Most major sporting events take place in cities that already attract large numbers of high-end tourists. But for one small Midwestern city, hosting a professional tennis tournament is a way to attract luxury travelers who might otherwise not consider a visit.
Monte Carlo, Rome, Miami, Paris, Shanghai, Cincinnati. Which of these is not like the others?
Tennis is a sport of glamour and luxury, attracting jet-setting spectators who travel the world’s sumptuous cities for Grand Slam events — the Australian Open, The French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open — and other tournaments considered mandatory for top-tier players. Particularly attractive for fans are the rare events outside of the Grand Slams that feature both men’s and women’s draws.
The Western & Southern Open brings the world’s top male and female players to the Cincinnati, Ohio, area every August. Held at the Lindner Family Tennis Center, 20 miles north of Cincinnati in Mason, the W & S Open is the largest annual summer sporting event in the Midwest. On the Association for Tennis Professionals (ATP) men’s tour, it’s a Masters 1000 event, ranked just below the Grand Slams and ATP Finals. For the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), it’s a Premier 5 event.
Because of the prestige, the prize money, and the fact that it’s the last major tournament before the U.S. Open (and played on the same surface), the tournament is a big draw for the world’s top players. That means the likes of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, and Naomi Osaka are courting tennis fans from around the world who are willing and able to spend top dollar to see these aces in action.
Another reason this tournament is a big attraction for fans is that it’s the only major tennis tournament held in the Midwest. And, as Shawn Leibold, director of business development for the Western & Southern Open points out, “It’s easily accessible from a distance perspective, and it’s really the U.S. Open at Midwest prices.”
Mind you, even though both admission and items like lodging and food are less pricey in Ohio than in New York, the Western & Southern Open is still not a cheap ticket. But judging from recent event sellouts, the cost doesn’t appear to be a problem. Perhaps that’s because tennis fans, in general, are big spenders. That W & S Open fans are well-heeled is borne out by the statistics that the average ticket holder has a household income of $150,000.
“Tennis historically, looking at the data from high-level professional tournaments — first of all, fans travel from all over to go. They tend to travel greater distances [than spectators for most other events]. Two, they spend more than most sports fans do at any other kind of sporting event. They stay at the nicer hotels, they eat at the fine restaurants. They typically would spend more than someone who might be coming [to Cincinnati] for a Reds games,” said Gordon Smith, CEO and executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA).
Naturally, the tournament is a vast economic contributor to the Greater Cincinnati region. According to a 2017 tournament economic impact study, tournament operations and non-local visitor spending generated a total economic impact of $46.3 million that year. The greatest impact was spending by non-local attendees. Sixty-seven percent of the nearly 200,000 fans were non-local, coming from 4,000 US ZIP codes and 25 countries.
On average, each non-local spent three days at the event, spending approximately $200 per day on hotel stays, food, and retail goods; spending figures do not include tournament tickets. That compares with the $108 daily spend rate for the average leisure visitor to Cincinnati. Aside from revenue earned by local vendors, state sales tax accumulated during the event totaled more than $545,000.
It’s expected that the spend will only increase this year, thanks to the new $25 million South Building, which sits smack dab in the middle of the tournament’s two largest courts. The five-story structure adds more luxury seating, including suites, outside boxes, and 252 indoor, air-conditioned box seats, along with upscale restaurants and concession areas.
The tournament’s impact, however, extends far beyond the money it brings in during its run. The Western & Southern Open envelops Cincinnati in an aura of luxury, which can go a long way in place-making efforts.
“The build of an annual event of this caliber has a range of incredible value not just as an event, but it also helps hype the value of the place as a destination,” said Candy Lee, a professor of sports marketing at Northwestern University.
For example, event sponsors this year include Emirates, Porsche and Rolex. These companies help spread word about the tournament and the city to their clients throughout the year and bring high-spending guests to the tournament.
“When sponsors bring in their clients from around the world, using it as a hospitality event, it furthers the area of Cincinnati as a destination,” Lee said.
Randie Adam, vice president, marketing and visitor services for Cincinnati USA, the region’s convention and visitors bureau, agrees.
“Professional sports are a top driver for leisure visitation. This is a tentpole event for our region, an event to hang our hat on. The exposure is reputation-driving. It’s a perception issue that we overcome through these events — we can live up to the luxury expectation,” she said.
Said Mike Laatsch, former chief operating officer of Cincinnati USA, as quoted in the economic impact study. “You know, when Serena Williams is walking around Cincinnati, it gets people’s attention. It helps underscore the power of the event, but also…one of the key things the Western & Southern Open has done is build credibility, nationally and internationally, that Cincinnati is a major world-class city.”
Susan Lomax is executive director of Source Cincinnati, the city’s marketing arm. She believes the event is crucial in helping to build the region’s reputation.
“The tournament is a very unique forum for the Cincinnati region, drawing thousands of business executives who zero in on high-end sports tourism experiences, global tennis fans who might not otherwise have this part of the Midwest on their radar,” she said.
“For a city of Cincinnati’s size to have a sporting event of this magnitude immediately creates a sense of curiosity around what other surprises this city might have in store. It really opens eyes to the quality of life and experiences offered here to new potential talent, business investors, and visitors.”
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Photo credit: Tennis action at the Western & Southern Open. Cincinnati is using the tournament to boost tourism. Jennifer Mauer / Cincinnati USA