NEW HAVEN, Conn. – New Haven, the final tennis stop prior to the U.S. Open, no longer has a title sponsor or a men's draw, but organizers say they are confident of the tournament's future because it does have a very big name behind it — Yale University.
The WTA's inaugural New Haven Open at Yale is being held this week at the 15,000-seat Connecticut Tennis Center, which has hosted a pro tournament, first the Volvo and then the Pilot Pen, every year since it was built in 1990.
But this year, Yale will be taking on a much bigger role than host, becoming one of five major sponsors of the tournament. Yale stepped in financially to help save the tournament after Pilot Pen ended its 15-year run as a title sponsor last year.
"Yale fully understands that as goes the image of New Haven, so goes the image of Yale," tournament director Anne Worcester said. "I think Yale understands the benefit of this tournament to this city and this region, economically and in terms of image and reputation."
Committing its money and name to a professional sporting event puts Yale in a unique position among major universities, said Charles Harris, a sports marketing expert who runs the website www.sportsinfo101.com.
"I can't say it's never happened before, but it's certainly very rare," he said. "Usually it's companies that sponsor university events, and this is almost the reverse of that. That's something that doesn't happen, especially in these times, when many schools are struggling financially."
Worcester, a former WTA chief executive, said university president Rick Levin actually took the lead in the tournament's sponsorship drive, and helped get American Express, Aetna, First Niagara and Yale-New Haven Hospital to also agree to three-year commitments to keep the tournament going.
"I would say, without a doubt that Yale is the most important partner we have," Worcester said. "For a year, Rick Levin was the head of our sales force. He helped open doors. He made introductions. He was really the driving force behind saving the tournament."
The tournament won't say how much the university or its other sponsors have paid for the New Haven Open.
But Michael Morand, a Yale spokesman, said there are several reasons the school decided to make a significant investment. He said Yale wanted to preserve what has been a cultural boon to the city and university community. But it also knows that the tournament, which is televised in over 100 countries, projects a positive image of Yale around the globe.
"The world is a giant place," he said. "It's true that lots of people know Yale, but you might be surprised that not everybody does in all places. It's a vast market, so there is a lot value in the name recognition."
And it's more than that, Harris said. Tennis projects a sophisticated, gentile image, attracting the type of audience to whom Yale also caters. Events including a food and wine festival and a "high tea" with former tennis star Steffi Graf will be held during the tournament.
"You're trying to attract and send a message to people who can afford to attend Yale," he said. "If they were doing another type of sport that didn't fit their demographic, you would raise your eyebrows."
Morand said the tournament also benefits inner-city New Haven. Local kids receive tennis lessons, and recently were given free rackets from First Niagara at a "block party" held by the tournament in one of New Haven's poorer neighborhoods.
First Niagara spokesman James Bzdyra said his company would not have gotten involved in the New Haven Open without Yale.
"It was important in terms of the commitment they could show to it, the money they could bring to the tournament and that is was a hometown tournament for them," he said. "So, it was important for First Niagara, as I'm sure it was to all the other sponsors, to make sure Yale was an integral part of the whole process."
The tournament has traditionally suffered from its spot on the schedule. Many top players choose to take the week before a major tournament off.
But this year's field will include top-ranked Caroline Wozniacki, the three-time defending champion in New Haven, French Open champion Li Na, and former Grand Slam champions Francesca Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova.
The tournament helped propel Wozniacki to stardom after she won in 2009, and made a run to her first Grand Slam final at the U.S. Open.
She has said she loves the college environment at the New Haven tournament, where the Yale football team comes to cheer at her matches, something that started after she attended a football practice during a rain delay two years ago.
"The (tennis) players like coming here," Worcester said. "It's a great atmosphere for them. You've got to remember, many of them are college age. They love Yale and New Haven."