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You know an election for governor is approaching when Connecticut's two great political parties start huffing and puffing over even the most trivial matters, like the state's decision to invest a modest - and refundable - $618,000 to prevent the New Haven Open women's tennis tournament from moving to North Carolina.
First, the facts. The tournament has been played for two decades at the Connecticut Tennis Center, which was built with about $15 million in state funds during the Weicker administration and is among the largest tennis venues in the world. It is designed for tennis, which renders it less suitable for other events, and is empty for as many as 51 weeks a year. In addition, it was built in a residential area and attempts at nighttime events drew vigorous neighborhood protests in the past. And so we have an increasingly unpopular event being played out in an increasingly useless, state financed arena. A bit of a dilemma.
The nine-day event was a success as a men's and women's tournament but attendance has dwindled since the men dropped out in 2010 and this year, it attracted only 45,000, down from a high of nearly 100,000. The sponsors even closed the upper part of the center in order to show fewer empty seats during the tournament.
Nonetheless, the tournament has been good for the New Haven area economy and in announcing the state's acquisition, Ben Barnes, the state's budget overseer, cited a 2008 study that found the tournament generated 300 jobs, $25 million in economic activity and $1.1 million in tax revenue when attendance was at its peak. This would lead one to speculate that even with attendance down dramatically, the economic impact would continue to be in the millions.
It is also a fact that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will need strong New Haven support in next year's election, especially from the city's powerful labor unions and their get out the vote skills. He has already endorsed the unions' controversial favorite for mayor, state Sen. Toni Harp.
Now, the bluster. Calling Connecticut a "great state for women's sports," aka basketball, Gov. Malloy said the retention of the poorly attended women's tennis tournament is "another fantastic way to ensure that continues to be the case in 2014 and beyond." Well, it's hardly that, but as we have noted, you can tell an election is approaching.
Building on the governor's hyperbole, New Haven state Sen. Martin Looney thanked him for "preserving one of Connecticut's premier sporting events." He didn't say where it ranks on the rather short list of "premier" Connecticut sporting events that includes UConn basketball, the Travelers golf tournament and, well, maybe UConn football in happier times. In fact, the Connecticut Sun WNBA basketball team easily outranks the tennis tourney on the premier list, premier being a relative term.
Republican legislative leaders muttered that the state has no business owning tennis tournaments and questioned what the state knows about running tournaments. They presumably have no objection to the Connecticut Economic Development Authority owning places where tournaments are played, like the UConn football stadium in East Hartford and the XL Arena in Hartford, which, state House Minority Leader Larry Cafero noted, "the Whalers left," a reference to the former National Hockey League team.
Rep. Cafero wittily suggested that Connecticut's new motto should be, "Tennis, anyone?"
A supposedly more scholarly critique came from a nonpartisan think tank founded by the nonpartisan Tom Foley, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor. The think tank conclusions, issued within hours of the announcement of the tournament purchase, coincidentally came to the same conclusions as the partisan Republican state senators. It would make one wonder if this think tank, by issuing its "study" so rapidly, had forgotten its first name.
More thoughtful criticism came from Sen. John McKinney, another Republican candidate for governor, who went along with the line that the state shouldn't run a tennis tournament, but added that "if they had to buy it to save it, they can turn around and sell it to someone who can run it." That's almost what Mr. Barnes said when he announced if things didn't work out for the state, it can sell the tournament back to the World Tennis Association for what it paid.
So, let us pose the classic question: What's the fuss all about?