Family Circle maintains its WTA ‘prestige’

Tennis fans pour into Family Circle Cup Stadium during last year’s event, which totaled 87,997 in attendance. In 14 years on Daniel Island, the Family Circle Cup has drawn 1,241,790 spectators, an average of 88,699 per year.

Among the 35 top-ranked players on the WTA Tour, only Serena and Venus Williams are older than Jelena Jankovic (30) and Sam Stosur (31), a pair of former Family Circle Cup champions aiming for more Daniel Island magic next week.

Chris Evert won eight Family Circle Cup singles titles. Conchita Martinez played in finals matches 12 years apart.

But the craftiest green clay veteran is the 43-year-old tournament itself. The Family Circle Cup pre-dates disco music and the Gerald Ford administration.

It’s the oldest women’s-only tournament on the WTA Tour.

“Having that loyalty from Family Circle for so many years has been tremendous,” said Mary Joe Fernandez, an ESPN analyst and former WTA player. “The WTA has delivered. They’ve always had top players. The best of the best have played there through the years, and it’s one of the favorite stops for the players.”

There are challenges ahead, mostly within a tennis world short on rising stars. Such event stability, however, is as rare in sports as free admission — which kids get this year throughout the Family Circle Cup.

Consider the scene in 1973, when the Family Circle Cup made its debut on Hilton Head Island.

Major League Baseball was adjusting to a new-fangled thing called free agency.

Professional basketball was heading toward an NBA-ABA merger.

John Wooden and UCLA still ruled college hoops.

In tennis, players come and go, tournaments start and fold.

The Family Circle Cup beats on, thanks to a stream of loyalty that flows from the top.

Rosie Casals defeated Nancy Gunter to win the first tournament on Hilton Head Island in 1973. Evert won the next five Family Circle Cup titles, and the event went big time with live NBC coverage featuring Dick Enberg and Bud Collins in the booth.

Hilton Head’s Family Circle Cup participants made up a who’s who of tennis: Casals and Billie Jean King, Evert and Martina Navratilova, Tracy Austin and Pam Shriver, Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini.

That gave the sponsor more publicity than it originally expected.

“First and foremost, our success has a lot to do with having one title sponsor,” Family Circle Cup Tournament Director Bob Moran said. “For 43 years, they’ve always been there and have always supported.”

The Meredith Corporation, an Iowa-based media and marketing giant that owns Family Circle Magazine among other titles, owns the tournament sanction.

“We’re not just the title sponsor,” Moran said. “That’s very rare.”

Star power followed the Family Circle Cup to Charleston in 2001. Winners have included Serena and Venus Williams, Jennifer Capriati, Justine Henin and Caroline Wozniacki. Maria Sharapova, Lindsay Davenport, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova have played on Daniel Island.

“The tour has made sure that they get a quality field, and they want to keep the prestige of having this being the longest-running tournament,” ESPN’s Brad Gilbert said. “I think that’s obviously two factors: Support of the tour and support of the players. Then it all of a sudden makes it for the fan base to continue to be what it is. But it’s a great event.”

Elsewhere on the WTA Tour, seven U.S. tournaments have folded since the Family Circle Cup moved to Charleston in 2001 (Oklahoma City, Scottsdale, Amelia Island, San Diego, Los Angeles, Dallas and Memphis).

The Bank of The West Tournament in Stanford has been around since 1971 but did not have an event in 1978.

Family Circle Cup attendance was up to 87,997 in 2014, the best since 2011 and the best without a Saturday night session since 2008. In 14 years on Daniel Island, the Family Circle Cup has drawn 1,241,790 spectators, an average of 88,699 per year.

The 2015 field includes top 10 players Eugenie Bouchard, Ekaterina Makarova and Andrea Petkovic, plus American players Madison Keys, Sloane Stephens, Madison Brengle and Alison Riske, among others. But No. 1-ranked Serena Williams and No. 16 Venus Williams, the most popular players with Charleston fans, won’t play in the Family Circle Cup this year. Their busy schedules include Fed Cup matches in Italy the week after the Family Circle Cup.

Keys to future Family Circle success:

Having enough players atop the WTA rankings that interest casual tennis fans.

Getting enough of those players to come to Charleston.

The Family Circle Cup tries, with a hospitality blitz that includes daily gifts for players, transportation and a player party.

“We always want the best players we can get,” Moran said. “It’s not an easy process, and it’s harder now than it ever has been because there are so many options for the players. And also with Fed Cup. It’s definitely a challenge.”

A tournament born before the Williams sisters can probably survive without the Williams sisters if it can hang in there until the next stars are born, raised and ready for green clay.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff