ASHEVILLE — There it is, a satisfying pop of a tennis ball being served with an accompanying grunt. It's followed by continuous pops, hard breaths and the sounds of shuffling Nike sneakers, easily heard from the top step leading into the ExploreAsheville.com Arena.
On one side of the court is transcendent tennis star Serena Williams, who has dominated the sport like no other for a generation. Holding court on the other side is a figure every bit as accomplished as she, her sister, Venus.
It's clear this isn't an average week in downtown Asheville.
This week, Asheville is the home to the Fed Cup. The largest annual women's international team sports competition signed on to the city's U.S. Cellular Center in November. The event, which takes place this weekend, pits the Fed Cup's defending-champion U.S. team led by captain Kathy Rinaldi against Paul Haarhuis and the Netherlands.
Outside of the local buzz the event has generated, officials believe the economic impact of hosting the Fed Cup in Asheville is about $3.5 million, scaled up from the $2.5 million figure shared with members of the local news media late last year.
Venus Williams practices on the court with her sister, Serena, at the U.S. Cellular Center ahead of the weekend's Fed Cup against the Netherlands on Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Photo: Angeli Wrightemail@example.com)
What hasn't been yet quantified is the impact of what hosting the Fed Cup will have for Asheville in courting future international events of a similar level, Dianna Pierce, vice president of sales at Explore Asheville, said this week
"To bring an event of this caliber to our community, it opens another door for us when it comes to national and international competition," Pierce said
It didn't happen by accident, though. In fact, it was a mix of careful planning, incentives and fostering relationships with the U.S. Tennis Association.
Pierce said Explore Asheville, which has contributed considerable funding to launch a series of renovations at the U.S. Cellular Center, has an agreement to waive the base rental fee of the arena for organizations that meet certain criteria. Among the criteria for the waiver include events with two contracted hotels, 700 room nights and a verifiable history of putting on large events.
Serena Williams practicing on Wednesday, Feb. 7. (Angeli Wrightfirstname.lastname@example.org)
The Fed Cup is the first organization to be awarded the base rental fee waiver, she said. It does not cover additional costs such as usage of audio and video equipment, staffing or food and beverage.
"That was an opportunity point for our community versus other communities," she said.
U.S. Tennis Association Senior Director of Team Events Jeff Ryan said it also was helpful that he had an existing relationship with U.S. Cellular Center General Manager Chris Corl. He said there's "never" been an event of the scope of a Fed Cup to come to Asheville, but the city received consideration as the two men kept in touch over time until "all the planets lined up."
"There's a guy here who we know in the industry so he and I stay in touch," Ryan said. "It takes that kind of communication and staying in touch for these things to come together."
Ryan said it is hard to quantify the value of a Fed Cup to a city, though he recognizes it has been well-received thus far in Asheville.
"Past events like this because the players and because, honestly, Venus and Serena are playing, there's a higher level of attention to it," he said. "It is resonating around the world and in a couple dozen countries that might not have otherwise heard of Asheville.
"It's hard to tell you monetarily how to quantify that, but it's worth millions of dollars with the exposure to a city."
It is just the latest major sporting event to find a place in Western North Carolina to be followed on the schedule this year by Haute Route, a prestigious European cycling event, and the World Equestrian Games in Tryon.
Tickets for the Fed Cup weekend sold out in late January, hours after the Williams sisters were named to the team along with CoCo Vandeweghe and Lauren Davis — although a new block of about 200 tickets went on sale early Thursday morning. Fans of the sport generally have been left to pillage the secondary ticket market, where prices have been as high as $1,700 this week.
Vandeweghe and Davis both were part of last year's U.S. team under Rinaldi that captured the nation's record 18th Fed Cup title. Venus and Serena Williams have not played on a Fed Cup team together since 2015, a year when the Czech Republic won the title.
Ahead of the weekend, players and captains will participate in the 2018 Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Official Draw Ceremony, which determines player matchups for the weekend. There also are a series of clinics and related events taking place in the community through Sunday.
Pierce said the community should be excited to be a part of the Fed Cup. She sees it as a benefit to Asheville this week and far beyond it.
"We can’t say enough about the partnerships that have been formed as a part of this and what it has done to this community in terms of future awareness," she said. "It is about the event now. It absolutely is. But think about the benefit to us moving forward.
"To be able to say we had a world class international event in our community what it can do for us with other rights holders in the future. There is a value to be assigned to that."
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