BY CARA BARUZZI
NEW HAVEN — Sponsors always play an important role in the annual tennis tournament in the city, covering the bulk of the event’s multimillion dollar price tag, but this week several will be featured particularly prominently as the tournament’s first-ever “cornerstone” sponsors.
The New Haven Open at Yale’s four cornerstone sponsors — Yale University, Yale-New Haven Hospital, Aetna and American Express — along with presenting sponsor First Niagara Financial Group, have been eager to get involved with this year’s event, said tournament director Anne Worcester.
“These five sponsors have turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to this tennis tournament because, in their own unique ways, they are all putting their muscle behind the tournament,” Worcester said.
She admitted that when Pilot Pen Corp. ended its title sponsorship of the tournament last year, “we were obviously all very concerned about the future of the tournament and the goal was always to find one individual title sponsor.”
But the unusual move to have a consortium of cornerstone sponsors has worked well, she said. “From the get-go it was an out-of-the-box, good-news solution that no one expected,” Worcester said.
Each of the main sponsors has activated their sponsorships in unique ways, she said.
First Niagara, a relative newcomer to the New Haven area and the event’s presenting sponsor, has honed in largely on the community aspect of the tournament.
Earlier this summer, the bank hosted the First Niagara Free Lesson, where it handed out free tennis rackets to 300 school-age children, followed by a block party held in the Dixwell neighborhood where another 200 children got free rackets.
“It’s part of our DNA to be a meaningful player in the community,” said David Ring, First Niagara’s New England regional president based in New Haven. “We have a strong emphasis on supporting and developing community outreach programs.”
Worcester said the company’s donation of rackets to children led to a 30 percent spike in the number of kids registering for New Haven’s summer tennis program. “Those are things we’ve just never had in the (tournament) budget,” Worcester said of the racket giveaways.
In addition, the company hosted a casting call at the Shubert Theater in New Haven where children auditioned to sing “God Bless America” at the tournament, and will sponsor First Niagara Latino Day, First Niagara Girl Scout Night and First Niagara Boy Scout Night at the tournament. It also is underwriting the First Niagara Family Classic, a national family tennis tournament that culminates at the New Haven Open.
The bank also is offering free tournament tickets to those who open certain new accounts at its branches.
Another sponsor that began promoting the tournament in advance is Aetna, another cornerstone sponsor. The insurer, a first-time sponsor of the tournament, has launched a sizable advertising campaign — including bus wraps, ads along the MetroNorth railroad line and billboards — in which it highlights its affiliation with the New Haven Open.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to market our brand along the 95 corridor and to markets that we have not historically had a presence in,” said Floyd Green, vice president of community relations and urban marketing at Aetna.
The company’s marketing efforts were rolled out Aug. 1 to help “create a buzz” about the event, Green said.
The insurer also is sponsoring the Aetna FitZone, which features on-site health and fitness activities for children and their families throughout the tournament. The FitZone aligns well with Aetna’s corporate focus on childhood nutrition and obesity, Green said, and will feature tennis clinics, Zumba classes, games and other events in a kid-friendly environment.
Internally, the company is encouraging its employees to get involved with the tournament and roughly 60 Aetna workers and their families will volunteer in various capacities at the tennis center this week, Green said.
Another cornerstone sponsor drawn to the tournament because of its focus on fitness and health is Yale-New Haven Hospital, which has been a sponsor for many years.
“We had an opportunity to step up (as a cornerstone) this past year,” said Vincent Petrini, senior vice president of public affairs at the hospital. “We viewed it as a great opportunity because we think this tournament showcases the best of New Haven. It also provides us with a very unique platform to boost awareness.”
The hospital will have its mobile mammography van at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale throughout the tournament offering screenings. The hospital will work with visitors’ insurance providers to arrange payment, and those without insurance will receive free screenings, Petrini said.
“It’s a way for us, in a very visible way, to encourage early detection (of breast cancer),” he said. “This is very important for us. It’s a great way to get an important message across; the goal here is really to boost awareness.”
Another long-time sponsor, Yale University, is a cornerstone this year and has been promoting the event within the Yale community and beyond.
“Yale is a global university rooted in New Haven with a tradition of excellence in women’s athletics. A world-class women’s tennis tournament that showcases our hometown’s strength is a match made in heaven for us,” said Michael Morand, Yale’s director of metro, state and alumni communications.
In addition to sponsoring the event, the university hosts it at the Connecticut Tennis Center at Yale and has increased its outreach to the Yale community to promote it, Morand said.
“We have been working even more this year with the tournament to let our faculty and staff and alumni know about the tournament,” he said. The event is a popular draw for the Yale community — and others — he said, particularly since it features various off-the-court events such as the New Haven Food & Wine Festival, which has been expanded this year.
The fourth cornerstone sponsor, American Express, has been particularly interested in promoting the food and wine festival to its cardholders, Worcester said.
That event, as well as the overall tournament, fit well with American Express’ demographics and the company has been offering VIP ticket opportunities to its card holders and promoting the New Haven Open in email communications to members, she said.