Ahead of its second edition, organisers of tennis’ Wuhan Open is tripling the size of its host venue to 15,000 seats – more than all four grand slam showpiece courts. Elisha Chauhan asks if it is too much, too soon.
China's most successful tennis player, Li Na had a breakthrough year in 2014 after she became the first Asian player to win the Australian Open.
However, later that year, just three days before the inaugural Wuhan Open started on September 21 – a WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) second-tier Premier 5 event – Na announced her retirement due to recurring knee injuries. The news shocked the tennis world, but none more so than in Wuhan – the hometown of the then 32-year-old tennis superstar who had inspired one of China’s most populous cities to take up, and invest in, the sport.
“The event started on a real stumbling block, simply because I don’t think that anybody anticipated Li Na would retire before the event even started,” a veteran tennis promoter in China told SportBusiness International. “That certainly put a dampener on the event in its initial year from what I know from the industry and from what everybody has told me.”
“It is obvious that the tournament has been negatively affected by Li Na’s retirement,” says Yi Guoqing, Wuhan Open tournament director and also the general manager of WHSDI (Wuhan Sports Development Investment), a state-owned body in charge of developing the event’s $161-million Optics Valley International Tennis Center venue.
Having used the tennis complex’s 5,000-seat stadium as its main court for the inaugural edition, the Wuhan Open will now include the use of a neighbouring 15,000-capacity arena that is due to be completed at the end of August, according to Yi. Other facilities in the venue include a 3,000-seat stadium, four indoor courts and over 20 outdoor hard courts dotted around the area.
The issue in using the larger venue, dubbed the Whirlwind Stadium, is that even China’s showpiece tennis tournament, the China Open in Beijing – on the men’s ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) World Tour 500 Series and the top-ranked WTA Premier Mandatory calendars – was pushed to fill its main 15,000 Diamond Court at the National Tennis Centre, especially in its early years. Attendance was also low even with the presence of Na as an ambassador at the inaugural Wuhan Open.
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“Wuhan will definitely not attract enough spectators to fill the new capacity. It would be impossible, because the tennis event market is very saturated in China, especially for the women’s game,” says the Chinese tennis industry veteran. “It is great for development having so many opportunities for Chinese female tennis players, but speaking strictly from a business standpoint, that’s not necessarily a good thing for event promoters.
“Beijing has the premier tennis event in China, which is very stable and has enjoyed a ten-year growth period. I think Wuhan sees major competition in Beijing [the China Open], and that would be the principle motivation to [use the Whirlwind Stadium] to match the facilities in Beijing.”
“It is true that for a Premier 5 event we don’t need such a large stadium, but there are two factors we had to take into consideration,” Yi told to SportBusiness International. “The first being that we will not only hold tennis events at the venue, but other sports and entertainment events too.
“Secondly, we will need the capacity for potential future hosting opportunities. We may introduce other high-level tennis events at the new stadium, for example, the men’s ATP Tour.
“It will be very challenging to win the hosting rights for an ATP Tour event. Although we have been holding talks with the relevant international organisations and stakeholders of the Tour, it is still by no means an easy task. But with the development of the [Chinese tennis] market and the Wuhan Open tournament, we hope to have these kinds of hosting opportunity. We need to be ready in regards to facilities when that time comes, and this [Whirlwind] stadium ensures that,” he adds.
However, the Optics Valley International Tennis Center is also a part of a long-term development plan to rejuvenate the Wuhan area into a top global destination. This includes hosting cultural, entertainment, business and sporting events – the latter of which includes basketball, volleyball, ping pong, badminton and gymnastics.
This will be coupled with improved transport facilities to the venue, which currently sits outside of the city centre. For the Wuhan Open, in particular, Yi says a dedicated shuttle service will be put into service, running from downtown to the complex.
A marketing campaign will also be launched in order to attract the nearby offices of international and national companies as well as the remarkable 1.3 million university students living in the city, according to Yi. There will also be time for gradual growth as the Wuhan Open signed a 15-year hosting deal with the WTA last year.
“We have a 15-year plan in which we hope to develop the Wuhan Open into an internationally recognised tournament,” he adds. “Even though we have the development plan, it is truly challenging to establish the Wuhan Open as a unique event and make it more identifiable among the other tennis tournaments in China.
“For this year, and probably for the next few years to come, it will certainly be a challenge to fill the stadium with spectators. This also has put some pressure on the organising committee, but for now we are doing whatever we can to attract fans.”
“The Wuhan Open is managed by a state-owned organisation, so there’s not much criticism on the bottom line, but at some point losing seven figures annually is not something that is going to be popular – especially with China’s current economic climate and with a very conservative government in place,” says the veteran Chinese tennis promotor.
“I fear for Wuhan’s stadium operators in a way, because a lot of money has been spent and I think it is going to be very, very difficult to really build up that event.”