Vancouver Open may leap to improve its smash

When organizers began toying in 2001 with the idea of bringing a professional tennis event back to Vancouver for the first time in a decade, there was still a professional basketball team in town, some of the best golfers in the world made an annual visit here, and the Indy cars whizzed around False Creek each summer.

The Vancouver Grizzlies packed up and moved to Memphis, the Air Canada Championship couldn’t secure sponsorship and wound up in the rough, and the Molson Vancouver Indy ran out of gas. In those same seven years, the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open has not only survived but has thrived and become one of this city’s true sporting success stories.

Organizers of the event, which this year runs from Saturday (July 26) to August 3, have wisely taken only small steps to secure the future of their event, resisting the urge to follow the model of so many professional sports events that want to get too big too fast in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

What began as a $25,000 women’s tournament at Jericho in 2002 has moved across the water to West Vancouver’s Hollyburn Country Club and gradually developed into a dual event offering $100,000 prize money for men and $50,000 for women. At that size, the tournament is large enough to attract a number of players ranked in the top 100 in the world, but it remains small enough to be run by a local organizing committee rather than having the governing bodies of tennis drop in and seize control.

However, the day is looming when those organizers will have to decide whether to allow the event to make a quantum leap in size and scope or keep it the successful smaller event that is has become.

“We can move the women’s prize money up two more good stops,” tournament director and Tennis B.C. chief executive officer Ryan Clark told the Straight by phone. “We can go to a women’s seventy-five [$75,000 event] and then a women’s hundred [$100,000 tournament]. We can add it so that it’s $100,000 each and $200,000 total.

"We can do that and still be comfortable with where we’re at. Once we make the next monumental leap after that, that’s when we start losing control a little bit of our destiny, because we have to fit into a major world schedule and we start overlapping with the major tour events.”

Financially, the tournament appears to be well positioned, with Odlum Brown agreeing to renew its commitment as the title sponsor for three more years. In addition, the Vancouver Open has added AIM Trimark Investments as its presenting sponsor in both 2009 and 2010.

But there are other issues surrounding the future of the event that have nothing to do with the bottom line. Organizers must wrestle with their role in developing local tennis talent and giving it an event in which to play. And they must also contemplate where in the Lower Mainland the tournament could be held if it grows much larger.

Clark has always believed the Vancouver event should give rising B.C. and Canadian players a place to compete on home soil. That point was driven home last year when New Brunswick’s Frederic Niemeyer won the men’s title, while Quebec’s Stéphanie Dubois advanced to the women’s final and teamed up with Marie-Eve Pelletier to win the women’s doubles crown.

If the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open gets much bigger, the quality of players taking part will undoubtedly rise too. But at the same time, the chances of young Canadians even being included in the field will surely decrease.

“If you get up to the top, top, top rung of prize money, does that give you a chance to develop any talent?” Clark asked. “What role do we want to play in giving the B.C. players or the Canadian players a chance to go into a tournament at home and win? We’re never going to be content with riding it out [by staying at its current prize purses]. That’s never been our mentality. We want to get to $200,000, and then if we’re going to go to the next level, we’re going to need partners, and by partners I mean cities or developers to get a facility done. Once you get to that next phase, you need a full-on tennis facility at that point.”

While those major issues regarding the future of the event simmer on the back burner, this year’s open will provide terrific tennis and entertainment, as it has in each of its previous years.

And once the last aces have been served and overheads smashed, the organizers can gather around a boardroom table and plot out the short- and long-term growth plans for the event and just how quickly they want to boost the prize money to $200,000.

“We’ll have that decision at the end of the summer,” Clark said. “But we have to ask ourselves: is that [raising the purse] the best use of dollars? Where does this cross the line from purely developmental to making this the biggest spectacle you can make it? And that’s the fine line we ride.”

As the organizers look around this city’s sporting landscape and see all that has left town in recent years, they have ample evidence that bigger isn’t necessarily better. The event, as it is, has carved a place on the calendar at a time each year when there really isn’t a whole lot else going on locally. It’s been well received by players and spectators alike. And although it’s understandable why organizers would explore expansion possibilities, in the end they may very well discover there’s absolutely nothing wrong with continuing to make the Odlum Brown Vancouver Open the best “little” tournament it can be.