State Courts Failure — Buys Tennis Tourney

Colin McEnroe
Contact ReporterThe Hartford Courant

In 1991, as the Connecticut Tennis Center in New Haven was getting ready to open, journalists got a tour of the joint from the executive director of the Tennis Foundation of Connecticut. Despite the fact that state taxpayers had sunk $18 million into the venue, it is owned by the foundation.

Courant sports columnist Owen Canfield described the young director as "a quick, earnest man" who admitted that it was hard in 1989 to persuade Gov. William A. O'Neill that the project would work. By '91, the economy had gone south. The director admitted the project would not have been greenlighted in that climate.

"Like any business, if you get through 1990, '91 and '92, you're going to do all right," said the young director, whose name was — wait for it — John DeStefano.

I know! Isn't that the cutest thing?

DeStefano went on to be mayor for 211 years, but the tennis center and its pro tournament became kind of a permanent drunk uncle, dropping by with its hand out and never quite delivering on any of its genial promises.

It was supposed to generate $10 million in economic activity for New Haven, but an early study showed the total amount of direct spending was $7 million, and 85 percent of that was spent right in the stadium. A 10 percent admission surcharge was supposed to help pay back the state, but after a few years, Drunk Uncle told the state it would go under if it couldn't keep that money.

By 1999, the men's side of the tournament had vamoosed and the stadium was so obviously a white elephant that Joe McGee, commissioner of economic development in the Weicker administration and a former booster of the tournament, told The New York Times: "'We can learn a lesson from what has happened. It shows that we have to hold sports operators to a much tighter standard in the future.''

That was 1999, when the tournament was pretty flush compared to now. This year, the final of the New Haven Open attracted a crowd of 3,993, which would be a decent crowd for a cockfight in the Philippines but doesn't look so good sprinkled across a 15,000-seat stadium, which is visible from outer space. Anyway, I think we all remember how it came out, right? Simona Halep upset Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-2. You can't put a price on that kind of sports magic.

Oh wait. You can! The state is buying the tournament for $618,000. The same tournament that was so bad in 1999 that it was supposed to teach government a lesson! And then it got worse. And the lesson it taught us is that government should own it?

This is not a pet rabbit that gets sick and dies a couple of days after you bring it home. This is a bunny that is lying on its side in the pet store window while the other bunnies gather around and Father McCottontail pronounces last rites. This is the bunny we want to own!

The purchase is also a beautiful illustration of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after two psychology researchers who demonstrated a human cognitive bias in which people overrate their own competence and under-recognize their own inadequacies. This phenomenon is so rampant in government — especially right now — that it seems almost pointless to come up with a name for it.

State budget director Ben Barnes was quoted on the tennis site "We are working on creating a management structure under which we are given a commensurate level of control of expenses of the tournament."

You are doing what?

You're a state budget director. You don't know how to run a tennis tournament. Even people who know how to run tennis tournaments don't know how to run this tennis tournament.

And yet, I have good news. There are many things we can do in this stadium that will draw far more than 3,993 people. A Tom Foley Demolition Derby would probably damage the surface, but how about a tennis match between Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his nemesis, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie? I, as promoter, could sell 5,000 tickets. Unless I have Dunning-Kruger Syndrome.

Colin McEnroe appears from 1 to 2 p.m. weekdays on WNPR-FM (90.5) and blogs at He can be reached at

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