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Volume 21 No. 2
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Three tennis events sign title sponsors

The summer pro tennis circuit in the United States will get a shot in the arm this week with title sponsorship deals from three financial institutions, including one agreement for a new combined event sponsored by Citigroup in Washington, D.C.

Taken together, the deals are a signal that tennis, while not as popular in the United States as elsewhere globally, remains strong enough to draw significant corporate interest.

On Tuesday, the Washington, D.C., ATP stop plans to announce Citi as its new title sponsor for the next five years, replacing Legg Mason after 18 years. It also will announce that the smaller WTA Tour event in the area, already sponsored by Citi, is merging with the men’s tournament.

A rendering shows BB&T’s name on the Atlanta event, played near its regional base.
Separately, BB&T is putting its name on the ATP’s Atlanta event, and Western & Southern is renewing as title sponsor of the men’s and women’s combined tournament in Cincinnati.

“Tennis is really coming back, and it proves that the U.S. Open Series was the best thing the USTA did in 50 years,” said the newly named Citi Open’s tournament director, Donald Dell, referring to the U.S. Tennis Association’s branded circuit of summer hard court events that began eight years ago. “Citi cares that we are on in 72 foreign countries on TV.”

Dell said that exposure would not have happened without the U.S. Open Series.

Financial terms of the deals could not be determined, but it is customary in tennis that title sponsors are expected to cover event purses. For D.C., the combined purse is close to $2 million; in Atlanta, it is $477,900. The Cincinnati event awards $5.2 million.

American pro tennis still struggles outside the major events, with the ATP considering last week whether to allow one of its top 20 events, in Memphis, to leave for South America. The paucity of top American players and the hopscotch nature of the pro tours has led to a shrinking of the number of events in America in recent years.

But during the summer, when most of the pro circuit is in the United States and the U.S. Open Series is on ESPN2 regularly, tennis is attracting sponsors, evidenced by these three tournament deals and Emirates Airline’s $91 million, seven-year title sponsorship of the entire U.S. Open Series, a deal the airline announced earlier this year.

Memphis is played in February and is not part of the series.

“The confidence these three prominent companies have expressed in our summertime lineup proves the strength of the Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series,” said Gordon Smith, USTA chief operating officer and executive director. “Our sport continues to deliver an attractive audience both on-site and over the airwaves.”

In Atlanta, the event has not had a title sponsorship since moving there in 2010 from Indianapolis. The event will be played in the shadow of BB&T’s regional headquarters.

Bob Bryant, the Atlanta tournament director, said the overall sponsorship market remains difficult, but tennis offers companies high-end hospitality and international exposure. Atlanta is one of the many lower-rung ATP stops that’s been struggling financially, so the title deal is welcome news.

In Washington, the new Citi Open may soon be the only 500-level event in the U.S. if the Memphis stop relocates. That designation is held by 11 events that stand just beneath the ATP’s top-level events, such as the one in Cincinnati.

The Citi deal will also mean that U.S. Open Series sponsor American Express will have a minimized role at the D.C. event, given the companies’ businesses overlap.

“AmEx will continue to be part of the tourney, but it will be a smaller and smaller role over the next two to three years,” Dell said.

The Citi Open is owned by Lagardère Unlimited. A Citi spokesman declined to comment on the sponsorship, which has the brand planting an increased stake in a D.C. community with a deep banking sector.

In Cincinnati, Western & Southern, which has titled the event since 2002, will be on board through 2014. The USTA owns the event. The group’s Southern Section owns the Atlanta event.