Kournikova Heats Up Interest for Kroger St. Jude Tourney
Article by Michael Paulk
Anna is coming.
Anna Kournikova, the professional tennis player with cover girl looks, has built her status as a global celebrity more through her glamour than her game -- having never won a WTA Tour singles event.
Still, officials at the Kroger St. Jude Tennis Championships, which will take place Feb. 14-23, hope that the tennis star with her deep tan and long blond pony tail (FHM magazine named her Sexiest Woman of the Year for 2002), will be the key to boost ticket sales in the second year of women's tennis at the Memphis event.
The men of the ATP Tour have played in Memphis since 1975, while the women joined the event last year after Mac Winker was able to purchase the IGA Tennis Classic previously played in Oklahoma City. Adding the women's event to the tournament was a coup for Winker, owner and general manager of The Racquet Club of Memphis where the Kroger St. Jude is held. Only five other tournaments besides the four Grand Slam events combine men's and women's draws during a single tournament.
With another year of planning under their belt to market the women's tournament, Winker says organizers expect to see ticket sales grow again this year.
"This year I expect attendance to go up another 10%, so we will have increased attendance by about 20% in just two years," Winker says.
The tournament sold a record 69,085 tickets last year with the addition of the women, up from 62,813 in 2001.
"We know that the attraction of the women brings something to the tournament," he says. "They have a completely contrasting style (of play)."
Indeed, they also have a major star like Kournikova to attract fans.
"I'm considered one of the luckiest tournament owners in the world to get her here," Winker says. "It's been a two-year process."
As of Jan. 27, Kournikova was No. 36 in the WTA rankings after moving up from No. 41. Although she has never won a singles title, she has been ranked as high as No. 8 several times since turning pro in 1995. She does have 16 doubles titles to her credit, including Grand Slam wins in the 1999 and 2002 Australian Open.
Despite her lack of star-level success on the court, her value as a draw at the turnstile is not diminished.
Raquel Giscafre, tournament director of the Acura Classic in San Diego, agrees that landing a player of Kournikova's stature will pay dividends for Memphis.
"Whenever Anna plays, all the seats sell out," Giscafre says. "She is one of the top draws in women's tennis. There won't be an empty seat in the house, I'm sure."
One interesting aspect of having the Russian beauty in a tournament is the crossover draw she creates, she says. At the Acura Classic in August 2002, in which Kournikova made it to the semi-finals, there was a spike of single ticket sales, especially to a certain demographic: single men, Giscafre says.
"They would come and watch her play and then leave," she says. "We would laugh about it."
Tennis fans are a different breed of sports fan, often following individual players closely. One byproduct of Kournikova's propensity to lose early in tournaments is that her fans don't tend to skip her early matches, says Frankie Whelan, executive director of the Family Circle Cup, an ATP event held in Charleston, S.C.
"She creates a sizzle that none of the other players do," Whelan says. "All of us just wish she would make it to the semi-finals every time."
The Kroger St. Jude will have other well-known names besides Kournikova. It has received commitments from the defending women's singles champion, Lisa Raymond, and last year's men's singles finalist, James Blake. Other players committed to play in the tournament include: Andy Roddick, Alexandra Stevenson, Jan-Michael Gambill, Chanda Rubin, Paradorn Srichaphan, Amanda Coetzer, Mark Philippoussis, Todd Martin and Michael Chang.
Those players will compete in a field of 32 men and 30 women in singles competition, and 16 men's and women's teams in doubles action.
Still, even with record ticket sales, the tournament's true success is measured by its corporate sponsorships.
Although he doesn't reveal the financial details of sponsorship agreements, Winker says they combine with ticket sales to make the tournament a $3 million annual event before expenses like prize money and player appearance fees.
Winker was able to add Cellular South as title sponsor for the women's event, and the official title of the tournament has been shifted to the Kroger St. Jude and the Cellular South Cup.
His agreement with Kroger to be the title sponsor expires in 2004. Without a major title sponsor like Kroger, the tournament would have to consider offers from title sponsors interested in moving the event to another city, Winker says.
The tournament was sponsored by Volvo and FedEx Corp. before Kroger signed a multi-year agreement in 1993.
The struggle of securing another agreement with Kroger or another title sponsor is the biggest challenge for the tournament going forward, Winker says.
His goal is to work to secure a permanent title sponsor and, of course, keep Kournikova and other top stars coming back each year.
CONTACT staff writer Michael Paulk at 259-1726 or [email protected]
© 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.