Why the men are meddling in Toronto
TORONTO -- After a 10-year slump, organizers see ticket sales on track to set a record for the women's Rogers Cup in Toronto this week, but a nagging question remains: Is it because of the ladies or the legends?
Strong sales should be the natural result of this year's strong player field -- the entire top 25 and almost a full cast of the WTA's top names, including Serena Williams. But that's not the whole story. During the final three days of the WTA tournament, run by Tennis Canada, there will also be exhibition matches featuring John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. The posters and commercials running across town are giving the two almost equal billing: "Come for the ladies, stay for the legends," went the original slogan, now changed after objections from feminist groups over the women seemingly being the undercards. It's not clear if "Come for the legends, stay for the ladies" would have been any better, but either way, the slogan was changed to the more innocuous "Making history, re-living history."
But what has gone unnoticed is why the legends will be there in the first place. Hasn't there been some remark about one of the biggest women's tournaments of the summer being propped up by retired male stars?
"Not at all," said tournament director Karl Hale. "I haven't heard a word from anybody, and based on the ticket sales, the fans are here. We're a national sporting organization, so all our money goes back into development, so we're trying to promote the sport, and we've been pretty successful so far. We're in the business of promoting tennis, and that's both men's and women's tennis, and it just so happens that we did it this year this way."
Would it have been done this way if the men were in Toronto this year? "Not likely, just based on ticket sales," he acknowledged. "We have some inventory on the women's side, so we're trying to fill that up. And once that's filled up, we probably won't do it anymore."
That suggests the women are seen as needing a bit of extra help filling seats. "Oh, that's a bit touchy," said Rebecca Marino, the WTA's top-ranked Canadian. "Of course you would want the women just to stand on their own. I think a lot of people will be coming just for the women.
"I know Toronto has a bit more difficulty than Montreal to get the crowd out just because of purely location. But it is a great event for people to come watch women's tennis, because we're all great athletes.
"I think we just need a little bit more people to come out and word to spread a bit."
The men's and women's events in Canada alternate between Toronto and Montreal annually. Montreal traditionally has higher attendance because the grounds are more centrally located, tennis is more mainstream, and the men's ATP Masters event usually enjoys higher attendance at both sites. Taking those two together, it means the least-attended event is when the women's event takes place in Toronto, as it is this year. Add the extra pressure of the men's and women's events being held during the same week for the first time this year, and the tournament's history of being rocked by pullouts -- Venus Williams' withdrawal and Kim Clijsters' opening-round retirement Tuesday continued the tradition -- and trying to get a little extra security for the program would have seemed enticing.
Things are at their most balanced when the women are in Montreal and the men in Toronto, and the largest gap in the attendance numbers comes when the men are in Montreal and the women in Toronto -- and the difference has increased dramatically over the past two years. The men outdrew the women by more than 60,000 in 2009 when the women were last in Toronto. (That year, the men's event in Montreal a set world record for a one-week event with attendance of 200,000.) Last year, with the men in Toronto and the women in Montreal, the men were only 10,000 higher overall. The Toronto event drew 161,000 for the guys, not far off an all-time high, while 172,000 Montreal spectators turned out for the women's event -- only slightly below their previous rate, even with another weakened field and heavy rains that saw the tournament finish on a Tuesday.
This year looks set to be another imbalance -- Montreal attracted 11,705 people on the Friday before the tournament even began, and over a record 18,000 for the first day of qualifying. Things have been nowhere near as busy for the women in Toronto, so far.
Similarly, being attached to tour events is a route to viability for men's seniors play, which has struggled to operate through independent events in the United States in recent years.
"I think if you look at it from a business-marketing standpoint, for people who don't know tennis much and they've just seen [names like] McEnroe, Agassi, yeah, it's good," said Marino. "And maybe it'll introduce them to the women's sport so they'll just come out for the women next time."
The top women don't seem to mind sharing the spotlight with the old guys. "That's fun. That's only good, and I'm sure it will bring some positive vibes to the tournament," said No. 1 seed Caroline Wozniacki in a sentiment echoed by other players.
The strategy has worked for the tournament in the past. In 2007, fans packed the 12,500-seat stadium to watch McEnroe, Courier, Anna Kournikova and Carling Bassett-Seguso on the tournament's opening night, and also took in the dramatic 2½-hour women's match between Dinara Safina and Camille Pin that preceded it. By contrast, the stands were about 40 percent full to see Marino play during the same night this year. Other tournaments, like the ATP SAP Open in San Jose, also hold exhibitions on opening nights.
The difference is clearly not about quality of play. Billie Jean King settled the question of whether top women players can outplay long-retired men long ago. Name recognition is the primary attraction, as well as the novelty and lighthearted spirit of exhibition competitions.
By upping its exhibition quotient and moving it to the later, more expensive rounds, the tournament can multiply the boost it gets from such events. "If I look at the business, where Tennis Canada is going to maximize their revenues is going be Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday," said Stacey Allaster, a former tournament director of the event and now WTA CEO. "That's when you want to make sure the house is absolutely full. And anything that can drive revenue and add value for fans is good for business."
Toronto may be taking a novel approach, but the challenge seems to be widespread these days. Regular observation reveals a sea of empty seats during the start of the week at many tournaments. At the Bank of the West Classic in Stanford, Calif., two weeks ago, the quarterfinal between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova attracted a sellout crowd of more than 3,800, the tournament's highest numbers since 2004. But attendance was sparse during the day and most other nights until the weekend.
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The gap between the WTA and the ATP also seems to have grown significantly as the men have increased their drawing power with the growing superstardom of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, while the women's field has been volatile. To take a bit of an extreme example, the stands at the WTA Dubai Duty Free Championships were infrequently dotted in the early rounds but packed from start to finish for the ATP event featuring Federer and Djokovic the following week. And though the problem seems to be exacerbated on the women's side, smaller men's events like Los Angeles and Washington decided to collapse some sessions this year.
"We are concerned [about] attendance," acknowledged Allaster, who also noted that TV ratings have been up 30 percent in the first two quarters of the year.
"I think a couple of things are happening, especially in North America. They sell a day session and an evening session. Consumers are working hard to keep their jobs -- they're not going to tennis matches in the day. That is a fact," she said, also pointing out that the visual of empty stands can be deceiving if fans are elsewhere on the grounds.
"And those that are at tennis, especially the early rounds are going to sit and watch their favorite player, then they go out and have lunch, they experience the band that's out on site, they go to the outer match courts, they go to the practice courts. Our events have transformed themselves to be entertainment events, and there's a wide range of experiences that events now offer fans, whether it be concerts, food festivals, etc."
Exhibition events are a similar type of extra, she added.
But there's also a cost for obtaining the likes of McEnroe, Agassi, Courier and Chang. The payout to the women's champion in Toronto is $360,000, the finalist $180,000, and the semifinalists $90,000. How much are the legends costing, Mr. Hale?
"No, no, I can't give you that," he laughed. "No, no, no way."
Let's hope at least the ladies don't have to worry about whether there's equal prize money.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.