The Family Circle Cup started as a pioneering women’s tennis tournament on Hilton Head Island in 1973. Champions have included icons of the sport — Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and both Williams sisters.
For years, everyone associated with the tournament has made the most of its distinction as the longest-running event tied to the same sponsor in professional tennis. But change to the Volvo Cars Open is good, tournament officials say. The largest women’s-only event on the WTA tour, played on Daniel Island since 2001, will give way to new title sponsorship starting with the April 2016 event. Tournament director Bob Moran officially announced the move Monday at the U.S. Open in New York.
“My whole team is very cognizant of our 43 years of history,” Moran told The Post and Courier. “It’s also our responsibility to keep it moving along and growing. As we recognize 43 years of great history, we also see a great future with Volvo being involved.”
Swedish-based luxury automaker Volvo announced in May it will open its first North American plant in Berkeley County sometime in 2018.
The Meredith Corp., a major media company with offices in Iowa and New York, will maintain controlling interest in the tournament and the Family Circle Tennis Center.
The contract with Volvo is for three years, with an option for two more years.
“Family Circle’s commitment to women’s tennis began in 1973, and the tournament continues to be a premiere event on the WTA tour. Our new relationship with Volvo is a great opportunity for both of our companies to build on and celebrate the tournament’s rich history while finding new and exciting ways to expand and grow its reach with our marketing partners,” said Tom Harty, president of Meredith’s National Media Group.
Though Volvo and Meredith declined to discuss specifics, Volvo gives the tournament a financial boost, local profile and short-term security as the star-starved WTA hopes for new marquee players to come somewhat close to matching interest in top Family Circle Cup participants of the past. The list includes Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport and Maria Sharapova.
“There will really be no changes to ownership, operation or leadership,” Moran said. “This is simply a title sponsorship change. It’s part of the process for Volvo here and it’s a good move for them as they’re starting to build their facilities.
“For the greater good of the tournament, this makes total sense.”
A $500 million Volvo facility near Ridgeville could employ as many as 4,000 workers. A state incentive package is worth $200 million, including new infrastructure.
“It is a great honor to become the title sponsor of this world-class tournament; one that like Volvo Cars, celebrates passion and performance,” said Lex Kerssemakers, president and CEO of Volvo Cars of North America. “As we are establishing our U.S. manufacturing footprint in the Charleston area, this is an ideal way for us to leverage our presence in the community.”
Tournament prize money goes up from $731,000 in 2015 to $752,000 in 2016 with similar increases anticipated during the Volvo deal, Moran said.
No. 1-ranked Serena Williams, 33, is a three-time Family Circle Cup winner but skipped the event last April to fit other stops into her adjusted busy schedule. Germany’s Angelique Kerber defeated American Madison Keys in the 2015 final.
Other Family Circle Cup champions since the event moved to Charleston include Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Samantha Stosur and Caroline Wozniacki.
Attendance for the 2015 Family Circle Cup was 86,176, slightly less than the 87,997 for 2014. The tournament has averaged 82,786 fans during its 15 years in Charleston, with a high of 95,767 in 2010.
The final and other selected matches are telecast on ESPN2 over the four days of the tournament.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff