City can’t afford to keep subsidizing tournament

The easy argument for Las Vegas to walk away from the Tennis Channel Open bleeds the red stain of a budget emergency at City Hall, where bodies are being laid off and cuts are being made and belts are being tightened and positions are being left vacant.

The more complex case for continuing to provide $600,000 per year to subsidize a professional tournament is measuring how much it improves the quality of life for those who attend and volunteer and benefit from youth clinics, to determine how important it is for government to provide such recreational opportunities.

The easy one makes more sense this time. The bleeding takes precedent.

It’s time the city moves on.

Much like the annual PGA Tour stop here, where a dreadful fall date assures a weak field and in turn meager crowds, the tennis event owns a definite ceiling for appeal.

The final on Sunday matched Kevin Anderson (who?) against young American Sam Querrey before a Darling Tennis Center Stadium Court that was half full.

Tournament officials have spent three years refusing to announce weekly attendance figures until following the final, and it’s not because the number is too high to count.

This event never will be financially stout enough to pay the kind of appearance fees a Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal demand. And there is no question high ticket prices are unreasonable for any mainstream fan who might have the slightest interest in a bracket so devoid of star power, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman referred to Querrey as “Curry” when presenting him the winner’s trophy. Then again, well, it’s Oscar.

The cheapest seat Sunday to watch Querrey (ranked 66th) gain his first ATP tournament victory against a qualifier ranked 175th was $70. You can attend the finals of the Pacific Life Open next week at Indian Wells, Calif. — an event scheduled to include Federer, Nadal and Andy Roddick on the men’s side and Maria Sharapova for the women — for $53.

There’s something wrong with that picture.

In different times, supporting the Tennis Channel Open still might be worth the city’s investment, in the neighborhood of $2.6 million the last three years. There are small pockets of avid fans who wait all year to volunteer and attend the tournament. It serves a purpose.

But it’s not worth the money now. Not in today’s sagging economy. Not when City Hall already needed to discover ways to fill a $21.5 million gap in the current budget cycle.

“From a budget standpoint, if we can’t do it, we can’t do it,” said city councilman Larry Brown, instrumental out of Ward 4 in bringing the tournament here. “It’s not something we’re locked into. Do you continue subsidizing a professional tennis event at the expense of a new fire station? Of course not. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be the first one at that microphone saying we can’t afford to continue.

“But I think we would be remiss if we didn’t try. I feel very strongly that when things get tough with public policy and city and county budgets, the first thing to go is usually recreation. I refuse to let that happen. This Tennis Channel Open is an outgrowth of it.”

To a point. Brown has admirable passion for promoting a healthier lifestyle and finding means for terrific facilities and sports complexes like the Kellogg-Zaher and Darling Tennis Center and Bettye Wilson and Majestic Park to be built within his ward.

But those venues service thousands of Las Vegas adults and youth all year long, and bring to the city national-level events like the Mayor’s Cup soccer tournament that fill hotels and generate millions of dollars in revenue. The Tennis Channel Open, in such terrible economic times, has become more luxury than necessity.

Maybe an entity like Las Vegas Events will decide to increase its annual $500,000 support of the tournament and assume the city’s place as a main financier. Maybe Andre Agassi’s checkbook comes to the rescue. Maybe those at the Tennis Channel figure ways to better attract more spectators (suggestion: begin with those silly ticket prices) and it becomes a more popular event.

Cracked one wise voice Sunday: “You shouldn’t be charging Rolling Stones prices to watch Journey.”

“Obviously you would prefer to be playing in front of a full stadium,” tournament director David Egdes said. “But we’re still a young event. We will, like always, evaluate all the numbers after this year. I’m not going to speculate on what the city might do.”

Here is what it should do, given a reeling financial state: After three years of supporting this tournament, of taking its best shot, of trying to make it work, wave good-bye and find somewhere more beneficial to spend $600,000.

Fill a position. Save a job. Slash less. The list is endless.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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