The Copeland-Cox Mobile Tennis Center’s title of “world’s largest public tennis facility” is in serious jeopardy.
With plans underway to open a 100-court United States Tennis Association (USTA) facility in Orlando, Florida, and a facility with as many as 60 courts in Rome, Georgia, local officials admit luring tournaments to the city’s largest sports-related tourist draw will be difficult, but not impossible.
Currently, the center benefits from about 30 tournaments per year, Director of Tennis Scott Novak said. Of those, about 21 are for larger tournaments that attract “out-of-town” participants and all are USTA sanctioned, he said. The 55-year-old facility has 60 courts. The center’s website also lists 10 courts at the Cottage Hill Tennis Center and five courts at Lyons Park, for a total of 75 courts.
“Obviously having 60 courts — the world’s largest facility — and being able to run tournaments in one site is a plus,” Novak said. “We also have an experienced staff.”
The completion of the facilities in Orlando and Rome could have a negative impact on the Mobile center’s attempts to bid for tournaments, Novak said.
“It’s going to hurt us,” he said. “It’s going to take some of the bigger tournaments.”
Because they’ll be “behind the eight ball” in facilities for a while after the two proposed centers open next year, Novak said “service will become even more important.”
“You take the silverware and make sure it’s polished as good as it can be,” he said.
Since taking over 12 years ago, Novak said, his staff has focused on great service. At the time, he said, there were only three tournaments at the center after “almost every tournament left due to service.”
“It’s taken us a long time [to build it back up],” he said. “Every two or three years we’ve added a couple of tournaments.”
The experienced staff will help the center make up for no longer being the biggest or newest facility in the Southeast, Novak said.
“We feel our staff can run the best tournaments in the country,” Novak said. “Sometimes having the biggest, best facility doesn’t mean you’ll get tournaments.”
In addition to focusing more on service, Novak said the relationships he’s developed over the years will also help the center keep some of the tournaments that might otherwise be lured away.
Danny Corte, executive director of the Mobile Sports Authority, said he wasn’t surprised other facilities have started to catch up with Mobile’s tennis center.
“Quite frankly, I wonder what took the competition so long to catch up,” he said. “We knew the competition was coming one day and we welcome the competition.”
With the new centers on the horizon, Corte said it’s important Mobile’s center “stay up to date with upgrades.” He also said Mobile has an advantage, as the cost of traveling here is less than traveling to Orlando or Rome, Georgia. In the long run, Mobile will have to stay aggressive, Corte said.
“We have to sharpen our pencil,” he said. “Some competition can make you better.”
Contacted last week, Rome City Manager Sammy Rich confirmed the city is currently building a facility with from 50 to 60 courts. Although he said the city had initially proposed 80 courts, as funding and concept became reality, 60 was a more realistic number.
“We quickly went away from that as a model,” Rich said.
The facility, on land just east of Barry College, will cost Rome taxpayers $11.9 million. Rich said Rome is a “large tennis town” and the investment is strategic, as it’s centered between Birmingham, Nashville and Atlanta.
Rome has hosted tennis tournaments at smaller existing facilities in the past, but Rich said the city would benefit from having a “centralized” location so that big tournaments aren’t spread throughout the city.
In addition to the 60 proposed courts, the existing Rome-Floyd Tennis Center has 16 courts, giving the city a total of 76 USTA courts. The proposed facility is currently undergoing surface preparation and plans to be open for play in June, Rich said.
Meanwhile, a loss of some of Mobile’s tournaments could be bad news for the local economy. Novak said the center is the second-largest driver of tourism to the area behind Mardi Gras.
Over the past year, it accounted for 12,000 hotel room nights and has produced more than $52 million for the local economy in 2015. The center brought the city more than $2.86 million in sales tax revenue and accounted for more than $600,000 in county lodging taxes.
In an email message, Council President Gina Gregory said she remains optimistic about the continued success of the Copeland-Cox center.
“Many cities have seen our success bringing in big tournaments year after year at the Copeland-Cox Center, and are now building facilities to compete with us,” she wrote. “We know that new facilities will be a draw, but there is more to running a successful tournament than a new building. Our success is due in large part to running quality tournaments, and our tournament directors and staff who have built and maintained relationships with the USTA and other organizations.”
While she is confident, Gregory wrote, the city should continue to improve the center in the future.
“We must build clay courts to compete for senior tournaments, renovate or build new locker rooms, and build a Center Court,” she wrote.
Novak said the center has relied on support from the city, the Mobile Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Mobile Sports Authority. Calling them “Team Mobile,” Novak said the group has been instrumental in not only bringing in tournaments, but also notifying visiting players of the other amenities the city has to offer.