup is on an ambitious list of tourneys sought for the stadium, but challenges for organizers include a thinning of men's events.

By JAMES THORNER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

Saddlebrook Resort's muscular presence in the tennis world could help it capture professional tournaments to bankroll operations at the proposed public Pasco County tennis stadium.

But Saddlebrook's take-it-to-the-bank assurances that the stadium could collect $1-million over four years from tournaments come as men's professional tennis is contracting its calendar, thinning weaker tournaments from the herd.

Since the early 1990s, the Association of Tennis Professionals, the body that controls men's tennis, has shrunk its number of tournaments from about 80 to 66, a process some call "mothballing."

The ATP's female counterpart, the Women's Tennis Association, has grown its tournament roster. But it offers precious few of the mid tier tournaments sought by Saddlebrook. Only one such event operates in the whole United States.

"There was a recognition some years ago there were just too many events. There was burnout. Competition was suffering," said Matt Rapp, vice president of communication for men's tennis.

Saddlebrook owner Tom Dempsey wants to build the stadium with $5.7-million from a 2 percent tax on hotel rooms and then manage the complex for the county.

After a year of fine tuning, Dempsey's plans, which include a guarantee the stadium will require no public operating subsidies, will reach the county commissioners for debate on Oct. 10.

The tennis center's self-sufficiency depends heavily on an ambitious calendar of tennis tournaments. In the stadium's first and second years of operation, Dempsey has penned in a $170,000 women's tournament, known as Tier III event.

The Davis Cup, international matches that pit top American players against foreign teams, appears on the Pasco calendar in the stadium's second year.

It gets even better, at least on paper, in the third and fourth years. Dempsey expects to upgrade the women's tournament to a Tier II, offering a $585,000 purse. A men's tournament paying $400,000, part of the International Series, would also join the roster.

Tournament organizers said Saddlebrook could, if its timing were right, pull off all or some of those tournaments, although nothing is guaranteed.

Dempsey's clout is obvious. About 70 top players train at the resort in Wesley Chapel, and a number of tennis stars, such as Jennifer Capriati, own homes at the adjoining Saddlebrook subdivision.

If the stadium were built, the dates match up and Dempsey fronts fees that begin at $200,000, Saddlebrook could lure the cup to Pasco, said Randy Walker, publicity manager for the United States Tennis Association, which oversees the Davis Cup.

The American Davis Cup team, which includes Saddlebrook resident James Blake, trained at the resort last month to prepare for its losing effort against the French team on Sept 20-22.

One of the last cities to host theDavis Cup, Oklahoma City, swears by the event, which brought with it an estimated $2.3-million economic impact.

"The actual money coming in to the building was negligible, but it was a great event for us to have," said Tom Anderson, special projects manager for Oklahoma City.

The pursuit of top-notched men's and women's tournaments beyond Davis Cup appears more challenging.

Atlanta recently lost a $400,000 men's tournament for lack of a sponsor. Dempsey has shown interest in that open slot. But he's not alone. Other regions, including the Carolinas, would like to book a tournament on that date, which comes right before the U.S. Open in August, Rapp said.

Yet another course of action is open to Dempsey. He could buy a men's tournament from a foreign owner whose event has hit the financial skids, Rapp said. Getting a women's tournament could follow a similar scenario.

"The short answer is, I have no idea where it's going to come from," Rapp said of a tournament's relocating to Saddlebrook. "Just because they don't have a tournament set up doesn't mean they couldn't have one in three or four years."

At least one person remains dubious of Dempsey's chances to operate in a tight tennis market.

Brahm Dubin is manager of the Delray Beach tennis stadium, which holds a $400,000 men's tournament in March. His sister-in-law is tennis legend Chris Evert.

"I hear it's impossible. Tournaments just aren't for sale. They're trying to shrink down the tour to make the others more successful," Dubin said.

"If I'm wrong, then he knows more than me," Dubin said of Dempsey.

In some ways what Dempsey is doing is breaking new ground. There are precious few comparably sized public tennis stadiums with which to compare the Pasco proposal.

Dempsey wants to bring tournaments to Pasco paying purses of between $170,000 and $585,000. Of the 13 men's and women's tournaments meeting that qualification in the United States, all but two play at private country clubs and athletic clubs or university stadiums.

Of the women's tournaments, a $170,000 event in Memphis is held at the city's private racquet club. The more prestigious Tier II tournaments, paying $585,000, play at county clubs in Amelia Island, Fla., Scottsdale, Ariz., and Los Angeles.

Two other Tier II events are held at Yale Stadium in New Haven, Conn., and Stanford Stadium at Stanford Unversity in California.

As for men's tourneys, private clubs and university stadiums host International Series events in Long Island, Newport, R.I., Houston, Scottsdale and Los Angeles.

That leaves only San Jose and Delray Beach as events held in public sports complexes. San Jose's venue, the Compaq Center, isn't comparable to Pasco's.

Built for $163-million, the multiuse Compaq Center is used mainly by the San Jose Sharks hockey team.

That leaves Delray Beach. As recounted in a Times article last year, that $6.5-million stadium, despite hosting many popular tennis and nontennis events, continues to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Delray Beach officials insist it's a worthwhile deficit.

"We're using our tennis stadium to market Delray Beach to the world," Dubin said.

That's not Pasco's philosophy. County commissioners have won assurances from Dempsey he would cover any stadium operating losses.

Tournament organizers agree that for Dempsey to make money on the tournaments, he needs "title sponsors" to lend their names to tournaments in return for cash to pay the prizes.

Last year, Dempsey said he might seek such sponsorships among local banks, auto dealers and local corporations such as Outback Steakhouse.

The long-term success will depend on fan and community support. If no one is in the seats, why would a sponsor front thousands of dollars? So far, the signs from west-central Florida are good.

In its first year as a $140,000 "Tier IV" women's event, the Sarasota Clay Court Classic, on April 1-7, drew 14,000 to temporary stadium seating at The Meadows Country Club.

Lack of a title sponsor cost the tournament, owned by Sarasota business people, profitability in its first year. But investors want to stay in Sarasota for the long haul.

Said Rapp: "At the end of the day it comes down to what we affectionately refer to as butts in seats."

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